4 min read

S7E33: How to Turn a Workplace Culture from Toxic to Flourishing

Ron Riley, Executive Director of Cookson Hills

If you've wondered if it's possible to change your workplace culture from toxic to flourishing, Ron Riley is here to tell you that it's possible! Join Ron Riley, Executive Director of Cookson Hills, in this discussion with Al Lopus about how to move from toxic to flourishing culture.


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In this episode:

  • Describe for us the scope of what your team does at Cookson Hills (02:10)
  • "Cookson Hills provides home, school, and therapy for children who are at risk. We provide a no-cost alternative for guardians who need residential placement for their child." (02:24)
  • The children are provided the opportunity to know the Lord through Bible classes at school, in-home devotions, and weekly worship (03:39)
  • The staff at Cookson Hills have been participating in the Best Christian Workplaces Employee Engagement survey for 3 years. And the results for your organization in that time have moved from an unhealthy situation to a flourishing workplace – a remarkable improvement in a short time. When you came on as Executive Director, what were some of the first steps you took to assess and improve the workplace environment?  (04:03)
  • "As a board member, I had some prior knowledge of the challenges of the work, but I couldn’t see it all from my seat on the board. So, we invited BCWI to help us survey our staff. I used the data and open-ended questions from our BCWI survey to focus my attention on Staff Retention, Communication, and Support." (04:51)
  • At Best Christian Workplaces Institute, we group the various factors that make up a flourishing workplace into categories. Two of the flourish factors that stand out for your organization are Lifegiving Work and Inspirational Leadership. Let’s focus on the Lifegiving Work first. Clearly, the vision of your organization to empower healthy individuals is important. But this is also difficult work – with kids who face multiple challenges in daily life. What are some of the practices or messages that you and your leadership team have implemented to impact the way your staff understands the value of their work?  (06:07)
  • Having a very simple mission, vision, and value statement that's not hard to understand (07:05)
  • We communicate these truths repeatedly in our onboarding, staff meetings, and trainings.  (07:22)
  • "The reality is that it doesn’t take long for each staff member to have that real-life moment where they help a child write a new chapter in their life. It is deeply moving and significant to see life change and know you were part of what God is doing in that kid’s life." (08:05)
  • Let’s talk about another flourish factor that is high for your organization – Inspirational Leadership. This includes the attributes of trust, transparency, and humility. As the Executive Director, how do you set the tone for this kind of leadership? Are there some specific practices or processes that you and your leadership team embrace that cause your staff to feel that they can trust you and follow your leadership? (09:41)
  • "Before my work at Cookson Hills, I spent 25 years as a pastor. I spent a lot of time developing a heart for the well-being of others. I would describe my leadership as servant leadership. My goal is the growth and well-being of my team. I invest myself in my team's spiritual and professional growth." (10:20)
  • How to be a coach (11:17)
  • Work-life balance is an area where Cookson Hills scores well. I would think that employee burnout is a hazard in your type of work – with kids who have multiple and complex needs. And some of your staff live-in, as houseparents, so they may experience long days. How do you help your staff achieve a good work-life balance? Are there some practices that your managers use to help prevent burnout and keep front-line people energized for their work? (13:30)
  • "It is by far one of our biggest concerns and a constant area we monitor with our staff. Each manager has a lot of freedom to be flexible with their employees." (14:18)
  • "That was one of the areas that motivated us to push for the survey. We felt that there was burnout happening." (14:30)
  • "Through COVID, our motto was 'Space and Grace'" (14:48)
  • Thinking about what we can do to alleviate burnout and stress (16:23)
  • Know your people well. Know the condition of your flock (18:13)
  • Can you share about your training programs, and how you invest in the growth and development of your employees? (19:02)
  • ACSI Certified training for teachers and annual professional development retreat (19:24)
  • Mentor from an outside organization (19:41)
  • In-service training for house parents (20:00)
  • When you think about hiring and retention, what is it about your hiring process and staff care that leads to engaged employees who want to stay at Cookson Hills? (21:59)
  • It takes a lot of find a good employee and you invest a lot to get them here (22:38)
  • "Finding mission-minded people who love the Lord and serving children has not been an easy task." (22:49)
  • "We're looking for people whose passion, faith, and servant heart will align with our vision and our culture. That last word is important to me. Keeping our culture true to the mission and vision and helping our staff align to that rather than trying to align the mission with every individual." (23:10)
  • Are there some specific steps that you and your staff take to keep this Christ-centered focus in your work? How is this Christian foundation lived out in the workplace in your everyday rhythms? (26:18))
  • We also provide small groups for spiritual growth for our staff and our students. (28:03)
  • How would you encourage someone to move from discouragement to action, to start the journey toward engaged employees?  (29:39)
  • "All feedback is positive." (30:31)
  • "I highly recommend BCWI Surveys, you guys are great partners." (32:58)



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Email our host at info@workplaces.org