Interview with Sandra Watt, Chief of Organizational Learning and Development, and Dr. John Colangeli, CEO, Lutherwood



Lutherwood is a non-profit,
non-union social service organization operating in Waterloo Region and Wellington County, Ontario. It has 400 employees in seven locations operating three services: employment counseling and placement, mental health services, and seniors’ retirement and supportive living. Lutherwood opened its doors offering a residential program for 14 emotionally disturbed boys in 1970. It is funded through a variety of sources including federal, provincial and regional governments as well as private foundations and individual donors. Over the last 40 years, the agency has created a reputation for managerial expertise, innovative and entrepreneurial approaches, and caring professional services responding to real human needs. It is a multiple winner in the Great Place to Work Institute list of best workplaces.
Sandra Watt,
Chief of Organizational Learning and Development
Dr. John Colangeli,

1. For a non-profit, Lutherwood employs a lot of for-profit business principles. How do you see your "business" and how do you measure your
bottom line?

Well, first of all, we do see ourselves as a business and our business is ‘compassion – putting hope back in the hearts of people – children and families’. To do that we must be excellent at customer service internally, for our staff and clients, and externally with our funders and donors. We’ve developed and depend on them for lifelong relationships. Some of the "business" models we have learned include those of Westjet and Southwest Airlines. Both have been successful through tough economies. We also admire Four Season Resorts who use a five star approach to customer service. Our bottom line is really the Social Value we deliver – how many people get jobs, how many children suffering from mental health disorders and their families we can support. Low turnover and high employee engagement are measures that help us deliver our objectives.

2. You seem to put a lot of focus on your people and the culture of the organization. How have you created and maintained a strong culture? How important is it to your success?

We put a lot of focus on our people. Having the "right" people is our most important asset and it starts with new hires. One of our most successful on-boarding strategies is taking a full day to bus new hires to the different Lutherwood sites to help them understand the larger organization and start developing relationships with other employees. We want to foster a feeling of belonging and hopefully to have new hires spend a career with us. We want our employees to tell their family and friends that they love working here…and they do. Employees feel that they become part of a family and often volunteer for projects outside of working hours. The strong culture creates a pipeline for new employees so we seldom have to advertise for vacant positions.

3. You make reference to the Jim Collins book – Good to Great. What are the one or two key things in his book that resonated most profoundly with you? How have you applied these concepts to your organization?

Well certainly we need to ensure a cultural fit for employees and so we really believe that Jim Collins got it right in his famous quote: "If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it to someplace great." We put a lot of focus on performance management. Everyone here knows what is expected of them, why they were hired and why they get paid. Everyone has clear professional goals and knows how their goals contribute to the strategic direction of the organization. Even when challenges arise, our culture provides comfort for our employees knowing support will be there. This transparency and support also helps our employees maintain their own personal mental health in what can be a high stress environment. We believe in giving staff the ability to make decisions with, essentially, no fear of management repercussions. One of the other valuable concepts in "Good to Great" is that of developing leaders internally. We recognize that there will be a shortage of leaders in the future as baby boomers retire so we are investing in our people to fill this future need.

4. What advice would you have for other leaders in non-profit and for-profit businesses?

We believe strongly that leaders must have a vision bigger than themselves, that they must provide an environment where people have the flexibility to fit worklife and homelife together. People are encouraged to build relationships and have a sense of belonging. The services we provide are 24/7 and often highly stressful. We feel that one of the most important things is to create a culture where people can have fun and laugh. In fact, one of our "Leader Profiles" for hiring states that our leaders must have a sense of humour. I’m happy to say our staff reflects our success in doing this. Despite the intensity of the work we do, our staff often take time to incorporate fun into their daily routines.


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