Radically Human: The DaVita Way
In our “Stories from the Field” series, SageRiver sits down with senior leaders who are transforming their organizations for tomorrow. Our latest conversation is with Dave Hoerman, chief wisdom officer of DaVita Inc., a Fortune 500 company and a leading provider of kidney care in the United States. DaVita’s human-centered, democratic culture has caused executives nationwide to rethink why companies exist and how they should be led.
Sitting outside his home on a Nigerian mountainside, Modupe looked out over the farmlands below. As always, his fellow villagers were tending the fields and caring for their children. But on that day, Modupe watched in fear as a river overflowed its banks and rushed toward his village.
Knowing he couldn’t warn everyone in time, Modupe set fire to his home. When the villagers saw the flames consuming his house, he knew they would come to his aid. Better to lose a home, he thought, then the villagers he loved.
Just as he expected, the villagers saw the flames and abandoned their crops to help him. As they ran up the mountainside, the river flooded their fields. Although their harvest was lost, the villagers all lived to plant again in another valley.
Leaders tell this story, whose original author is unknown1, at many meetings at DaVita Inc. “What lesson does the story teach?” a leader will ask. “One for all, and all for one,” the DaVita team will often answer. (Taken from the book “The Three Musketeers,” the expression is used as a reminder of their mission and commitment to each other.) In the story, the villagers are not defined by their roles as home owners or farmers. They are part of a community, and community members care for each other. That is what why the village exists and why the villagers thrive.
What We Do Is Not Who We Are
At DaVita, Modupe’s story has special resonance because it speaks to the core purpose of the company, which is to nurture the well-being of the community. This belief is so central that employees, who call themselves “teammates,” refer to their company as a village.
Although many companies describe their culture as a blend of how people think, relate and carry out their work, DaVita distinguishes between what the community is and what the company does.
“When people ask us who we are, we say we’re a community first, and we care for each other,” says Dave Hoerman, chief wisdom officer for DaVita Inc. “What we do is provide healthcare. That fuels the economy of the village. Community first, company second—that’s the shorthand description of our culture.”
Keepers of the Flame
Hoerman should know, as his team focuses full time on tending the flame of DaVita’s culture. Hoerman’s group developed the village credibility book and welcomes new teammates to the village during a two-day experience called the DaVita Academy. They also ensure DaVita’s language, symbols and traditions reflect the community’s values and spirit.
“We’ll often say, `in the spirit of our values’,” Hoerman says. “We believe we have a spirit. We believe love and caring are at our core. We don’t shy away from those ideas and that language because we want this place to feel soulful.”
Under the careful eye of Hoerman’s team, every communication, meeting, event and workspace is designed to reflect DaVita’s spirit. Village leaders’ quotations are painted on office walls, and caring stories are shared with teammates. Storytelling, in fact, is a central component of life at DaVita, as stories open conversations, illuminate meaning and connect to people’s emotions and beliefs.
Voice of the Village
From the beginning, DaVita has taken a radically democratic approach to creating its culture and co-leading the company.
That commitment began in 1999, when Kent Thiry became CEO of a company called Total Renal Care. The company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and its employees were demoralized from working long hours for a failing organization. Although the financial pressures were intense, Thiry decided his first priority was to create a purpose-filled and caring workplace. Accordingly, he invited employees to help transform their company into a place they wanted to be.
Working together, thousands of employees developed and selected a new name, DaVita, which means “he/she gives life.” They also defined seven core values they wanted to live by as a community and held each other accountable for living out those beliefs. Over time, their shared language evolved, and they moved from being employees to teammates who care for each other as a village.
One of the core tenets of DaVita’s culture is that people’s beliefs drive their behaviors, which drive their results, and that quickly proved true. Caring for each other translated into providing extraordinary care to patients, too. That, in turn, fueled DaVita’s turnaround and growth into one of the leading providers of kidney care in the United States.
