Striking a Balance in Leadership

September 17, 2013 /
Chad Tuttle photo

Chad Tuttle

CEO, Sunset Retirement Communities

As a teen, Chad Tuttle caroled with his youth group at Sunset Retirement Communities. Today, he is the CEO of the organization, and using his voice in a different way -- to help those who may not have a strong voice of their own.

Have you ever tried to sit on a chair or stool that has one short leg or even a leg missing? It can be a balancing act to sit comfortably. If your life was a four-legged stool, what would each leg supporting it represent?

As a young, up-and-coming manager for a well-known retail chain, Chad Tuttle’s four-legged stool was supported by his professional life, his family life, his faith and education. But there was one problem. “I had a strong professional leg, but the other three were weak,” he says. “I knew I needed to find a career path that would not only help me achieve the balance I desired, but also allow those areas of my life to overlap so that I could ultimately serve and help others.”

Tuttle believes that when you are seeking purpose and direction for your life, you don’t go out looking for a calling, it actually finds you. It was only when he started praying that God began opening doors and laying out a path that would ultimately lead him to Sunset Retirement Communities.

REALM: What was the transition from retail to health care like?

CT: It was tough because the retail world is so cyclical and future oriented. In retail, your mind is living 6-8 weeks in the future, so by the time Christmas actually rolled around I was sick of it. When I decided I wanted to look for something more stable and reliable, health care seemed like a good fit. But, I didn’t stop to realize that you never hang the ‘closed’ sign health care building, and it is always busy. I did, however, appreciate being able to transition to an environment where people truly felt called to do their jobs. While they need a paycheck, that isn’t the only motivator to be here. I am fortunate to get to work with really good people to accomplish good things. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of reward, too.

Ironically, my first day at Sunset was also the first day of the annual conference for MAHSA (which is now LeadingAge Michigan). Since no one would be in the office, they told me to come to the conference so that I could learn about the industry. I remember walking into the opening session, where there were about 500 people, and the first thing I noticed was I was one of the youngest people there. There was a lot of gray hair in the room and I could only think “what have I done? What kind of industry have I gone into?” But then, I sat back and I thought about it and I realized there would be a ton of growth opportunities and a lot of potential to move up. That is one thing that attracted me to the industry and I share with young people that this industry has a lot of professional growth opportunities through retirements.

REALM: Did you find it difficult to make the transitions within Sunset as you started moving up?

CT: Not really. I very rarely said no to taking on new projects/assignments because I looked at them as the next potential door opening and I enjoy learning. When I was the Executive Director of a campus, a new campus project we were developing was floundering and the CEO wanted to either scrap the whole thing or give it to me to turnaround.  Even though it could have cost me my job if it failed, I was willing to take it on. Ultimately it was a success, and now we are in the process of doing an expansion there.

REALM: When you became CEO, did your leadership style change?

CT: I didn’t really change my leadership style, but my style is different than my predecessor, which was an adjustment for our executive team. For me, there can never be too much communication and I tend to take the approach that a decision is going to be better if I have input from others. I am also very open about our strategy, and always bouncing ideas off as many people as I can, seeking their input. This has been an adjustment for our executive team as they have had to learn to engage and trust in the process and know that their input is expected and very much valued in all major decisions.

REALM: How do you create culture within the organization?

CT: It starts with hiring and taking the time we need to make sure we are bringing on people who are invested in our mission. I spend time in staff orientation and training, so every employee gets to hear from me. I want new employees to be empowered to make the right decisions, raise questions or point out things they don’t feel are right. We also create and foster culture through town hall meetings with the employees and regular management updates. Also, when there is conflict in the ranks, I expect our leaders to facilitate conversations so that people can resolve conflict and work on relationships.

REALM: Do you hire people from outside the industry?

CT: Yes.  Not only that, but I also have a passion for working with young people choosing their career field or looking to make a career change. I have a chance to impact and influence a great number of people through my teaching in the Master’s program at Cornerstone University.  I want to share my experience and do all I can to bring them into this industry. We also have a lot of collaboration here in Grand Rapids, including working together on a leadership institute. We currently have six team members from Sunset going through the institute, and there are dozens more from other organizations involved as well.

REALM: What are some of the benefits up-and-coming leaders get from these collaborative opportunities?

CT: They are learning new skills to take back and apply in the workplace, and are being exposed to peers from different organizations. By being involved in collaborations, we have developed many close relationships with other organizations. Even though we may be competitors, it’s important to take the time to get to know one another and feel comfortable enough to help each other, when needed.

REALM: Why do you think you were called as a leader to serve your larger community?

CT: It goes back to my faith and the belief that we are all bestowed with unique gifts and talents. From an early age, I recognized that my gifts were more in the areas of administration, training and communication. It is also about service to others – not just our residents – but to our employees. I want to help people be as successful as they can in whatever they choose to do.

REALM: What made you run for your local township board?

CT: When we went to develop our Waterford Place campus, I attended township board meetings to get approval of our zoning, etc. I realized there wasn’t anyone on the board with strong business experience. When I found out there would be an open Trustee seat, I decided I would run for the position. I didn’t know anything about politics, but I did know about marketing, so I put together a small-town marketing campaign to get my name out there. I was elected and it has been a great experience for me. I was elected for a 2nd term this past year by over 70% of the vote, so I take that as affirmation that I am not screwing up too bad.

REALM: Who are your mentors?

CT: I’ve had several, but they have served different purposes. At Target, I had a mentor who did a great job of putting me in positions where I could learn, grow and be empowered to make my own decisions. When I was only 21, he actually gave me my first opportunity to manage a store with 250 employees and a $30 million budget. The store was struggling, and he gave me authority to make whatever decisions I thought were best. I was amazed at the faith and trust he put in me and I learned any decision is better than making no decision at all.

In the healthcare industry, I’ve had different mentors for different reasons. I have learned a great deal from each one, but most of what I have taken from their advice is to really challenge the status quo and to not trust history as a good guide to how things should be done. Whatever needs to be done, it is best to take a fresh approach.

REALM: As you look back, what three things would you do differently?

CT: First, I would have learned to communicate more, earlier in my career. When I first started out in management, I often felt that as a leader I needed to be very self-assured, not question my decisions or let people question them, and that information was power and to keep it close. It took me a while to learn that the better approach is the exact opposite.  Over-communicating is rarely a problem leaders struggle with.

Second, I would have valued my peer relationships more. During a 360-degree feedback process early in my career, I found out that my supervisors and direct reports loved me, but my peers disliked me because I was too competitive. That was an eye-opener for me and now I take that to heart – especially when we are collaborating with others. While it’s important for my board and colleagues at Sunset to respect me and think I am doing a good job, it is equally important for other CEOs in the industry to find me helpful and responsive to addressing community needs.

Lastly, I think I would have had more involvement in the hiring process in my earlier years. Today, I am very much a believer that many minds make better hiring decisions.

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