By Kenneth Gibson and Lindsay Potter
Ask executive directors of senior living communities across the country about their biggest challenges and virtually all of them will mention building and retaining strong teams.
A community’s staff is the foundation of our ability to serve residents and their loved ones with the care and compassion that they deserve. Without an effective team, senior living communities won’t reach their potential and could even become mired in dysfunction.
When we were honored to be named the top senior living executive directors in our respective states last year, we both had the same reactions: “This is unbelievable!” and “Thank goodness for our amazing teams!”
Recruiting, retaining and empowering team members is among the most important functions of an executive director. It’s also one of the hardest. Communities need to be creative to find and train new team members. The work we do caring for seniors is fulfilling and inspiring but can be difficult at times.
Understanding how to build and empower successful teams in a senior living setting will help to ensure your community delivers the best possible care. Where to begin? It all starts with identifying employees to join your team.
Recruit team members
Finding the right team members for your senior living community can feel like a daunting task. Competition is fierce for employees and some factors that an executive director can’t control — such as market saturation or the community’s physical location — can seem especially difficult to overcome.
In our experience, recruiting starts with a community’s work environment. It’s important to create a supportive and engaging culture within your community. When existing employees are happy and feel connected they can become your greatest advocates. Not only will they tell others about their experiences, but a potential hire is going to see and feel the effects of a positive work environment even during an interview.
Sustaining that positive environment begins with the interview. Make it a welcoming experience and be clear about the expectations of the specific role for which they applied.
Given the level of competition for employees, it’s necessary for many executive directors to think creatively about the positions they have available. Some of the best team members that we’ve seen at our communities have a variety of backgrounds in healthcare, hospitality, foodservice and education.
The common denominator for success has been a person’s calling to help others. Almost anyone can be trained in a wide array of specific job functions; having a passion for supporting others and providing care can’t be taught.
Retain team members
Employee retention efforts should start on the first day by immersing new hires in your community’s vision and mission. Creating a standardized onboarding process is helpful to ensure that new employees receive all the resources and information they need.
Another important aspect of retention is introducing new employees to a variety of other team members. We’re more likely to stay at the same community if we enjoy the people we work with. Help facilitate those connections early on.
Building connections between team members is a useful strategy to develop support and loyalty. Also, try to have fun and be silly from time to time. Yes, senior living employees do important and serious work, but that doesn’t mean work should always be serious. Show your personality, burst into song, dance with a resident, encourage team meals and potlucks together… there are many ways to foster positive and supportive relationships among your team.
Another important retention strategy is to recognize and celebrate success. Show your team that you appreciate them and give them shout-outs for good work. This recognition can be formal, but it doesn’t have to be. A handwritten note thanking someone for going above and beyond or a public shout-out in front of other team members are simple acts that have profound impact.
Finally, offer support by ensuring that team members understand their roles and have the resources they need. An executive director who sees potential in an employee should let the employee know and be encouraging.
Empower team members
Empowerment is really about accountability. Executive directors should foster trust among their team members and challenge them to do their best work. In doing so, teams will hold each other accountable and feel empowered to make the best decisions for residents.
First, executive directors must ensure that their team members have all the necessary tools. A key component of your job is to set up your team for success. Set the vision and goals, provide the tools and encouragement, and be available to support team members when needed.
Then, make sure you have strong communication with your team so everyone knows their expectations and can easily provide feedback to and from one another. Requesting feedback and acting on those responses is important to build trust within the team.
Another vital aspect of empowerment is giving your team the freedom to make mistakes, as long as those mistakes have the residents’ best interest at heart. We all make mistakes and we learn from those missteps. That’s how individuals and teams get better. Lean into that learning and growth. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
Finally, empowering teams is so beneficial because when someone is surrounded by high performers and takes ownership of their tasks, they don’t want to be the one to let the team down. Team members begin to directly and indirectly push one another to strive to do more.
Stronger teams deliver better care for residents. That’s why executive directors should prioritize recruiting, retaining and empowering their team members.
When the right individuals are in the right positions there is a high level of trust, which leads to autonomy, which in turn leads to a large amount of personal responsibility by the employee who is given that autonomy.
Strong teams and teamwork have a noticeable and positive impact on senior living communities. When one shift can communicate with the next shift and the supervisors know what is going on day by day, hour by hour, it helps every day run smoothly. Of course, nothing goes as planned — something to which all executive directors can relate. But when you have a strong team, members of the team can get through that stormy day together.
It’s quite something to see the results when everyone on a senior living team feels confident and empowered. Even if this goal seems far off today, it’s important to start taking the steps needed to build that exceptional team.
Kenneth Gibson is the executive director of Spring Arbor of Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia, and received the 2023 Assisted Living Administrator of the Year Award from the Virginia Assisted Living Association. Lindsay Potter is the executive director of Spring Arbor of Outer Banks in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, and received the 2023 Community Leader Award from the North Carolina Assisted Living Association. Both awards recognize the top executive director in each state. Spring Arbor Senior Living operates 24 senior living communities in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.