Tips from the C-Suite: Climbing Senior Living’s Executive Ladder

At a time when the senior living industry is facing hiring headwinds and a potential shortage of future leaders, top executives are working hard to improve career growth opportunities for up-and-coming managers. To look at how best to increase these opportunities, it’s best to take a page from the books of the industry’s best, who discussed the subject in a recent panel moderated by Senior Housing News at the 2016 Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference.

Executives from multi-state memory care provider Silverado, real estate investment trust (REIT) HCP, Inc. (NYSE: HCP), and the newly created Vitality Senior Living discussed how they advanced their careers from entry-level positions to the c-suite, including the lessons they learned along the way and tips for others to move up the executive ladder.

Taking Calculated Risk 


Senior living leaders at the top say they didn’t get to where they are without taking some risks. Whether it’s jumping from sales to operations like the current president and chief operating officer of Silverado, Shamim Wu, did, or going solo with your own brand like Chris Guay, CEO of the newly-formed Vitality Senior Living, reward is often a result of risk.

“Always step up into a position that makes you uncomfortable,” Wu advised while discussing her career advancement.

While noting that change is never comfortable, Wu underscored the importance of understanding this and leaning into the discomfort when stepping into a new role. Wu, who was only named to her new role a few months ago, has always looked at her career with the idea that she could make an impact in whatever position she held and timed her risks accordingly.


“Growing your career doesn’t mean you need to leave the company you’re with if you can make an impact at the organization,” Wu said.

Being loyal and making an impact in one position is essential for overall career growth, says Wu, who looks for potential hires who have remained with a company for a number of years.

“Don’t ever leave a job within two years,” she warned. “I was patient enough to stay in this job and make as much impact [as I could].”

Perhaps no one understands this idea of calculated risk better than Justin Hutchens, who was named chief investment officer at HCP, Inc. this month after joining the company last year as executive vice president.

After starting his senior living career in regional marketing business development, he moved to regional operations, national operations and finally to the finance side in the REIT space, with the experience to back his transitions into new roles. He previously served as CEO and president of National Health Investors (NYSE: NHI).

“Be selective in your risk,” Hutchens said. “This is a competitive industry. It’s important to be selective and smart about your risks. Don’t move too fast. It’s calculated risk. … There’s a right time to take that risk.”

Having held leadership roles at some of the biggest players in the industry, he says keeping the respect of those companies as he moved into new roles has been key in his success.

Chris Guay, who recently charted out new territory by launching his own company earlier this year, agreed. Guay’s expertise in the space stems from his years of working in the industry, most recently as northeast division president for Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD). Timing his move to develop his own senior living company was calculated, he said.

“In all of our recent moves, none of us had to move,” Guay said, referencing the recent transitions of his peers into new leadership roles. “If you are really thinking of career advancement, don’t look to jump where you will end up in disparity. Calculate it right.”

The Power of Mentorship

One of the biggest challenges the industry faces is hiring qualified workers. Mentorship plays a huge role in grooming the next line of senior living leaders to combat this issue, and top executives frequently point to influential mentors that shaped their careers along the way. Being mindful of bringing others up with your own success is of the utmost importance, according to the panelists.

“This business is built on relationships,” Guay said. “Don’t forget that. As you get success, pass it on. There’s a line you cross from mentee to mentor. Find those lines to pass on knowledge and make the industry better. Teach others, share and collaborate.”

Amid career transitions, promotions and even shifts from different parts of the industry, hiring the right ream of people becomes all the more important with increased responsibility. Hutchens, who has transitioned from operations into finance of senior living in his recent move to HCP, knows this first hand.

“As you move along in your career, the further you go, the less direct impact you have and the more you rely on others around you,” Hutchens said. “It’s critical to have people that have skills and abilities beyond yours. …It’s critical to your success as you take on more and more responsibility.”

Wu’s commitment to being a mentor goes both ways, she said, particularly to influence the number of women in leadership position across the industry. What she calls a two-way mentorship is a pathway to bring others up with her, as her mentors have helped her in the past.

“It’s the only way to build bench strength to carry this industry for the next 50 years,” Wu said. “Sixty-six percent of the global workforce is women. …Less than 10% of women are in leadership roles. The only way to get that tide to turn is to bring up women in the industry, because the men are already doing to pay it forward. The power of the two-way mentorship will impact the industry.”

Written by Amy Baxter

Photo by Argentum

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