Executive Directors Take on Heightened Importance in Evolving Seniors Housing Industry, Says InterFace Power Panel

The Power Panel at InterFace Seniors Housing Midwest included (from left) Dan Hermann, president and CEO, Ziegler; Lynne Katzmann, founder and CEO, Juniper Communities; Jerry Finis, CEO, Pathway to Living; Keven Bennema, president and CEO, Charter Senior Living; and moderator JP LoMonaco, president, Valuation & Information Group.

CHICAGO — Operators in the senior living space universally agree that the executive director holds the single most important position at their communities and that the job is a daily grind. These frontline administrators are not only tasked with providing the best care possible for residents, but they must also demonstrate strong financial acumen. They are frequently thrust into the role of crisis manager, all the while they are expected to be strategic thinkers.

Rather than simply give lip service to the idea that the executive director is an invaluable part of the overall operation, Charter Senior Living is putting its money where its mouth is. The operator of 14 senior living communities in nine states is exploring the possibility of giving executive directors an ownership stake in its communities.

“I know that’s been talked about for years, but we are actually in a position [to provide that incentive] on top of a very competitive financial package,” said Keven Bennema, president and CEO of Charter Senior Living, which offers independent living, assisted living and memory care across its properties concentrated in the Midwest and Southeast.

It’s important for department heads to feel a sense of ownership as well, added Bennema, who is trying to develop leaders from within the company. “Security is what our team members are really looking for, and they want to be treated well. They don’t want to come into work and be afraid that if they made a mistake they are going to get their head cut off.”

Bennema’s comments came during a CEO “Power Panel” discussion focusing on the state of the industry at InterFace Seniors Housing Midwest on Tuesday, June 11. The one-day conference covered several facets of the industry and took place at the Marriott Marquis Chicago. The event attracted 285 attendees representing a cross-section of disciplines in the seniors housing space.

Moderated by JP LoMonaco, president of Valuation & Information Group, other panel participants in addition to Bennema included Jerry Finis, CEO, Pathway to Living; Dan Hermann, president and CEO, Ziegler; and Lynne Katzmann, founder and CEO, Juniper Communities.

Wanted: Versatility

LoMonaco asked the panel the characteristics they ideally would like to see in an executive director today.

“Our world is changing,” emphasized Katzmann. “In the old days you wanted someone who could run a building, someone who understood regulations and who could make things go off on schedule and fill the building. You had protocols and people had to implement them. Today, you need to be more strategic. You need to have two legs firmly planted, one on the tactical side and one on the strategic side. That’s new. That’s different.”

Change management skills are also critically important today given the evolving healthcare care delivery system, said Katzmann. “If you are going to change your strategy or change the tactics to meet your new strategy, you’ve got to be able to manage through that change.”

Thus, a leader who can both communicate a vision and then put forth tactics to drive success in meeting those goals is going to be vitally important, she emphasized.

Because seniors housing is a local business, it’s helpful if the executive director has deep connection to the surrounding area. “You’ve got to have contacts. You’ve got to know what people want and the specific attributes of the community and what people are seeking,” said Katzmann.

Juniper Communities operates 22 seniors housing communities in four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Jersey. Product offerings include independent living, assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing and short-term rehab.

Finis of Pathway to Living said that the ideal executive director truly understands the business, the services it’s providing and why the residents want to live there.

“All that rolled together is what makes it a very difficult position, but it is absolutely required in today’s environment. The executive directors have to have that understanding of the entire [operation]. If they don’t, it will always be a problem,” said Finis, whose company operates just under 3,000 units of mostly senior apartments, assisted living, memory care and some independent living.

Pathway to Living has been in business since 1996 and has ownership interests in roughly 2,400 of the nearly 3,000 units it its portfolio.

How are executive directors supported?

Making sure job expectations and goals are communicated clearly upfront during the interview process is something Juniper has improved upon over the years, said Katzmann. The company spells out what it means for an executive director to be “successful.”

The company has dropped the use of traditional performance evaluation systems and opted instead for ongoing discussions with executive directors to provide feedback and coaching on how to meet their goals.

Juniper also drafts individual career development plans that Katzmann believes are an effective tool for putting employees on the right path. “It’s done jointly. This notion of shared responsibility for your development at Juniper is something that we’ve really taken to.”

The company holds a national leadership team meeting in a different city each year that is designed to be part fun and part educational, said Katzmann.

“What’s really cool about that is that they get to meet their peers, and they get to know their peers as individuals and they’re sharing social time. So, when something goes wrong they call those peers. That kind of support is very organic and it’s worked really well for us.”

Finis agreed with Katzmann about the importance of employee development and team building, but added that it’s easier said than done.

“You have to remember what their job is. They have an idea and a purpose for the day. [But] they spend half the day reacting,” he pointed out.

The good news is the systems, processes and support in place can help executive directors get through some difficult situations they are forced to react to, explained Finis.

“What we found over time is that if they are not good reactors to things that they can’t control, that’s a really good indicator that they are not necessarily going to be a good executive director. So, our goal is to figure out how to help them do that.”

Academic component

Earlier this month, Ziegler hosted “Vision 2025: University and Senior Housing and Care Symposium” sponsored by the Center for Health Administration and Aging Services Excellence.

The purpose of the symposium held at Ziegler’s headquarters in Chicago was to explore the challenges and opportunities for university academic programs in health care administration, and the business case for expanding these programs.

“There are 45 universities that they’ve pulled together [for this event], and the whole focus is to recruit more people into getting degrees in senior living management,” said Hermann in advance of the symposium.

The industry could experience a record number of executive directors and administrators in the years ahead, added Hermann, which raises a salient question: “Where are those folks going to come from?”

— Matt Valley

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