HR’s Rising Stars: ‘Curiosity’ is driving HR change at Civitas Senior Living

Laszlo Bock likely inspired countless business minds with his work at Google—including one of this year’s HR’s Rising Stars, Anthony Ormsbee-Hale, senior vice president of strategic operations at Civitas Senior Living. At the time, when Ormsbee-Hale stumbled upon a book by Bock in an airport bookstore about his work to innovate the tech giant’s people operations, he was in a sales and marketing role at the senior living management company.

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“I had an operations background, and I loved the idea of being able to create organizational strategy and help support leaders,” he says. “That started me thinking, ‘OK, this could be a potential career path.’ ”

As the Texas-based Civitas grew—the organization’s operations now span several states, with 2,400 employees—Ormsbee-Hale got his chance to put his career aspirations into action, working alongside the CHRO to create and grow the business’ people ops team.

Collaboration across departments has been key to Ormsbee-Hale’s leadership success at Civitas, which he joined in 2018, and will continue to inform the organization’s strategic people operations work.

“Being able to work with sales and marketing, food and beverage, wellness, HR—we have to bring together all those areas to identify the changes coming our way,” he says, “so we can guide ourselves through that, instead of just reacting to everything happening in the workplace or the market today.”

Using AI to innovate manager training

That forward-thinking mentality was a key factor in an AI-driven project Ormsbee-Hale pioneered earlier this year.

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Acknowledging the growing importance of managers and leaders in the future of work and the need for continuous learning to support them, he conceived micro-learning HR guides focused on enhancing managerial competence and effectiveness.

“We’ve been shifting a lot of our resources to being mobile-friendly and accessible; a lot of our workforce travels quite a bit, and maybe some of us travel with our employee handbooks but most probably don’t,” he laughs. “So, the HR guides were a way to have one centralized platform where somebody can easily and quickly say, ‘OK, I need to better understand our PTO plan,’ or ‘I have a question about the performance management process,’ and they don’t have to flip through a 50-page handbook.”

Using the AI-powered Synthesio, Ormsbee-Hale created transcripts mirroring language from the employee handbook that were turned into short, easily digestible content.

“If I need to know how to complete an HR investigation, I can watch a five-minute video right on my phone and get the best practices,” he says, noting that the guides have been well-received and impactful for management.

Before the rollout in January, 65% of managers felt inadequately prepared to handle complex team management issues; now, more than 90% of managers say the guides increased their confidence in this area. Civitas also saw the number of internal conflict reports drop by 25% and productivity levels leap by 15%.

Noting that success—and the fact that the project was cost-effective—AI-powered guides have since been extended to other departments across Civitas.

HR’s Rising Star judge Heather Vogel, chief talent officer at Children’s Home Society of Florida and a 2023 inductee to HRE’s HR’s Honor Roll, says Ormsbee-Hale’s work to use AI for manager training is innovative.

“He impressed me by bridging knowledge gaps and empowering managers with real-time, actionable insights by removing the ‘drudgery’ of HR training and compliance,” she says. “He put tools in managers’ hands, where they could take personal control of their own learning of what is the most important role in any organization—leading and coaching others.”

Talent on the fast track

Another recent project with companywide impact is the Executive Director in Training program, which aims to increase internal talent mobility and promotions while driving retention.

“This was a way for us to recognize that we have this enormous talent internally, and we needed a way to cultivate that,” Ormsbee-Hale says.

The program, which Orsmbee-Hale conceived of and implemented, connects those with potential Executive Director aspirations with “custom-developed online learning modules, peer engagement, executive-level mentorship, on-the-job training and shadowing experiences,” he says.

He notes that Civitas leadership has long recognized the business ROI of employee and leadership development.

“[Pitching the idea for the program] was probably the easiest sell of my career with Civitas; it wasn’t even a sell,” he says. “It was something everybody was on board with really quickly.”

In the last two years, 15 individuals have completed the program, and 90% have gone on to be retained through internal promotions.

While the program—which is being expanded for up-and-coming leaders in sectors like wellness and F&B—is designed to equip talent with skills for the future, it’s also been successful in generating employee insights that are being used to drive future business strategy.

“Every single time we have a cohort of individuals go through the program, we learn more about how our communities are adapting to current conditions,” he says. “This program gives our team members a great way to say to leadership, ‘This is where we think the business is going and what we need to be prepared for.’ And we’ve taken that feedback and modified the program, putting that into training for future cohorts.”

Curiosity to create change

Thinking about his own future, Ormsbee-Hale says he’s eager to “stay in curiosity,” a catchphrase that drives much of the HR team’s work at Civitas.

“Curiosity is one of the most effective attributes that any individual can have,” he says. Civitas CHRO Dionne Motal, whom he says has been a “fantastic mentor,” showed him the value of consistently asking, “Why? Help me understand. Tell me more about this.”

In a complex and dynamic environment like Civitas, he says, that mindset has driven the psychological safety employees and leaders need to question, experiment and reassess.

“Even today, I texted one of our senior VPs because I was looking at a budget and I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ And he instantly said, ‘You need to look here, here’s how I think about it.’ So, that freedom to be able to say ‘I don’t know something, can someone help me understand?’ has really helped us help each other grow.”

Curiosity is going to continue to underlie his work of aligning people operations and business strategy—questioning, for instance, how business decisions can solve critical problems for the organization, considering the value they will create for the workforce or how they meet the long-term needs of residents and employees.

“That’s where I’m focusing now,” he says. “Now, I understand how the business works, I understand how to manage the business, how to create change and sustain that change. But now, where do I identify areas in which that change is going to be the most impactful?”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].