Women in Senior Living: Mary Leary, President & CEO of Mather LifeWays

Mather LifeWays’ president and CEO Mary Leary recently celebrated 10 years with the organization, during which time she has taken it from “one of the industry’s best kept secrets” to an innovative global resource for wellness and aging well, according to her peers.

She’s done so, they say, under a leadership style characterized by creativity, tenacity, level-headedness and fairness.

“Mary is in a category of leadership that is pretty rare: that is, visionary and transformational,” says Larry Minnix, President and CEO of LeadingAge. “She has transformed a well-established organization into a modern and dynamic force for improving the aging experience for subsequent generations of seniors. She is in a league of her own.”


Evanston, Ill.-based Mather LifeWays has four senior living locations in Arizona and Illinois—including two continuing care retirement communities—along with its other aging-related ventures.

The organization is unique in how it integrates three core elements, says Bob Kramer, founder and president of the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry, through which Mather LifeWays served 35,000 seniors in 2012.

“Under Mary’s leadership, Mather LifeWays has been a leader not only in providing service enriched seniors housing but also in developing innovative programs that take services out into the community and in conducting research that informs and drives product development for the future,” Kramer says.


In her personal life, Leary has been married for 27 years and professes to love “all things Asian,” whether it’s travel, food, or her husband—who is Chinese.

As an only child who grew up in upstate New York, Leary says her career path and position was greatly influenced by her father, a World War II veteran who was injured during the war. As a result of the injury, he was considered fully disabled and had to relearn how to walk and talk. Leary says she considers him a “wonderful role model in terms of tenacity and resilience.”

Despite his physical limitations, Leary’s father pursued two master’s degrees and had a successful career. He stressed the importance of education and pushed Leary from an early age into building a strong and well-rounded resume by pursuing extra-curricular activities—something that was atypical for the time, she says, although it’s more the norm today.

Like her father, who worked in rehabilitation services, Leary decided she, too, wanted to help people in her career and decided to pursue hospital administration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Health Services Administration from Cornell, then got her master’s degree in Health Policy and Management from Harvard.

From there, Leary launched into the healthcare world, eventually transitioning into not-for-profit senior living, becoming a well-respected innovator along the way.

SHN: How did your career begin?

ML: After graduating from Harvard, I worked for a large for-profit hospital system doing strategic planning and financial feasibility studies for two years.

The system was headquartered in California, but I was working in Virginia. Then I met someone—my future husband. I ended up leaving the company because I didn’t want to move [across the country], and then worked for real estate development firm in D.C. area.

I was there for five years, both on the development side and as communities were completed, where I was more involved in operations of communities.

SHN: How did you transition from real estate development to senior housing?

ML: I joined Classic Residence by Hyatt, where I was still living in the D.C. area, and worked there for 12 years. I became the chief operating officer, and as I was getting more and more involved in the business, Penny Pritzker, my boss at the time, asked if I would consider moving to Chicago. So, I came to Chicago.

When 9/11 hit, it had a profound impact on my thinking about my career. At the time, I was doing a lot of traveling. After that event, I really didn’t care if I got on another plane. For a while, I had been thinking about wanting to give back to my local community, but never had time because I traveled so much.

Then, I got a call from Mather Lifeways, looked into it, thought it sounded like a great opportunity, and joined as president and CEO.

SHN: Have you made any decisions in your career that helped get you where you are today?

ML: There was a key decision I made early in my career, when I was moving up the corporate ladder and working in a corporate office. I had skipped the experience of working at a senior living community, and realized I was lacking in sales experience.

I felt that was a negative, and might potentially hold me back. I took a risk, and went into a direct selling role in a senior living community to obtain sales experience. It might have been seen as taking a step back in my career, but it actually positioned me for greater success: I became corporate vice president for sales with the same company. People need to identify areas in which they might need to grow.

SHN: Are there leadership benefits from a female perspective, and does the senior living industry need more women?

ML: My contributions are based on who I am as a person. I think my drive and desire for Mather Lifeways to succeed is based more on my background [than my gender].

I do think that being a woman in my role as CEO and president perhaps results in more scrutiny; people are watching me more, and women within the organization may look to me as a role model because of the role in which I serve.

I think that the industry needs many more people to become interested in the field, because of the huge need that will exist in the future. I don’t personally think about it being men or women.

SHN: There is a substantial gender imbalance in the senior living industry at the executive level—we found that only three of 36 CEOs in the 50 largest for-profit senior living providers are women, and the numbers are similar on the not-for-profit side. Does that need to change?

ML: My husband is Chinese, and there’s a Chinese proverb that says women hold up half the sky. So, yes—this does need to change. I do think it is changing, although more slowly than women would probably like. But I think progress is being made, and I’m optimistic for the future.

There is opportunity for change at the industry level, but equally or even more importantly, women need to assume ownership of what they can do on an individual level.

SHN: What is your advice for women striving for a corporate level position in this business?

ML: There are a lot more opportunities today than when I first started out in the business. There are leadership development programs in place today. NIC offers young leaders programs, LeadingAge offers a leadership academy, Life Services Network is starting up a new leadership program. While these aren’t focused on women per se, women have a great opportunity to participate in these programs.

Women seeking out either men or women as potential mentors is a great way to help them forge their careers. Networking is another strategy, both within and without career circles. Obtaining higher education is another thing I would advise, along with participation in community-at-large leadership roles.

They could also look to work with companies that have a good track record in employing women in top positions. Mather LifeWays has more women than men at both the C-level and the VP level. That would point the way to see that yes, there are going to be good opportunities for women.

This is the second in a series of profiles on three women who hold executive leadership positions in the senior living industry. Click here to read “Women Aiming for New Gains in Senior Living Leadership” to get more information about Senior Housing News’ analysis of female representation in the c-suite among the top for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, or read Patricia Will’s profile

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