Hunt Is On for Executive Directors

by Jeff Shaw

Facing a talent and experience crunch, operators step up efforts to cultivate managers who can drive the success of a community.

By Jane Adler

When asked if an executive director can make or break a senior living property, the response from operators is surprisingly consistent: “absolutely.” Executive directors act as mini-CEOs of an enterprise, responsible for everything from customer and family relations to finances and even the dining experience. 

Executive directors set the tone for the community and the staff, which can be a big plus or a drag on morale and the bottom line. One company executive likens the role to that of a small town mayor who has to know how to run everything from budget meetings to garbage pickups. 

Because of their key roles, effective executive directors are in demand. Salaries and bonuses are rising, and the wave of new development has only increased competition for the best performers. 

Many companies hire executive directors from skilled nursing facilities, since they’re already trained and certified to manage the health issues of seniors. The hospitality industry is another source of executive directors. 

At the same time, industry groups and operators are pouring resources into programs to train new executive directors, in some cases right out of college. Internal training programs emphasize company systems and culture, grooming executive directors who hopefully will stick with the company.

“The executive director position is so critical to any building whether you’re a big operator, midsize operator or small operator,” said Jeff Slichta, senior vice president of operations for the Western Division of Sunrise Senior Living, during a panel discussion at the InterFace Seniors Housing West conference on March 9 in Los Angeles. The event drew approximately 300 industry professionals.

“It’s all about the [building’s] reputation within a five-mile radius as to whether you’ll be successful, regardless of the brand and the marketing and everything else you do,” added Slichta. 

Others agree. “The executive director makes all the difference,” says Doug Lessard, chief operating officer and executive vice president at Belmont Village Senior Living in Houston. “It is the most important position at the property.” 

Echoing the views of other managers, Lessard says the most important quality in an executive director is a passion for seniors. If that ingredient is missing, it’s difficult for the executive director to be successful in the long run because of the demands of a highly challenging job. 

Beyond an appreciation for seniors, executive directors must have solid leadership and communication skills, understand sales, and know how to run a business. “They have to be able to count,” says Lessard at Belmont, which owns and operates 24 communities and has six new properties under development. 

Not enough workers

The biggest challenge facing the industry is the employment crunch, according to Rich Heaney, regional director of operations at Brightview Senior Living, a Baltimore-based owner and operator with 37 properties. The need for good workers is evident at every level — from caregivers to executive directors.

Wages are rising for all workers at senior living communities. Several cities have raised the minimum wage. New properties lure employees from established buildings by offering higher wages. “The growth of the industry is making it harder to hire and retain quality associates,” says Heaney, whose office is in New Jersey. 

Salaries for executive directors have been rising about 3 to 6 percent a year, according to managers at leading operating companies. Executive director salaries currently range from about $90,000 to $125,000 on average, depending on the size of the community and its location. Executive directors also typically receive an annual bonus that is often linked to performance. 

Tenured executive directors at Belmont Village — those with the company for at least three years — are eligible for the long-term compensation bonus program, which makes payments periodically.

Raising the bar

The qualifications required for the executive director role vary by company, but are becoming more stringent. At a minimum, most companies want executive directors to have a college degree and industry experience. Many executive directors previously worked as skilled nursing home administrators or as department heads in assisted living buildings. 

In an effort to boost industry professionalism, Argentum, the assisted living trade association, introduced an executive director certification program in 2016. “We want to raise the bar for professionals in senior living,” says Paul Williams, executive director of the Senior Living Certification Commission based in Alexandria, Va. “It benefits employers to have credentialed employees at their communities.”

To qualify, applicants must have a college degree and three years of experience as an executive director of a licensed assisted living community. Those without a college degree need five years of work experience as an executive director, or seven years in a management capacity at an assisted living community. 

Applicants take a test and those who pass receive a designation as a certified director of assisted living, or CDAL. Continuing education units are required to maintain the designation. 

In 2009, the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) established a Future Leaders Council (FLC) of promising young professionals who work in the industry to further develop their management skills.

Recruitment of talent has become a top industry priority. Company executives like to tout the fact that the industry has lots of opportunity for advancement. But they also recognize that senior living can be a tough sell to new college graduates looking at careers in more glamorous industries such as the technology sector. 

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is one of the few schools that offers a degree in healthcare administration with a focus on senior living — the type of program industry executives would like to see offered by other schools. 

Executive education programs are also available. The USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in partnership with the USC Marshall School of Business offers a course titled “Senior Living Executive” for CEOs, CFOs, COOs, executive directors and aging services managers. 

