Dedication to Servant Leadership is the Key to Senior Living’s Recruitment Challenges

by Jeff Shaw

By Earl Parker

Recruitment and retention of talented individuals is one of the greatest challenges facing the senior living industry right now. 

The COVID-19 pandemic placed enormous pressures on the healthcare and senior living industries, forcing millions of professionals to change employers or careers entirely. With demand for senior care increasing daily, it is essential that providers rethink their strategies for recruitment and focus on the cultural characteristics that have become increasingly important for today’s workforce. 

Today’s workforce wants value, they want purpose, they want to be servant leaders. 

What is servant leadership?

Popularized by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay titled “The Servant as Leader,” servant leadership is a practice in which an individual or organization is dedicated to the enrichment of everyone to achieve a more caring environment. 

The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership further defines it as “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” 

As an industry, senior living providers do an incredible job focusing on the care of seniors, their families and the communities that we serve. However, like most other industries, we have struggled to communicate the value and purpose we bring to the lives of millions of seniors across the United States. We must demonstrate that servant leadership is at the heart of what we do every day. 

To be successful in that effort, we must build a culture where team members create positive and meaningful relationships with one another. 

Reverse the pyramid

Most of us have read case studies or heard C-Suite leaders, both within and outside of the senior living industry, illustrate how to build effective cultures within a business. As the past few years have shown, those efforts proved to be ineffective because some of the most iconic brands have struggled to retain and attract talent. 

In fact, over 50.5 million people quit their jobs in 2022 alone, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. To date, about a third of U.S. workers have changed jobs since the start of the pandemic. Those of us in the senior living industry are seeing this trend firsthand. 

I would argue that to end the industry’s recruitment and retention challenge, we must build a culture from the bottom up rather than the top down. 

Since joining Commonwealth Senior Living in 2012, we have subscribed to the fact that our company is a reversed pyramid where our frontline associates are at the top and the C-Suite is at the bottom. 

Our frontline associates are the ones who are truly living our mission to improve the lives of seniors. They are the ones who know what is working, where there is room for improvement, and how we can better serve our residents. My job as CEO, and frankly the job of all leaders in the organization, is to remove barriers for our associates and to celebrate their success. 

Empower associates to speak up

One of the most effective strategies we’ve undertaken is to hold top talent meetings with associates in each of our communities on a regular basis. These meetings create an opportunity to have a dialogue and find solutions to challenges that our frontline team is facing. 

These meetings are designed to empower every member of our team so they understand that their feedback and opinions matter. More importantly, these meetings are action oriented. We don’t just absorb what is being said, but we act on the recommendations that are presented. Whether it be one of our executive directors, regional vice presidents, chief operating officer or me, we ensure that every recommendation is studied and acted upon with real accountability. 

This small act makes a significant difference in the lives of our associates because they know that they can take ownership on a matter, and can add true value to the lives of our residents. 

To codify this approach to empowering our associates, a decade ago we created a set of core values. Rather than develop them at the senior leadership level, we started the process by interviewing and surveying our frontline team members on the things that are most important to them. 

The core values read: “We care about people. We do the right thing. We are passionate, have fun, and celebrate success. We speak up. It’s our responsibility. We take ownership and add value in all we do. We are respectful.” 

At Commonwealth Senior Living, we care about our residents and their families in the same way we care about each other. Each of these core values gets to the heart of servant leadership because they are actionable for everyone and help achieve a more caring environment. 

Care about people

The senior living industry is all about caring for people. I would argue that this is one of the most important careers that anyone could pursue. 

Our challenge moving forward is to better communicate to potential employees the value we bring to our residents and their families, and the purpose-driven mission of our work. 

Humans are instinctively caring and want to work in a field where they can enrich the lives of others daily. That is what servant leadership is all about. 

Earl Parker is president and CEO of Commonwealth Senior Living. His experience includes more than 30 years of leadership roles in the hospitality and senior living industries. Prior to joining Commonwealth Senior Living, he was an integral part of the leadership and growth team for two large senior living owner-operators (Kisco Senior Living and Bell Senior Living) as well as founding and leading his own management company (The ELMS Group).

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