Argentum’s Women in Leadership Zoom series featured Brookdale Senior Living President and Chief Executive Office Cindy Baier, giving the leader of the nation’s largest senior living operator the opportunity to share her thoughts on how the adversity of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the organization stronger.
But for Baier to speak about adversity goes back much further than the pandemic years, and actually helped form her character from her junior high school years forward when her mother suffered a near-fatal car accident.
“We had a really small family. We didn’t have much money, and so I became a caregiver before I even got to high school. And I understood just how important that was, how hard it was, but also how fulfilling it was,” she said.
Luckily, her mother recovered, but not long after Baier’s grandfather lost his vision, eventually leading Baier to move in with her grandparents, leading to another caregiving role.
“You know, the thing is, I probably had a closer relationship with both my mom and my grandparents because I was a caregiver,” she said. “I got to bring my grandfather joy in a way that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had the opportunity to help take care of him.”
She added that this giving of one’s self to help another really taught her just how much you get back from the people that you’re helping.
“I can still remember my grandfather. After he left his sight, we would go for a walk, and I would be his eyes, but he would say, ‘Cindy, can you smell the rain? It’s going to rain.’ And I’m like, okay, it’s going to rain. So, I learned so much from him by taking care of him, and I just always cherished that time, even though it was difficult.”
Bringing It Back Home
The two episodes of early-life caregiving created a precursor of things to come.
“Only when I got the opportunity to return to senior living and return to Brookdale, did I truly find my calling. And the fact that I really wanted to take care of people and having the opportunity to do that at a company like Brookdale, has been the privilege of my life.”
The thought learned early on that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger prepared her for being a senior living trailblazer, and of course helped put in perspective the trials and tribulations that the pandemic brought many years later.
“At the end of the day, I think that being able to live through adversity, to overcome it, to focus on what matters most. I think a lot of those lessons that really helped me lead Brookdale through the pandemic, I learned before I got into high school,” Baier said. “I think that’s really the event that sort of defined me, my mom’s car accident. I think it made me who I am, and it really gave me the passion for service, but also the knowledge that sometimes you just have to do what has to be done.”
A Profession Finding a Way
In the end, this strength and resolve is what Brookdale used to manage through the pandemic by doing things as a team that were never thought possible.
“Look at how much we accomplished. Look at the efforts we took to help protect the residents in our communities and the associates we serve,” she said, saying other Women in Leadership members also did the same with their organizations.
“I think this industry is incredible,” Baier said, pointing to not just the pandemic but to other emergencies, like last year’s Hurricane Ian. “The response that we have as an industry to protect those in our care. People are amazing. Well, especially getting past the pandemic, you’re probably like, I can do anything.”
This empowerment gained by facing tough times head on creates strong leaders. “Because when things are easy, leadership doesn’t matter as much. When leadership truly matters is when it’s difficult. My husband is a big wine drinker, and what he would say is, ‘the grapes who have to struggle are the ones who produce the best wine.’”
Baier thinks this is true for leaders, too. “You have to have a little struggle to truly be an amazing leader.”
Caregiving Matters Most
The circle has been made complete for Baier when one considers that the start of her life made her a caregiver out of necessity, and her professional life has been built on wanting to be that person answering the call to serve the needs of others.
“For me to lead Brookdale, it comes from my sense of being a caregiver, wanting to truly help older adults with the challenges of aging. But I think to be an effective leader, you’ve got to be able to
listen intently,” she said.
“You’ve got to be able to create a clear and compelling vision. You’ve got to be able to align people around a mission and priorities, and you’ve got to get people excited about what’s possible. And I think if you can do those things, I think you can be a good leader”.
One thing learned from the pandemic is that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. “I like to say that one of the things that I’m really proud of about Brookdale during the pandemic is that we demonstrated that we were an agile learning organization,” Baier said.
“And I think about our emergency response center. We basically needed to learn clinical things that no one had ever seen before. Because COVID was a novel virus, it had never been seen before…We had to figure out how to protect our residents, and then we had to create processes and procedures to sort of cascade that throughout the organization.”