From Caregiver to Senior Lifestyle COO: Lessons from Climbing the Ladder

An impending labor shortage has prompted senior living providers to take new approaches to attracting and retaining workers, with one major strategy involving establishing career paths that allow employees to move from caregiver roles to leadership positions and anywhere in between.

Lisa Fordyce, the new COO for Chicago-based owner, operator and developer Senior Lifestyle Corp., is a prime example of just how well that strategy works, and she attributes her success to excellent mentorship. Though her path took her from a high school caregiver to a licensed practical nurse and beyond to various management positions for different operators, as opposed to simply working her way up in a single company, there’s no questioning her consistent forward movement.

Senior Housing News sat down with Fordyce to find out where she’s been, how she climbed the ladder to reach her new position and what her goals are as a leader.

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Senior Housing News: Tell us about your career. What brought you to this point?

Lisa Fordyce: A lot of my personal success is actually a result of some of the incredible mentors that have been in my life, starting back in 1989. I had an opportunity to become a caregiver in my high school years, and I enjoyed it very much. I had a wonderful instructor who was an inspiration to me every day, and she was actually the one who encouraged me to attend nursing school, which I did.

Once I was in nursing school, one of my instructors I immediately connected with, and she selected me to represent the nursing program in a skills competition and really took me under her mentorship. I’ve never forgotten really how she treated me with such encouragement. She helped me with having enough drive to make me think that I could do more. So in those early years in my career in nursing, I knew I could make a difference.

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Being a wife and a mother first, I knew it would take time. That family value is actually one of the things that would eventually draw me over to Senior Lifestyle. In my first management position, I was approached to take a role that included an interim executive director responsibility. Over time, that experience continued to present me with opportunities to learn and grow in the operational management skill set area.

Through those experiences, I had another handful of superior teachers and mentors, like Abdo Khoury, who was at ARV Assisted Living when I was employed there, and the late Granger Cobb, who was at Summerville and Emeritus, along with Justin Hutchens, who is now at HCP. They really taught me the vital business skills, which would later combine with my health care profession, to give me a unique knowledge of how to balance the care aspects and the business side. So when business initiatives needed to happen in my role, I knew what questions to ask and how to sort through those to provide a service. I knew how to talk to the director that was responsible for that community and the multimillion-dollar budget. They knew that I wouldn’t compromise care delivery, but that my team could help them be rewarded for a great contribution.

Nearly two years ago, I welcomed the opportunity to join Senior Lifestyle, and I found that I had an opportunity to take on even more responsibility in my senior vice president role there. This allowed me to further my education by working closely with Jon DeLuca, who is the CEO, and my peers, and to really learn more about third-party management, real estate investment trusts and investor relationships. I also had an opportunity to have a closer view of the overall operations, the contributions and the efficiencies needed to deliver results.

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So, operations aside, I think my move to Senior Lifestyle also showed me what a difference having such a strong core value can make and the way that it can pave the way for how the company works. I also love knowing that I work for a company that has family values. They have integrity. They have innovation. As we work to provide our residents with best-in-class care in the industry, I’m even more excited that this most recent step in my career allows me to have an impact at a greater capacity than any of my roles before.

SHN: What are your top priorities coming into the job? Do you have any long-term goals?

LF: My highest priorities are to continue to enhance the leadership teams that operate our communities using the leadership development tools, our resources and trainings that are necessary to promote successful delivery of best-in-class services and resident satisfaction. I think this, in turn, will help us attract top talent within and to our company.

Long-term, I look forward to working toward continuous innovation and ways to exceed customer expectation as the industry grows.

SHN: What steps are you taking now to be able to meet those long-term goals? 

LF: We have started putting into place leadership development plans, working with our employees, our management teams in the communities, and really differentiating how to deliver best-in-class care, what resources do you need, what collaboration of different partnerships do you need to make those things happen and to stay in focus for those particular goals.

SHN: How would you describe your leadership style?

LF: My leadership style is very team-focused with an emphasis on empathy. Because of my start in the health care industry as a caregiver and a nurse, I understand the work that our team members and our frontline staff do. I understand that our team members desire to be the difference in someone’s life. I can personally relate to an assisted living director or a community director, because I’ve walked in their shoes. I’m most grateful for those experiences through my career because it’s given me the drive to do everything I can do to support my team. And I think that really comes through in the way that I strive to lead others. I know that it takes a whole team to accomplish our mission to help and care for our residents, and the desire to support my team comes from knowing that my most important role as their leader is to help them fulfill that mission out in the field.

SHN: Building off of that, what would you say your greatest strengths are as a leader and in turn, what can you work on?

LF: I’m an impact-driven leader. In my past experience, success is contagious. I know if I can communicate effectively with an inspiring can-do approach, the results will follow. I think my ability to inspire excitement and even a little friendly competition at times really allows me to encourage my team to be their absolute best. I love being best-in-class, and I think my drive inspires others.

On the other hand, right now, I’m actually working on knowing when it’s okay to take a break and not push myself too hard, which doesn’t come naturally for me.

SHN: What are your thoughts on attracting new people to the industry?

LF: I think we have a great opportunity before us to raise awareness among future employees of not only the versatility of our industry, but also the impact that you can have on people’s lives. This industry requires people who want to make a difference, who have that passion for delivering care with a passionate heart. Really we want to be educating across multiple industries about the value and the rewards of working in the industry.

At Senior Lifestyle, we’re working within our recruitment team to reach out to not just health care fields, but also other industries that make senior housing work, such as hospitality. At Senior Lifestyle, we have a saying: Our success begins with our people. I think the way we live that statement out will also attract new people to our industry.

At the end of 2015, we launched our employee recognition program called Cheers so we can build encouragement into our culture. We also host an annual leadership conference, because it really gives us the chance to build into our employees, to recognize them for their successes they’ve had in their leadership this year, while continuing to provide them with education and support to become better than ever.

Also in 2015, we launched our leadership development and career path initiative, in which we identify current and future talent and invest in their skills and their development planning. Our leadership across the organization participated in leadership and self-assessment, combined with professional experts in coaching, at our annual leadership conference. This year, in 2016, our theme is Differentiate. I think that word really sums up what Senior Lifestyle is doing to attract new people. We’re differentiating ourselves from other senior housing companies in a lot of ways, but especially how we’re working to support our people and build them into better leaders.

SHN: Do you have any advice for future leaders in the industry?

LF: Staying the course. Persevering. For me, timing is everything, and it is worth the tenacity and the patience to get there. It’s easy to think, ‘I could do that job.’ Or, what I would do if I were in that role, because we want that immediate gratification. I would tell others to take the time to reflect, become more self-aware of your strengths and your areas for growth so that you can use every opportunity to learn and to grow to be your best.

I also try to keep in mind the way I represent myself to others. Each choice I make creates my own personal brand, and I want to be someone who represents the company I work for well. So I want to surround myself with people who have integrity, who are innovative and who are value-driven. That’s what i want for the team that I lead, so that’s the type of person that I want to be.

In health care as a whole, great talent is needed, and everyone can make a difference regardless of their title.

SHN: What is your vision for the senior living industry?

LF: I’m highly optimistic about the future of the industry overall. In the short term, there will likely be some hiccups as supply outpaces the demand in certain markets. However, due to the influx of new development, the older products will be more vulnerable, as newly developed buildings become in line with more relevant amenities or more homelike, resort-type designs. Over time, though, I expect that most well-run operations will rise to the top as residents and prospects will seek out the best-in-class services and care.

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

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