Nitin Jain is the president and CEO of Sienna Senior Living. He and Nancy Webb, the company’s senior vice-president of public affairs, spoke to Navigator about his corporate statement to both staff and residents, and why he decided to post the statement (below) to LinkedIn.
Today, I shared an important message of support with team members at Sienna Senior Living around the conflict in Israel and Palestine. I want to extend it to everyone. The Jewish community has been impacted by the atrocities of the Hamas attack, and now people in both regions are suffering from the violence. The images and daily reports of people killed and injured are heartbreaking. No one has been spared, from children to seniors; many innocent lives have been lost.
We are now seeing a heightened level of threat for Jewish people around the world. That fear has crossed all borders, impacting Sienna’s homes, teams, friends, and families. As Canadians, it is our responsibility to uphold our fundamental values and safeguard the essence of our nation, which is nurtured by tolerance, peace, and multiculturalism.
The conflict in the Middle East is complex and deeply personal for many. But at this time, the focus must be on those who are suffering. We must keep the innocent, both Israelis and Palestinians, at the forefront of our hearts and minds.
Nitin Jain, LinkedIn
Chris Hall: Let me start by asking you what discussions you had internally, with respect to how and whether Sienna should issue a statement about the Hamas-Israel conflict.
Nitin Jain: A little bit of context here might be helpful on our approach in general. We had been in the news quite a bit, and unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons, when I initially came into the CEO job. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to interact with media. And where we got is: if you don’t have anything good to say and you cannot show it, don’t talk about it. So, we have taken that approach. And when our reputation improved we would, at times, start talking about things which were in the news. And we went a step further and said we will only do that, if it is meaningful to one of our important stakeholders.
And so, the discussion we had was, why should we comment on it because I am not, and Sienna is not, an expert in what’s happening in the region and because there’s so many ways people can interpret it.
But it was also a place where I felt pressure to make a comment because every day people were saying, “Why is no one saying anything?” No one said it to me personally. But you know, I’m part of a few chat groups of other CEOs and there was this view that we are leaving this topic unsaid. Much of this sentiment was coming, for the most part, from people of the Jewish belief. So that was at the back of our minds.
We also run an all-Jewish retirement home called Kensington Place, where we’ve had to place guards. When things started to escalate, we were thinking we have to be careful, we don’t want to make ourselves a target. So, we had a lot of conversations on whether we should speak on it or not. And the determination was: we want to speak to it because it’s important to our team members, we have team members who are Jewish, and we have team members who have families in Israel, and we have team members who are of Muslim descent and who have ties to Palestine. We felt it was important for us to have a point of view.
CH: When you were deciding what to say how did you decide to make people who are suffering the focus?
NJ: I think that’s, again, why I wanted to give you a bit of context. As a company, we have shareholders, we have team members, and we have residents. But, at Sienna, we made a strategic decision that the people we can serve are actually our team members too. And we made it a clear strategic priority that everything hinges on our team members. The reason why we decided to focus on people who are suffering was because we really thought of our team members, that was the view that we have, we have families who are impacted by it… and that’s why it was important to share the memo with you, our LinkedIn post was basically a replica of our employee memo or pretty close to it.
Nancy Webb: I’ll build on what Nitin was just saying. We have four values. One of them talks about creating community, meaning celebrating diversity and building relationships. And another one is about demonstrating caring and engaging with empathy and understanding. So, as we were debating, it came back to our values in terms of creating community and demonstrating caring, those grounded us. But the other side of the conversation, and Nitin talked about this, we have some communities that are in the Jewish community and serve the Jewish community and are very high profile.
So we also must take into consideration making sure we weren’t attracting attention that put anybody at risk. And so, the debate was not whether it is right or wrong to provide those messages externally. The debate was, do we understand the consequences of this for the safety of our team members, our residents, their families, etc. That was really the conversation that happened.
And then to Nitin’s point, the first thing, the first conversation, the first message was to our team members, that was important. I think it was extremely appreciated and well received.
