LeadingAge Magazine · March/April 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 02

Facing the Challenges of Leadership Recruiting: New Approaches and Achievements

March 11, 2016 | by Jane Sherwin

Finding new leaders for a changing field means developing existing staff for new roles, and creatively seeking outside candidates from a broad range of disciplines.

How can LeadingAge members meet growing demands for senior staff? Are there outside sources not yet tapped, and internal candidates to be nurtured? Experts in the field point to a number of tactics already in use that promise good results for executive searching and turnover reduction. And at least one senior community reveals the value, for loyalty and low turnover, of a close relationship between residents and staff. In general, there’s a need for creative thinking and a willingness to explore new fields.

Aging services faces a serious shortage of new talent, and accelerated turnover, among its leaders. The reasons are clear, according to Bob Morrow, principal for health care and lead of the Senior Living Executive Search Group at CliftonLarsonAllen.

“A significant percentage of executive leadership entered the field at the same time, and as many as 40% are approaching retirement in the next 3 to 4 years. At the same time, we’ve not been building our bench strength,” Morrow says.

Brad Wachter, owner of Senior Living Recruiters, says that the average executive director is not in place any longer than 3 years before moving, with even less tenure for directors of nursing.

Downsizing during the economic collapse of 2008 meant that some younger talent in secondary positions was eliminated. And many staff entered the field when their organizations were much smaller, so that they lack the experience of working with larger, more complex organizations now emerging.

But,” says Morrow, “it’s not too late, if you are serious about succession planning. There is a lot of well-educated but inexperienced talent interested in exciting and fulfilling careers.” Morrow believes that, to date, there has been only a very limited effort to attract this new talent, and to overcome dated stereotypes of aging services.

“The recent changes in terminology help,” says Morrow, referring to the effort to change the term CCRC to life plan community, but he thinks the field has much to learn about potential leaders in a variety of fields outside senior living.

“Even fields like accounting have the talent to match the rewards senior care offers. For example, for those in finance, there are the interesting challenges of Medicare and Medicaid, life planning, and insurance programs for guaranteeing lifetime health care.”

Morrow says, “Boards tend to be much stronger than several years ago, with more members from the business world bringing their experience in recruiting and succession planning to continuing care.” He has seen several boards demanding effective succession plans and hiring, but would like to see more action.

Ensuring quality leadership means cultivating existing staff and using your imagination for new hires, according to Yvonne Rickert, vice president and senior director of human resources at Iowa-based LCS. By 2050, LCS expects to serve some 50,000 seniors. At this time LCS has leadership programs supporting more than 100 employees.

LCS recruiting is now branching out into the hospitality world. “Whether you are looking for a financial officer, a marketing director, or a director of maintenance, you needn’t confine your search to health and human services,” Rickert says. “Running a life plan community is like running a fine cruise ship with a health care component. You can’t teach people to have a heart, but you can find the ones who do, and there are increasing numbers who are interested. Culinary colleges, even banks, can be excellent sources of talent.”

Rickert thinks it’s important to recognize that millennials are looking for work that has meaning, mission, and connection, and that service in the world of senior communities is a perfect match for them. “The challenge is to convey this value,” says Rickert. Her team attends at least 6 career fairs a year. “The message we carry is: ‘Making a difference in the lives of seniors every day.’”

And, she says, “A key way to convey the message of meaningful work is by the use of social media, tools that millennials, of course, are completely at home with. An online presence is critical.”

Wachter believes that internal leadership development is improving slowly but steadily. Like Rickert, he argues that senior living communities call for creative vision in recruitment. Leaders need to ask, “Where can we get the right people? We have high demands for new directors to be technically competent and at the same time to understand the need for a high level of hospitality.

“How willing is your organization to tolerate the risk of hiring someone from a new field? On the one hand a general manager of a hotel brings a lot of relevant experience, but there is a stark difference: hotel guests leave, but residents live where you work.”

Wachter also believes that pharmacy and medical device marketing are excellent fields for recruiting marketing staff. “They tend to be mature in the training they have received and consider outreach and business development as ongoing challenges, rather than a case of filling apartments.” Pastors of large churches, with their compassion, and experience with families and large operations, can also be good choices for leadership.

He believes that, especially at higher executive levels, business skills can become more important than experience in aging services. He told of a Silicon Valley executive who assumed leadership of a senior community and could focus on the need for effective business operations while others focused on the experience of senior living itself.

Rickert acknowledged that hers is a very large organization, but says “talent management should be the number one priority for every senior community’s strategic plan, whether they have 2 or 10 or 100,000 employees.”

She thinks that talent for senior communities, regardless of their size, can be found in a wide array of industries: “It’s going to take people from all different areas, with a passionate engagement once they understand what is needed.”

Successful organizations use mentoring to retain staff, develop future leaders, transfer knowledge, and build a culture of learning. There are many schools of thought when it comes to mentoring. Should you look for expertise on the outside or tap the intelligence and experience that walks the halls of your senior living communities?

Mentoring from the inside up creates a 2-way street for people to integrate and learn from those who work in entirely different departments—expanding the expertise and empathy of both the mentee and mentor. It allows both sides to develop new skills, see different approaches to everyday occurrences, and feel more engaged—things that are crucial to the health and future of every organization, large or small.

Cathy Capers, the human resources director at Horizon House, Seattle, WA, had a dream 2 years ago to connect high potentials with top performers. She collaborated with the leadership team, which agreed to rework the organization’s existing program.

The team wanted to ensure that individuals were paired with folks they had not previously interacted with—with an emphasis on ensuring diversity of participants from all different departments, backgrounds and titles. And, the team wanted to bring a quality program to life while being mindful of limited human and financial resources. Employees are matched up at the start of the year and agree to meet 3 hours per month for a minimum of 6 months. Mentors are selected from among staff with a minimum of 5 years’ management experience. They must be willing to make a commitment to the program and understand that their goal is to help the mentee reach a goal. To ensure privacy, we avoid matching a mentee with a manager within their “chain of command.”

