Senior Living Community Success Hinges on Strong Leadership

While a number of factors contribute to the success of a senior living community, a crucial piece of the puzzle is strong leadership at the top.

Executive directors play a vital role at the helm of their communities, and many share key characteristics of being a good listener, open-minded, and willing to “walk the walk and talk the talk,” say two executive directors who have been recognized by ALFA for outstanding leadership.

Building Relationships with Staff


Strong relationship and communication skills are a “must” along with a passion for senior care, they add—and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt.

When Kelly Mazza became executive director at a Vermont Benchmark Senior Living community, her first step was to invest the bulk of her time into building relationships with the approximately 120 associates she manages.

“The relationships executive directors have with the people who work at their communities is critical,” says the senior executive director and first-ever recipient of ALFA’s Community Leadership Award in 2012.


“It’s the key ingredient to our success. You have to invest time upfront to know the people you’re working with, and make sure you have the right team in place to make sure they feel appreciated, heard, acknowledged, and rewarded.”

Building trust with and communicating expectations clearly to the caregiver team leads to “buy-in,” which Mazza says is crucial for long-term success.

“Any executive director—including Kelly—is only as good as their weakest link. Kelly works hard to build a solid team, through accountability and creating loyalty,” says Bob Moran, vice president of operations at Benchmark. “She does things outside the norm of the everyday to recognize and promote her leadership team.”


Mazza has been leading The Arbors at Shelburne for seven years and has served in a variety of roles with Benchmark for eight years.

“It’s an absolute privilege to serve with The Arbors team and make a difference in the lives of the residents and families there,” Mazza commented. “While I’m thrilled to receive the ALFA award, the whole community deserves special recognition, too. It takes a dedicated team and engaged residents and families to make a community special and allow leadership to shine.”

Setting an Example

“The most important thing is to empower people, because as an executive in general, when you lead a large group of people you have a vision of how the community is going to run,” says Margie Longstreth, executive director of a North Carolina Five Star Senior Living community and winner of the 2013 Community Leadership Award. “You have to make that vision clear for people.”

At Longstreth’s community, like many others, some residents hire their own private duty aides. While not employed by Five Star, they are still subject to community rules.

“The entire staff knows those rules, because it’s the same for us. I can’t walk around [talking] on my cell phone, and neither can you. None of the rules I’m setting for anyone, would I not set for myself—but I can’t constantly be policing those things,” says Longstreth.

Employees at Longstreth’s community know they have her support, she says, empowering them to politely approach non-employee aides to let them know if they’re breaking a rule.

“I have their back. When I have their back, it’s amazing how quickly it turns around and they have my back too,” she says.

Longstreth’s attitude and the example she sets for her staff contribute to her leadership ability, says Bruce Mackey, president and CEO of Five Star.

“Great executive directors make their teams feel important, valued and appreciated. They also provide direction and the ability to execute the company’s shared vision to those they lead,” he says. “Margie is positive, no matter how difficult the situation. She leads by example, and will roll up her sleeves and dig into whatever needs to be done.”

“Executive directors lead community teams each day in a fundamental mission to champion quality of life for the residents they serve,” said Richard P. Grimes, president and CEO of ALFA.

“Margie is a true team builder, bringing cohesion and collaboration to a diverse staff that serves the many needs of residents. Her nomination reflected on the many skills needed to lead a community and ensure quality service and high business performance. Margie is an ideal role model for current and future leaders seeking to grow their engagement in senior living.”

Forging Bonds with Residents and Loved Ones

Executive directors interact with or answer to frontline staff, residents and their loved ones, company executives, and state regulatory departments on a routine basis in a “juggling act” Mazza says requires careful balance.

“Every executive director must possess the skills to balance resident and associate satisfaction as well as the financial performance of the community. This requires making decisions that affect all levels of the business,” Moran says. “A good director will always operate in the realm of making decisions with the resident, associate and capital partner in mind; as long as they follow this in this order they will run a successful business.”

Forging bonds with residents and their families is a particular focus for senior living executive directors. Family dynamics are an interesting part of the job, says Longstreth, as emotions often run high.

When Longstreth began working at her community, her efforts to develop relationships with residents’ families was pivotal in diffusing a situation where a resident’s daughter was unhappy about an aspect of housekeeping in her father’s apartment.

“She came [to the community] very upset, and I looked her right in the eye and said, ‘Hey, this is me you’re talking to. You know I want to make this better,’” she recalls. “That doesn’t work with a stranger. She said, ‘You’re right. I’m sorry.’

“It changes perspective—you’re their ally. We’re on the same side.”

Recognizing and rewarding good leadership can help perpetuate success and inspire leaders and those around them to accomplish even more, says Five Star’s Mackey of ALFA’s Community Leadership Award.

“It’s important to recognize a job well done because it sets the benchmark for people,” Longstreth agrees. “As with anything, when you’re only stressing the negatives, it takes away from what we do. To say something positive about what someone’s doing is a great best practice—it gives us all something to model and strive for.

Mazza and Longstreth view winning the leadership award as an honor indicative of something bigger.

“It’s been humbling. It’s such an honor. You can bask in the glory for about five minutes, and then maybe bask for another five minutes before getting back to reality,” Longstreth says.

“For me, it was a representation of the company I work for and the people I work with. I accepted it on their behalf more than I thought about my success,” says Mazza. “It pushed me to want to do more, and I want to pay it forward.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace

This article is sponsored by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) as part of its efforts to advance excellence and explore topics impacting the future of senior living. For more information about ALFA, visit


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