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Whether Born or Grown, There are Leaders in Your Midst


Some leaders are born, some are grown, and some can come from surprising places. Assisted living communities need to be on the lookout for potential leaders and get them in the right positions with the tools they need to be successful.

“We are constantly looking for leaders at all levels,” said Loren Shook, president and CEO of Silverado. “We are looking for people who are in alignment with our vision, purpose, values, and core philosophy,” he added. Then when they see people who share this commitment and show energy and interest in growing and helping the company thrive, Silverado engages them and talks about career paths.

All this requires that leaders “always be looking and listening,” said Tana Gall, president of Merrill Gardens. She also stressed that it means getting to know your people. Gall searches for people who have heart, a love for senior living, and the “spark” that these things bring. When she finds such people, they sit down and have what she calls “dream job conversations.”

“This involves sitting down without a script and just talking about what they love about their job and how they think they can add value to the community. We talk about the things that give them joy and how we possibly can craft a job around those,” Gall said.

“If we can’t craft that job, maybe we can involve them in some extra assignments to keep them motivated and engaged.” Finally, she noted, “I tell them that I hope that their dream job is here with this company; but if it’s not, I still want to help them reach their goal.”

Taking a Few Steps…Literally

People with leadership potential may be all around you. “If you are out and about as a leader in the community, you get to know everyone and see who advocates for their residents and are dedicated to the community. When you see them, pull them in and engage them,” said Sarah Howd, MD,CMD, assistant professor of medicine and geriatrics at the University of Rochester, associate medical director of the Senior Living Practice at UR Medicine Geriatrics Group, and chair of AMDA—The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care’s assisted living subcommittee.

This means entry-level workers too, she stressed, adding, “When they are faithful to their schedules, know their residents, and clearly love their work, talk to them about their next step. Would they be interested in training to be a med tech, an LPN, or an administrator? We need to identify stars at all levels and foster their growth.”

Tim Nelson, a principal at Olympus Retirement Living in Eagle, Idaho, agreed, saying, “I had a skilled nursing administrator reach out and tell me about a maintenance worker who would be a good administrator. “It turns out that “this person had pursued an administrator’s license without telling us. He was someone who consistently went above and beyond.” These are the kinds of people, he suggested, leaders need to watch for.

While it’s important to enable and encourage workers to advance in their careers, leaders also need to nurture those who have talent and promise but don’t necessarily want to move up the ladder.

“We have to respect people who aren’t interested in going to the next level. This was so foreign to me, but I had to learn that it’s okay and to understand and appreciate their goals. Now I have nothing but admiration for these people because they truly love their work,” said Nelson.

With this new understanding, he now focuses on other ways to nurture and support them. “We need to give them ownership in something that they’ll enjoy besides their regular job. Maybe we can put them on a committee or involve them in planning a special event,” he said, adding, “And we can’t forget the value of a thank you and a little praise. These can go a long way.”

Offering a Taste of Leadership

Not everyone has a clear career path, and it’s important to help guide those promising team members who don’t have a five year plan. Gall said,

To do so, she said Merrill Gardens created a new position in the company—resident experience partner. “For example, if someone comes in to interview as a server and we see a spark in them, we talk about the possibility of cross-training them to handle multiple roles in the community – helping with activities, working in dietary, answering the phones, etc. The more they learn, the more they get paid,” Gall said.

“These people are very valuable to us, and their job satisfaction is high. They are excited about their work, and they enjoy the fact that there is variety in their day.”

Over time, these workers find out where their passions lie, and management can work with them to identify what possible leadership roles might be right for them, she added.

From Greeter to Great Leader

Gall knows from experience that great leaders can come from anywhere. She recalled, “We had a bus driver taking a group of residents to Walmart for some shopping. He stayed at the front of the store and was impressed with how efficient, happy, and pleasant the greeter was.”

Eventually, the bus driver approached the greeter and asked if she’d ever considered working in senior living. She said, “No.”

“He gave her a company card and told her we were looking for an activities’ assistant. She called that afternoon and ultimately got the job,” Gall said. But that was just the start:

“She just blew us away with how great she was in that position, and she was eventually promoted to activities director. She then went into sales and then to the business office. Today, she is senior business office director.”

Assessing leaders is key to getting people in the right positions and ensuring that they have the skills and competencies they need. Shook said, “We do town hall meetings with different groups of employees and no leaders present. We ask them how their leader is doing. We walk through what is happening and what needs to happen.” This isn’t about blame, he stressed. It’s about ensuring that people have the tools to positively impact their relationships with their teams.

When people are struggling in a leadership role, it is important to work with them to assess if this is where they want to and should be. Not everyone really wants to be a leader. However, if they are faltering as a leader but want to succeed, it behooves the organization to identify way to pull them up and get them on track.