To find mentees, directors identify employees they feel would benefit from mentors. Each mentee must have been in his or her position for a minimum of 1 year, unless a new hire that the director feels could use a mentor to help with integration. Supervisors are then asked if they will support the employee’s participation and the time commitment. From there, the matching process begins.

Mentees identify up to 3 personal or professional goals. Confidentiality agreements are signed and a professionally facilitated orientation kicks off each cohort.

The program is evaluated through individual interviews. Participants report that trust and preparation are drivers of success, while time is unanimously noted as a barrier. As we tell participants, “This is not going to be easy but it will be worth it.”

To ensure people know they can make this a priority, we bring the CEO into the conversation; I present at the kick-off meeting and conduct regular check-ins with participants, emphasizing the importance of the process and clearing a path if needed.

All of this looks good on the bottom line. Organizations get better when people get better. So, putting a program in place that continually fosters this outcome is something we will continue to do. I see our board of trustees wanting to get involved by lending their expertise too.

Putting a process in place that fosters a culture of continuous improvement and education is available without adding costs. Helping employees advance themselves advances the organization. Mentoring from the inside moves people up and around, enhancing productivity and fulfilling the mission in new and dynamic ways.

We are willing to share the format, agreements, and structure for establishing an internal mentoring program with other LeadingAge members. For more information, contact Cathy Capers, Horizon House HR director, at cathyc@horizonhouse.org.

- Written by Sara McVey, CEO at Horizon House, Seattle, WA.

Lasell Village, Newton, MA, is fully integrated with Lasell College and zoned as an educational institution, with some 215 residents and 150 employees. In this unusual arrangement, residents are required to participate in 450 hours of educationally oriented activities. They design their own learning plans, which in addition to classes can include cultural activities, volunteer and professional work and fitness.

Anne Doyle, president of Lasell Village, Inc., and vice president at the college, says that as residents age they are excused from the learning requirements for health reasons, but in fact, “Residents love the commitment they make and are eager to study and learn even in very old age.”

Doyle says Lasell Village employees are also happy with the college-Village integration.

“Leaders in Village dining services, resident programming, concierge services, and marketing have graduated from the college, and we have interns who have taken full time professional positions at the Village. The partnership is a vibrant one for students seeking real-world work experience in a growing field,” says Doyle.

One consequence of the integration of college and Village, says Doyle, is reduced turnover. “We have a dedicated team. Ten managers or directors have been in place at least 15 years. In our skilled nursing [community], we’ve had some nursing turnover, but have high retention in our wellness home visiting nursing services, and we have a good bench. Our wellness center nurse leader has been at the Village since it opened 16 years ago and our previous skilled nursing director stayed until her retirement. Our current director has been in place for nearly 3 years."

Students and staff may form deep friendships with residents at Lasell, and the Village values the engagement of employees with residents, said Doyle. “Their stories become part of a resident’s story, the more engaged they are.”

Presbyterian SeniorCare, Oakmont, PA, with 1,800 employees, has a long history of growing internal talent and promoting from within, according to Celeste Golonski, vice president of service integration and quality.

In launching its Emerging Leaders Academy in 2015, Presbyterian SeniorCare was focused on nurturing new talent for leadership. “We wanted at least 10 new leaders from within to help implement our goals, to broaden our base and make us a model organization,” said Greg Malisky, senior director of finance and support services.

In its first year the Academy graduated 9 people, and in 2016 enrolled 12, chosen from 17 applicants. In addition to class work, each participant was assigned to a strategic initiative team, as an observer, and in the second year could continue with that team and with a mentor.

Five Academy participants have achieved advanced responsibility, holding titles such as director of rehabilitation and supply chain manager.

“We’ve seen participants grow in confidence,” says Golonski. “They are developing the abilities of leadership: not just organizing a team, but rallying them around a performance initiative and inspiring new efforts.”

LeadingAge Thrive provides resources to help members better serve seniors and their communities. The 7 major topic areas in Thrive include questions designed to stimulate discussion among your leadership team and board of directors. Thrive also includes resources such as white papers, articles, tools, presentations and business intelligence.


Under the “Workforce and Leadership Development” section of Thrive, see the resources connected to these questions:

  • Do we have the right leadership in place for future success?
  • Do we have a comprehensive orientation program for new employees across all staff levels and settings?
  • Do we provide ongoing state-of-the-art training for administrators, midlevel managers, clinical staff and frontline providers across all departments and settings?
  • Do we conduct employee satisfaction and engagement surveys, provide employee feedback, and use the data to make organizational decisions?
  • Do we periodically assess the level of investment in human capital to ensure that resources are being used appropriately and effectively?
  • Do we use evidence-based management best practices (e.g., supervisory training, open communication, empowerment of frontline staff, self-managed work teams, peer mentoring and support) to set organizational priorities, solve problems, improve the working conditions and the quality of the job and minimize turnover and instability in the workplace?
  • Do we provide specific opportunities to develop the leadership skills and core competencies of staff for future success?
  • Do we provide mentoring and peer support initiatives to enhance frontline supervisors’ and workers’ self-image and encourage them to grow in their job?
  • Do we have in place a comprehensive employee orientation program?
  • Do we provide clinical placements and internship opportunities for those who are or may be interested in pursuing a career in aging services?
  • Do we conduct performance evaluations to provide employee feedback and improve performance?

Thrive is a LeadingAge member benefit, and access is limited to members. Use the MyLeadingAge login page to log in or create an account.

Visit the Thrive main page.