How the CEO of Bright Horizons makes his company one of the top places to work in Massachusetts

Dave Lissy joined Bright Horizons in 1997 and helped the company maintain its culture while expanding globally.

Dave Lissy (left) judges an employee chili contest at the Watertown Bright Horizons office.
Dave Lissy (left) judges an employee chili contest at the Watertown Bright Horizons office. –Courtesy of Bright Horizons

Walking into the headquarters of Bright Horizons in Watertown is reminiscent of the first day of kindergarten: the walls are bright orange, the air smells fresh and pine-like, and the sound of children laughing tinkles in the distance.

But unlike kindergarten — which can be an unpleasant experience for some — the massive child care company is known for the overwhelmingly positive response it gets from its employees and clients who use its services. Consistently ranked as one of the top places to work in Massachusetts, Bright Horizons engenders strident loyalty among its workers by creating an environment that encourages flexible work schedules, career development, and individuality.

Besides child care, Bright Horizon offers complete consulting services to assess, identify, and respond to work/life and dependent-care challenges among an organization’s employees.
Besides child care, Bright Horizons offers complete consulting services to assess, identify, and respond to work/life and dependent-care challenges among an organization’s employees. —Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
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Dave Lissy, the CEO of Bright Horizons since 2002, is largely responsible for maintaining the company’s warm culture — no small feat, as the organization has expanded from 80 child care centers in the Northeast to nearly 1,000 centers in 43 states and six countries today. Bright Horizons has also tripled its number of employees to 20,000 since Lissy joined in 1997 as chief development officer.

Boston.com met with Lissy recently to talk about what he does to make sure Bright Horizons remains one of the best places to work in the state.

Sitting in his light-filled office surrounded by photos of his family, Lissy said his role as CEO has changed dramatically in the past 15 years (especially as Bright Horizons transitioned from being a private company to a public one), but he’s always seen himself as the “chief culture person.”

“Our culture is our competitive advantage, so I try to create leaders with the right message and I do a lot of work making sure we’re growing the right way,” Lissy said.

To this end, Lissy visits more than 100 centers each year to meet with employees and address any of their concerns. He also cooks dinner for new center directors and likes to host bus tours of local facilities.

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Lissy also oversees the quality of care provided at Bright Horizons plethora of on-site child care centers — used by companies like UCLA, Cisco, Allstate, General Mills, Target, Boston Scientific, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Bright Horizons refers to the teachers as faculty members, and offers online classes to help staff members advance.

This culture translates into customer loyalty. As the Boston Globe points out, while the national annual turnover rate in child care facilities is more than 50 percent, at Bright Horizons, it’s less than 20 percent.

Bright Horizons also has an eye for other types of services employees increasingly expect from their employers. In addition to child care, the company offers elder care, back-up child care, educational advising, and tuition assistance.

Making life easier for working families is the collective mission of the company, Lissy said, and that shared goal is something he looks for in prospective employees.

“There’s a collective spirit that we’re doing the best possible work we can for services that are incredibly important to people,” Lissy said. “That’s a common characteristic of people here — they’re driven but humble.”

But Lissy is also concerned about workers reaching their full potential.

The Ithaca College grad said he encourages many entry-level workers to eventually take on managerial roles, and has given out some 5,000 promotions over the past five years.

Other employees recall instances in which Bright Horizons offered to relocate them to be closer to their family, while aging managers say they’ve been given desirable opportunities to manage up-and-coming offices overseas.

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Lissy said this all comes back to looking for the best in his employees.

“This saying is not really ours, but we hire for attitude and train for skill. For certain jobs, you need expertise, but attitude is more important,” he said.

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