NJ: Yeah, that’s the piece that really jumped out to us. We focus a lot on communications. I send something out every month or so, and you will get two or three team members who will say that was a good message. Thank you for highlighting me. But, in this case, it was much higher.
And it wasn’t simply “thank you for talking about it”. It was heartfelt. I don’t know how to describe it, but it felt like giving water to a plant that was ready to die. That’s the feeling that we got from some team members. We just had a leadership conference, and I ran into one of our leaders, and she told me that she is in Elmira, Ontario. She said, I’m the only Jewish person in our community, the closest synagogue is 100 kilometers away and yours was the only message of support I got. I don’t have any family here.
CH: As you look at this conflict, clearly, there’s not an immediate end in sight. And there will be more suffering, as you so eloquently noted in your statement. What should CEOs, and other leaders for that matter, consider when they’re deciding whether they should speak out publicly about global events?
NJ: I think for us, the view is (when) we have a point of view which is valid. Let’s assume for a second, you comment on an issue you are not personally impacted by and don’t have any expertise on. I think at that point, you’re getting on a high horse, and that’s useless. I’ll give you an example, a level further. There are topics which are important to others that I don’t talk about because I’m not an expert in it and it’s not personal to me.
I talk a lot about immigration, I talk about a lot of diversity and team members, because those are personal to me, I can relate to it. It’s authentic. I’m not copying and pasting from the Globe and Mail or some other headlines. I think a lot of CEOs do get in trouble when they say things which they have nothing to do with. Everyone has an opposite point of view on many things, and I think that can put you and your company in a lot of peril in these situations.
And frankly, as CEOs, you know, I read this, which really struck me and was a very sobering thing. It was a survey of CEOs. And one of those CEOs said, “I realized I don’t belong to myself anymore,” which was a very humbling thing when I read it. I read it around six weeks back, and it has changed me, how I think of myself because you always struggle (with) well I want to say this, and then the note basically said, Well, too bad because, for lack of a better word, you have given up those rights. Because what you do is going to represent the company. So I think it has to line up with that.
CH: Is it important for companies like yours to have, if not a corporate policy, at least an unofficial policy, about how you address these kinds of complicated, deeply held issues, or issues around which your employees and stakeholders have deeply held views?
NJ: You know, you’ve raised the question, Chris, which is did you talk to your team members about it? Yes, but it’s not a democracy, it’s not a consensus, you’re not trying to get everyone to agree on a statement. So, for anything like this, Nancy and I will talk about it. We usually don’t talk to the head of HR for a public statement like this. But in this case, she was deeply involved in helping to draft it. So, I think that becomes a key thing. And because all of us have our own biases, and I think, again, going back to talking about CEOs, you don’t really belong to yourself. If you start putting out your own opinion, you can get in serious trouble. And I think that’s why it has to be the voice of the organization, not yours.
NW: I’ll add to that. It’s always easier, and frankly, safer, not to speak out. But that’s not necessarily the right thing to do. And that’s why the conversations that Nitin is talking about, are so important. I think if Nitin had said we’re going to take a political stance, I would have said, “You’re crazy, you can’t do that.” Right. But the words we used, the approach we used, was about standing up for the difference between right and wrong. And the impact it has on our own team members and the people we serve our communities. That’s quite different.
So, my cautions were around more security and safety, not should we stand up for right or wrong. I would also just say that each time you go through something like this, there’s no two situations that are the same. You learn and grow, as a company, from it. You really do learn and grow. And I think that’s as important as what we’ve said and done.
NJ: I think this posting probably was the highest risk statement that we have posted publicly. I think there were more chances of blowback, because I think it’s one of those things that’s the right thing to do. But if you get it wrong, I think this is one that people will not forgive you for.
CH: What has the feedback been?
NJ: The feedback from our team members has been positive at a personal level. Even on LinkedIn, usually you get a list of people who comment on it who are our team members. But we received comments from people across our networks. The comments have been, “thank you for speaking up because others have not”. Those were sobering comments. They underlined that this is one of those things that people are really struggling with.