In rising through the industry, Shamim Wu helped shape some of senior living’s largest and most influential operators. As COO of Eclipse Senior Living, she is leading the charge toward creating a more diverse workforce while building a multi-brand, tech-forward operating platform, earning her the status of senior living changemaker.
Lake Oswego-based Eclipse was founded in late 2017, taking over management of about 80 former Elmcroft Senior Living properties. Today, the company manages a portfolio of about 100 communities, broken out across the Elmcroft by Eclipse and Embark by Eclipse brands.
We spoke with Wu about the gamechanging opportunity to build a new operating company, what it takes to lead through the “messy middle” of change, and why health insurers might be the biggest senior living owners in the next decade.
Describe some changes you’ve driven, within your company or the industry?
Having a really diverse team, both in terms of gender and race. I would probably rank that as No. 1.
The team that we formed at Eclipse Senior Living is a powerful team made up of men and women across four generations, across almost every ethnicity and race that you can think of. To create that has been probably my proudest moment.
Thinking a little bit more about culture creation and what we’re doing within our own environment, things like unlimited PTO [paid time off]. We don’t just encourage people to have a life outside of work, we almost demand it. Heavy investment in enterprise technology systems that are integrated and allow for real time visibility is another – saving our teams the time from entering duplicate information.
We want our team to be emboldened to co-create the culture that we collectively want. We really believe that culture is a living, breathing thing, and in order to stay competitive, we have to be willing to change it. So [Eclipse CEO Kai Hsiao] and I and our entire executive team make it a point to say, “You are part of the culture. And if there’s something that you feel strongly about or that you don’t like, tell us and be part of the change.”
Then, there is a daily intensity that I drive. We call it positive intensity, where we say you have to be more nimble, and you have to be more into details in real time. You can’t wait for a month to finish to change the course of your performance, because sometimes by the end of the month, it’s too late.
So you’re driving operational change constantly — micro-changes, almost.
Yeah, and it’s interesting, because when I say positive intensity it always gets people’s attention and they say, “Tell me what that means.” It means a couple of things.
One is that positivity and intensity are not mutually exclusive. People have this notion that if you’re driving an intense, performance-driven culture, it must be a beat-down culture. And I think if you were to talk to 10 people who work with us, they would say, “We have the most fun.” We believe that the best way to motivate people is to give people the tools to make them successful but also to lift them up in positivity to get there.
Sometimes, when I hear other folks talk about, ‘We’re going to get back to the basics,’ I ask the question, ‘Why did you move away from the basics in the first place?’
It also sets the tone for focusing on the basics of our business. If you’re focusing on these few things every single day with passion, before you know it, the week’s been a success, the month’s been a success, the quarter’s been a success … Sometimes, when I hear other folks talk about, “We’re going to get back to the basics,” I ask the question, “Why did you move away from the basics in the first place?”
So even though there’s all this data at our fingertips, we only extrapolate the data that helps us drive those few basic items and helps up drive our mantra of positive intensity every single day.
What are those basic items?
Occupancy, service delivery, associate experience, in no particular order. On some days one might take a precedence. On other days, others might take a precedence.
Let’s dive into the workforce diversity issue, which is so important.
I believe so passionately as a woman, and as a woman of color, that I’m now in a position where I can create the change that I want to see in the world.
So, if there are two candidates that from an education, experience standpoint are alike, my team and I will consciously hire the person that’s underrepresented, because we don’t know that they’re ever going to get a chance again. That’s the reality of the world we live in today. I think that we are evolving massively as a society, but the reality is that we can’t guarantee that they’re going to get that same opportunity to step into a leadership role somewhere else. So, we’re going to be the ones to give it to them and set the precedent.
I just know, without a shadow of a doubt, that we are and we will be a better organization for that decision to be hyper-aware of unconscious bias. It’s something that we talk about in our world, within our team. “What sort of unconscious bias may exist as we head into sourcing this position, and how do we overcome that and make sure that we represent underrepresented communities on our team?”
Do you think that the industry can do better to get more diverse applicant pools to begin with?
Absolutely. The first way is to have a leadership team that looks and feels like the people you want. People want to watch shows, they want to work for companies, and they want to be around people who they feel represent them, who they can relate to.
