Ask the C-suite at any senior living provider to pinpoint the success of their operations and they will likely say it starts with a good executive director attached to a community.
Max Rheinhardt III, executive director at The Firs, an independent living community in Olympia, Washington operated by MBK Senior Living, fits that description. The Firs was struggling at the time that Rheinhardt took the helm, but today boasts the lowest turnover and highest staff satisfaction in MBK’s portfolio.
Irvine, California-based MBK owns and manages 33 senior living communities consisting of approximately 3,800 units in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado.
Rheinhardt began his career as a maintenance director for an assisted living and memory care community and was at a crossroads when his executive director, Wilma Jo Flaherty, asked him about his career goals, Rheinhardt told Senior Housing News.
“It took her to even put it on my radar,” he said. “She showed a belief in what I could do, which got me psyched.”
Rheinhardt was recently named to Argentum’s “Senior Living Leaders Under 40” list, but he defers the honors to his staff at The Firs.
“I view my job as being an offensive lineman, clearing the way for my running back,” Rheinhardt said. “My team is the running back. I’m just the lineman plowing the way.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.
You started your career as a maintenance director. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career as an executive director?
That moment didn’t hit me until my executive director at TK TK Retirement, Wilma Jo Flaherty, brought it up. It took her to even put it on my radar. She showed a belief in what I could do, which got me psyched.
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At the time, I was a single dad with three kids and she asked me if I planned to support my family being a maintenance director or if I thought about doing something else.
What was your career background before senior living?
My previous profession was working with juvenile foster boys who had behavioral or developmental issues that didn’t make them good fits for foster home placement. Most of that job entailed documenting and care, but for youth. I was already accustomed to writing things down.
It took a leader to see that potential in me, ask if I wanted to, and cultivate it. It’s what I try to do now. I want to identify talent, ask what their long range goals are and see what I can do to help them along the way.
Does identifying that potential start with the interview process, or does it reveal itself later?
We look to identify that, as well as their goals, during the interview process — does a person have that drive to succeed and move up the ladder.
If you aren’t as vested in their careers as they are, do they even want to work for you? If they’re not interested in being motivated, are they the right fit for you? As an executive director, you’re also assuming control of a building with a team in place, and there’s a lot that goes into identifying individuals on a team who have the drive within themselves to succeed, and to help them with their goals.
What were the strengths and weaknesses of the staff when you assumed control of The Firs?
The Firs was on the radar of the MBK executive team because there were several challenges that needed to be addressed. There were ongoing renovations that were running behind schedule, residents who were frustrated by that, issues between department heads and the home office was getting calls from the community.
What did you implement to address these issues?
It takes time to change the culture, but we were able to do that through communication and transparency. I can communicate all I want but if it’s not transparent, it won’t be effective.
One of our best practices at MBK is to do morning standup meetings with our team members, directors and staff alike. I felt we had to have a separate morning meeting with our department heads to lay out our objectives for the day. Everybody on the director level needed to be on the same page.
The most effective thing I’ve done is take my directors out for lunch every month. People communicate more naturally over food. You get to know each other and recognize that everyone is their own person, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and you can help each other with the shortcomings.
It helped build camaraderie and we still do it.
What is the workforce culture like at The Firs today?
I’m fortunate to have the lowest employee turnover and highest staff satisfaction [among MBK’s communities]. We don’t do a ton of hiring but when we do bring someone new on board, one of the first things they do is pick where we’re going to eat.
We tend to overcomplicate things. We roll out the red carpet for prospective residents. But we also need to do that with the existing workforce and to recruit the employees we want. I will be the first to tell you The Firs is not successful because of me; it is because of my team.
You have an employee recognition program that has been adapted across the MBK portfolio. How did this come into fruition?
It was a question posed at our annual corporate meeting. There was a previous program established that not well received. I and a couple other executive directors felt that, since each community has issues that are unique to only that property, we did a couple conference calls and developed a guide.
It’s been well received here at The Firs. One thing we do as part of the program is an annual spirit week. The staff dresses up in costume and the residents pick the top three costumes, and those staffers get prizes. Last year, the top prizes were an Apple Watch and a laptop.
You’re also an executive director mentor for MBK? What was your inspiration for that?
I felt I owed it to the people coming up behind me to help them, the way I was given a chance by those above me. MBK has a mentorship program for all director level positions, and we also have an executive director-in-training program now. It’s rolling out the red carpet for our future directors.
I was asked what I thought was important for future executive directors to learn, and I said [trainees] need to have an understanding of how each department operates. I recommended suggested amounts of time for trainees to immerse themselves in the different departments. You have to know the basics of every department because if someone doesn’t show up, guess who’s doing it?
What did you address to get The Firs’ renovations back on schedule and maintain operations during the remodeling?
I realized we needed to have regular construction updates for our residents. We held all-resident meetings at the beginning of each week, updating them on the timeline and the affected areas of the building. This also gave them a forum to raise any concerns, and allow us to address those and educate our residents on why we were making certain renovation decisions. We would do door-to-door check-ins and updates on what was happening the following day.
MBK’s Vice President of Development, Roger Green, and his team was responsible for getting the renovations back on schedule. They were good about updating us, and we could pass that along to our residents.
Operationally, we increased our census as renovations were going on — we were above 95% and increasing throughout the process — and wound up being fully occupied shortly after renovations were completed.
How does The Firs stand out among its competition?
Our market is saturated with new construction and operators. This is my first all-independent living community, and we market ourselves as the best value for your dollar. We’re not the cheapest, we’re not the most expensive. We’re gonna treat you like your family and give you everything we can, because ultimately, that’s what we are.
What workforce pressures are you dealing with in your market?
In Washington State, we have a gradual increase in the minimum wage. It caps out at $13.50 per hour [in January 2020].
I made a commitment to myself to sit above minimum wage at every position, no matter what. But a fifty-cent hike in wage is not ultimately what helps to retain workers. It’s the workplace culture. Our residents are the biggest cheerleaders of our staff, and vice versa.