Today, DaVita teammates are still co-leading the company, and hierarchical titles are rarely used. Even a C-suite executive like Hoerman introduces himself as “a teammate with the wisdom team” to help level the playing field and invite everyone to share their best ideas as equals.
Hoerman’s group also checks in with teammates regularly to ensure the culture is working well and invite input and ideas. Teammates selected the name for the new coffee shop, for example (the winner was “Village Grounds”), and they’re naming a new office tower as well. In addition, DaVita leaders conduct regular “Voice of the Village” calls and drop in on meetings or classes to lead “Town Halls” to solicit instant feedback.
“We gather data and feedback in a lot of different ways, and when we get enough, we adjust,” Hoerman says. “You can stay nimble if you don’t overcomplicate things.”
Deposits in the Village Bank
Instead of prizing status and issuing directives, DaVita’s leaders focus on modeling village values. If the purpose of the company is to nurture the community, Hoerman says, then a leader’s first priority is to know and care about community members.
Hoerman puts this into practice by making what he calls “village deposits.” Each month, he sets a goal for saying hello, introducing himself to teammates he hasn’t met and talking with others about how they’re caring for each other. His assistant holds him accountable by asking questions and noting his progress on a “humanity scorecard.”
The goal is to create a place where people feel welcomed, cared for and known, Hoerman says, and that only happens when people open the door to conversation. Each interaction is like making a deposit in DaVita’s culture bank.
Those caring interactions are bolstered by village programs. One example is a trust fund called the DaVita Village Network, which helps teammates pay for unexpected expenses due to natural disasters or personal or family tragedies. The contributions, which are matched by DaVita, come from other teammates wanting to help their fellow villagers.
DaVita also offers educational programs through DaVita University for teammates with different needs. For example, one course called “Camp Courage” serves teammates battling cancer, while another assists teammates who are military veterans assimilating into life after service.
Mind, Body and Spirit
DaVita promotes other practices to strengthen DaVita’s culture as well. Those include breathing exercises, meditations, yoga poses, stretching breaks and more. Although the techniques are atypical for a Fortune 500 company, DaVita has seen results from acknowledging that people bring all of themselves—mind, body and spirit—to work.
“A community shows up with emotion,” Hoerman says. “We talk about spirit and soul and give people an opening to set their intentions, reflect on an experience or share a story. Initially, people think it’s strange and ask why we’re doing it, but the results are very real.”
The practices help community members care for themselves and each other, as well as perform at their best. One example is starting meetings with a “check-in” to allow teammates to share what is on their minds and in their hearts. As each person talks, the group listens without judgment and asks what the person needs to feel supported. The answer may be as simple as celebrating a success, acknowledging a struggle or letting someone step out of a meeting to take a call.
“What we’ve found is that this process helps people release the worries, stresses, fears and anxieties they’ve brought into the meeting or the class,” Hoerman says. “Once they’ve expressed those feelings, they’re better able to focus on the decisions at hand.”
School for Life
Because DaVita prioritizes community first, company second, learning opportunities are offered continuously and encompass personal transformation as well as professional development.
“We live in a community, and that means we care about the personal beliefs of people,” Hoerman says. “Sometimes those beliefs are self-limiting, and sometimes they’re helpful. We want to give people a chance to examine their beliefs and identify where they can take a step forward to create healthier lives.”
The wisdom team develops and sponsors these human transformation opportunities as part of nurturing the community and its members, Hoerman says. Unlike typical training programs, these programs aren’t tied to job responsibilities or performance measures. Instead, the goal is to care for teammates as whole people and help them grow. That, in turn, strengthens the culture and naturally leads to better patient care.
“Our beliefs drive our behaviors, which in turn drive the results we get in our lives,” Hoerman says. “We want to raise the consciousness of every person in our community because that is what a caring community would do.”
If your organization is interested in transforming its culture, contact SageRiver to learn more.
1 Although the original author of Modupe’s story is unknown, it is included in James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner’s classic book, “Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It.”