Growing up in what she describes as a “very traditional Italian family,” Stephanie Handelson, Benchmark Senior Living’s president and chief operating officer, says she learned early on that girls can do whatever boys can.
As the only daughter with four brothers, Handelson says her father always encouraged her to “be all [she] could be.”
Handelson’s mother, a working professional, was also a strong parental figure who “clearly modeled how a woman can effectively manage a rewarding career and raise a family.”
Along with her brothers and parents, Handelson’s household, with whom she lived until her marriage, included her maternal grandmother—an influencing factor in her senior living career.
In addition to an MBA, Handelson also obtained her license as a home health aide in New York, where she got her start in the senior living industry as an executive director for a new start-up. There, she learned the ropes and made a personal commitment to “understanding the experience of assisted living through seniors’ eyes.”
“What Stephanie brings to anything she does—but particularly to senior living—is a passion for seniors,” says Tiffany Tomasso, founding partner of Fountain Square Senior Living and former chief operating officer of Sunrise Senior Living. “Great leaders in this field combine not just skills and work ethic, but also a love for what they do. I don’t know anyone who works harder than Stephanie—she is creative, energetic, has incredibly high standards, and never expects more from others than she does of herself.”
Tomasso and Handelson worked together at Sunrise Senior living for more than 10 years, with Handelson holding a number of roles as she advanced in her career from executive director to regional director to vice president.
After enjoying a “long and successful career” at Sunrise, where she served as senior vice president of East Coast Operations and was responsible for 200 communities, Handelson joined Wellesley, Mass.-based Benchmark in 2009.
As president and COO of Benchmark, which operates 46 locations as the 23rd-largest for-profit senior living provider, Handelson credits her upbringing and her mentor, Tiffany Tomasso, for her rise to the top—along with her own attitude of determination.
Senior Housing News: What influences, if any, did your childhood or background have on where you are today?
Stephanie Handelson: I think we all are always a byproduct of our childhood and for me, I know the importance of family will always resonate for me personally and professionally. I never forget to view this business through the lens of the families trying to make very difficult decisions about the care of their loved ones. And so often, the key decision maker is the daughter, which is another role that resonates with me.
I have always had senior family members in my life. In addition to my grandmother living with our family, I shared caregiver responsibilities with my family, as we chose to take care of my grandfather at home after a debilitating stroke while I was faced with caring for my own young family during that same time. I know first-hand the challenges, emotions and frustration of trying to do it all when a loved one is aging and in need.
I would be remiss not to mention again: I recognize now more than ever how important my parents support and encouragement was to my career. I was encouraged to not to limit my choices based on gender. Do what you love and the rest will follow. I strive to give that gift to my own two adult children today. It is definitely that gift a parent can give to their children that just keeps on giving and serves them through their life.
SHN: How did your upbringing and then your career at Sunrise help prepare you for your current role?
SH: I have four brothers and no sisters, so my dad never told me I couldn’t do something. Whatever the boys did, I did. Having grown up with that kind of atmosphere was absolutely a huge component of why I’m an aggressive leader.
You grow up with this mentality, ‘Hey, I don’t have to step aside—we’re equal.’ Not everyone has that when they’re growing up. That was really important.
Early in my career, that was very difficult. [Some] didn’t like the fact that I was very confident and would jump into a situation or conversation. It’s gotten better over the years—people are more unbiased, as it relates to gender.
It’s still not where it needs to be, but it’s definitely better.
SHN: Does gender imbalance at the corporate level need to change, considering that just three of 36 CEOs among ALFA’s top 50 senior living providers are women?
SH: I definitely think the numbers need to change, being a woman myself. It’s the stereotype [of the working mother] that’s slowly coming around. You had to work harder, be smarter, you had to be in a situation where many times your family came second. Or, many had to wait to have children if they wanted to climb the ladder.
That has changed. There are many couples where the wife is the breadwinner, and more and more examples where female professionals are also raising families at the same time they are growing their careers.
That has changed. There are many couples where the wife is the breadwinner, and husband may not be.
SHN: How can the industry bring more gender balance, and what is your advice to women and/or the industry?
SH: What needs to change is that women need to take more leadership roles and not sit back and wait for that role to be given to them. That will never happen. Women need to be a little more aggressive and confident in what they do and in their leadership.
In some cases right now as it relates to senior housing/healthcare, women tend to have more compassion, and most caregivers are women. They need to make sure they have a supportive partner at home, because these roles are taxing. It’s a lot of hours, a lot of travel. If you don’t have a supportive partner that makes it difficult. That’s an important piece.
I think most women tend to step back instead of jump in, and I think that needs to change, and we need to start educating our young females in the workforce and mentoring them.
There’s not enough mentoring that happens with successful women. We have the responsibility to mentor, and the next generation of women. Empower other women. If we did that and became mentors, that would have a definite impact in those numbers.
First of all, though, [they] need to be more aggressive, and be more confident.
SHN: Do you think that women in the senior living industry offer any additional perspective compared to their male counterparts?
SH: Let me first say I don’t believe strong, authentic and enduring leadership is ever gender based. With that said, the fact women are traditionally the primary caregiver, many caring for their children, their families, their friends as they manage their careers – women do typically bring an intrinsic understanding of the many facets of caregiving which allows them a built in lens on that critical element of this business.
But I also have encountered many male leaders in this business that definitely brings the heart required to lead in this business. At the end of the day, great leaders in this industry have to have the heart for the business. We are in the people business; we can’t get away from that basic understanding.
SHN: What are some roadblocks currently facing the industry?
SH: I think too many seniors wait too long to make a decision to move into senior living and the choice becomes need based, requiring assistance and they are not able to take advantage of what assisted living communities or CCRCs can truly offer: an enhanced lifestyle, and quality care.
There are still too many erroneous perceptions about senior living in our society and as a leader in this industry I remain committed to educating families and seniors, before they need to know, about the many options and value of senior living. Seniors who make the decision before they are forced to, typically always enjoy a much enhanced lifestyle.
SHN: Your colleague, Tom Grape, said in an interview last year that the baby boomers will turn assisted living on its head. Is Benchmark developing a model based on what that might mean, or is it still too soon?
I do believe that the baby boomers will bring a whole new level of expectation. Their wants and needs are very different than our current residents.
Benchmark is an organization that always has their eye on the future and all our strategies are forward thinking and building for tomorrow. Our seniors today are from the depression era, their expectations, in most cases are very different than what the baby boomers will want.
One thing I think we can all anticipate will be seniors who want what they want, when they want it, in the environment they want it delivered. Additionally, the baby boomers will come to the industry much more informed about their choices and not interested in compromising on their expectations. We anticipate much greater focus on technology and on-demand services.
This is the third and final installment of a series of profiles on 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 and Mary Leary’s profiles.