The three-day course is designed to provide professionals in aging services a collaborative educational experience in strategy development, leadership and the science of aging.

Internal programs expand

Des Moines-based LCS has an internal training program for CCRC executive directors. The company manages 150 senior living properties, about half of which are continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). The others are a mix of independent living, assisted living and memory care.

“We have a robust program,” says Mark Heston, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at LCS. The company believes in best practices and policies, says Heston. But, he adds, “Our ability to drive and implement those standards is only as good as the executive director on site.”

LCS recruits six to 10 college grads annually for the program. About 50 to 60 students apply each year, mostly those from health administration programs. 

The trainees are assigned to communities and spend a month working in different departments, such as food and beverage, financial services and sales. Three times during the year, the trainees are brought together for three- to four-day workshops on different topics and to get to know each other. 

Trainees also receive instruction to meet national and state licensing requirements for assisted living and skilled nursing. 

The LCS program has helped to boost employee retention rates, says Heston. About 60 to 70 percent of the program’s alums are still with the company. “Many have progressed to regional roles,” he adds. 

LCS also has a training program for executive directors of independent living and assisted living communities, though it is less formal than the CCRC program. Many executive directors are groomed from within the company ranks through both formal and informal paths. 

“We promote from within,” says Collette Valentine-Gray, who serves as both COO and CEO at Integral Senior Living based in Carlsbad, Calif. Integral manages 60 senior living communities. Executive directors often come from the sales department or the business office. 

Managers who want to advance are moved from building to building to give them the experience they need for promotion. Integral maintains what it calls a “career mapping structure” under which managers can advance to more senior positions. 

Executive directors, for example, can be promoted to senior executive directors if they have a proven track record and are seeking additional responsibility. Regional management positions are drawn from the pool of senior executive directors. 

“We like to cultivate executive directors from within,” says Brightview’s Heaney. Good candidates typically come from sales, operations and health services. The company also has an executive director in training position, and an associate executive director position. A candidate from outside the industry with management experience might be moved into an executive director in training role in preparation for eventual promotion to the position of executive director. 

Brightview has its own training program known as Brightview University. Courses are available for staffers of all levels, including executive directors. A full-time, in-house staff of four certified trainers leads the training sessions.

The curriculum includes courses in leadership, program development, health services and business management. Executive directors receive additional in-depth training focused on areas such as how to reduce employee turnover and retain the best workers. 

The company also holds leadership conferences for its managers. A recent conference centered on the theme of cultivating relationships with associates. 

Though Heaney has experienced little turnover of executive directors in his region, which covers New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, he seeks other opportunities to groom and promote valuable workers. For example, a senior concierge at a Brightview property in Connecticut was promoted to business office manager at the Brightview community in Warren, N.J. “We want to make sure our managers feel valued,” says Heaney. 

On-the-job training

Two years ago, Belmont Village revamped its internal executive director training program. “We are able to grow our own executive directors,” says Lessard. The 12-month program rotates trainees to different properties every 90 days. They are assigned to the communities that excel at a certain function, such as sales. 

Trainees shadow executive directors and learn how to interview and train frontline staffers. They attend family meetings and conduct resident assessments, among other duties. At the conclusion of the program, the trainees are promoted to assistant executive director positions and relocated to a community that has an opening for an assistant. 

When a new executive director is transitioning to a community, Belmont provides support through a kind of SWAT team. For the first 30 to 90 days, specialists who were once executive directors themselves work at the community and mentor the new executive director. 

The mentoring provides some extra support during a period when the new executive director is just getting to know the community, residents and staff, as well as any issues the building might be facing. 

“It makes for a better transition,” says Lessard. “There’s less disruption to the community.”

Many communities work to build a cohesive management team. 

Presby’s Inspired Life holds a leadership meeting three times a year. The nonprofit organization, based in Lafayette Hill, Pa., operates four market-rate communities and 34 affordable housing buildings for seniors. 

The executive directors and apartment building managers decide in advance on a certain skill they’d like to improve, and the leadership meeting focuses on that area. The meeting gives the managers a chance to socialize and conduct some team-building exercises. “The more we know one another, the more we are able to work together,” says Tama Carey, COO at Presby’s Inspired Life. 

Carey wants executive directors to express their opinions at meetings in a respectful manner, but she also expects executive directors to support the decisions made by the organization. 

Executive directors who tell residents and employees that they disagree with a policy tend to create problems for everyone, says Carey. “That’s where an executive director can make or break you.”


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