But also, that diversity goes out to different types of educational institutions. As we look down the barrel of this 1.2 million worker shortage, [future workers are] not all going to be college educated. How do we start getting into community colleges, not just focusing on those four year university partnerships, but community colleges, vocational schools, and even high schools, because for some communities, college may not be the option right out of high school. But getting folks to join an organization where they can learn entry-level work, start to grow, and then maybe provide them with tuition reimbursement and help them get the education they want, that then creates a loyalty from an associate’s standpoint that you can’t put a dollar amount on.
Eclipse is on the leading edge of another change in the industry, which is the multi-brand strategy. How is that working?
We’ve seen best practices in brand stratification in other areas, like hospitality. You’ve got Hilton Hotels, which has a certain cachet because of the Hilton brand. But within that umbrella, they have 30 distinct brands that appeal to a variety of different groups of people.
I think retail has also done a really great job. I’m a 90s kid, so The Gap brand resonated with me at a fairly young age. As I’ve gotten married and had children, when I make a decision to get a pair of jeans for my husband, I’m going to go to Banana Republic, because I know the Gap brand. I’m loyal to it. Whereas if I’m shopping for my kids, I’m going to go to Old Navy because it’s a brand that I know has the quality of Gap, but it is marketed and speaks to me as a mother and appeals to my children as 11 and 9 year olds. I think that’s what you see happening with senior housing as baby boomers are coming into the space.
They’re a generation that we know makes decisions based on needs, on price, but has values based on wants. And we’re going to have to create brands that speak to both of those things, that offer more amenities, that speak to different income levels and different acuity levels.
Brand stratification is really the only way. You have not only a 12-year age gap [between the oldest and youngest boomers], which is almost a generation in and of itself, but baby boomers pride themselves on customization. And so having niche brands that speak to each of those cohorts within the generation is going to be key.
Do you think more operators are coming around to doing a multi-brand play?
It feels very buzzwordy right now. There are a few operators that are doing it.
Do you think more should be?
We can’t wait five years to start stratifying brands. That has to be in as this new generation [of residents] is coming into the space. By the time the cohort is at its peak … it’s going to be too late for us to start figuring out how we evolve our business and breaking out brands then.
You’re not just talking about giving communities different names, but creating more strategic differentiation.
Exactly. It’s not just about location or name. It’s about what’s happening inside that community that is distinctive enough for a certain niche, but belongs to a brand where you know that you can rely on certain things.
It can be stratified on a multitude of things. Acuity, product type, suburban versus urban, income. It’s really around, what is the mission and the intent of the brand?
We’re primarily focused on brand stratification as we look at the axis of income and acuity. That may evolve and change, but that’s how we’re positioning ourselves. We created two middle market brands, because we believe, and the data supports it, that the middle market is severely underserved.
We’ve currently broken out a middle market assisted living and memory care brand, and a middle market independent living brand. As we grow the company, we will likely have brands that speak to higher incomes, higher acuity, lower acuity.
Do you agree with the prediction that a major insurer might be the biggest senior living owner in 10 years?
They’re going to be able to integrate acute care with a social model, which is what we offer. They’re basically going to be able to keep people within their network. I think they’re going to say, “We know that if we keep them in an assisted living-like environment, it’s going to cost us exponentially less than if we keep them in the acute environment just to do a lot of the same things.” So it’s about them expanding their network and cutting out the middleman that we think is what ultimately is going to happen.
Do you thrive on change or consider yourself more cautious by nature?
That’s what I love the most about my job, is that no two days are ever alike. If I were ever in an environment where change wasn’t embraced, it just wouldn’t work for me.
Can you describe a time when you tried to implement a change or were part of a change that didn’t go well?
I took a job that looked great on paper. Everything about it checked every box I had. The people seemed nice and the product had great equity in the market. And when I got there, it felt like an organ transplant rejection.
If I were ever in an environment where change wasn’t embraced, it just wouldn’t work for me.
I don’t hold anyone accountable but myself. It was the biggest lesson of my career to trust my instinct, because sometimes just because things look good on paper doesn’t mean they’re going to translate well into reality. And I’m grateful for the opportunity because, like I said, it ultimately taught me the biggest lesson of my career that I’ve carried with me since, and that’s to trust my instinct.
Were there specific things that you were trying to do or change, which were rejected?
When I look at my leadership style, it’s very data- and analytically driven. There’s a lot of focus daily on metrics that really matter to our business. So in addition to that daily intensity, there’s also a reporting component that has to come. You have to be able to give visibility and transparency into the things that you’re trying to affect change with. People have to be willing to accept results and accept that visibility and embrace them to do better. And so I think that there are just key components of my leadership style that are unique and aren’t for everybody.
What traits or skills help make you an effective changemaker?
Flexibility and being open to the zig-zag. Realizing that no two days are ever going to be the same, and that frankly, you don’t want to create the same experience for your team year after year.
The second thing is being open to constructive feedback. I’ve had people courageous enough to give me honest feedback that has changed the trajectory of my career.
The third skill that I think is important during times of change is staying committed to doing what’s right versus what’s easy. I think people often go for the path of least resistance, whether it’s avoiding a hard conversation or keeping things as they’ve been running, not wanting to rock the boat. But I think being able to do what’s right, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable, you have to be willing to do if you want to navigate change. Sometimes it takes a long time. But if you can stick with the messy middle, it’s totally worth it.
What about getting the timing right? You need to be ahead of the curve, but you can’t be too far out ahead?
I think the key component to speed is cascade of information. You can do something quickly, as long as you’ve cascaded it appropriately.
In our organization, we move incredibly quickly, but it’s because if Kai and I make a decision on something, I’m turning around right after that call and I’m calling my team and I’m saying, “Okay guys, here’s what we want to do. What do you think?” And my team is going to be the best place to say, “We need to get the team on a call right now.” Or, “Let’s wait until tomorrow, next week, the 15th, once we’ve gotten through this other milestone.”
But if they decide that we’re going to do this today, we then immediately turn around and get on a call with the regional leadership and say, “Here’s what we’re thinking. This is getting rolled out effective tomorrow by X, Y, and Z.”
Then they have the next 12 hours or so, because of time zones and where communities are located and span of control, to get on a call with their team. Our organization can make a change within 24 hours as long as we’ve cascaded the information. Where it feels chaotic is when everybody’s been communicated to except the community team and they’re feeling the brunt of the change.
What about if it’s you and the executive team deciding on a change. For example, would it have been too soon to stratify brands 10 years ago?
Yes. I think 10 years ago stratifying brands would not have resonated with the silent generation. And I think 10 years ago, with less consolidation, companies were smaller, and therefore didn’t have to stratify in the way in which they do today. I think today, with [so much] inventory out there, and with the combination of a more selective, a more customized generation coming of age, those are the things that are forcing us to stratify.
Even if you think the timing is right, there must be some courage involved in actually executing a change?
I call it courage in leadership, having the courage in leadership to rip the Band-Aid off. I feel like I just used two cliches in there, but really, it’s going boldly forth and saying, “Here’s how we’re going to do it.” There is a trigger effect that has to happen, where somebody has to have the courage to say, “We’re doing it. We’re making a decision.” Even if it turns out to be a decision that we have to tweak.
Like I tell my team all the time, “I’d rather you make a decision and it be the wrong decision than no decision at all.” No decision at all is the worst thing. Because if you make a decision, we can manage around that decision. But we can’t manage around no decision.
Are there mentors or role models in senior living or other industries who helped you become a changemaker?
The first senior living company I worked for was Summervile Senior Living, which was started by Granger Cobb. And he used to always say that if you take care of your people first, the P&L falls into place. So much of what I learned from him in those formative years has come back to me in the last year and a half as we have grown Eclipse Senior Living.
The second person that comes to mind is Justin Hutchens. He’s somebody that at a young age was hyper-aware of his privilege as a white male executive, and utilized that privilege to empower women and people of color at a time when that really wasn’t commonplace.
Who I am today is in big part of Kai. I will tell you that Kai is somebody who also doesn’t see gender. He took a chance on me 10 years ago as a fairly young leader and gave me more responsibility than I’m sure I was qualified for at the time. But instead of giving me the responsibility and walking away, he’s been there every step of the way, leading by example and always mapping out how we should be thinking about things.
I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked for people and candidly, for men, that have used their knowledge and their privilege and their power to uplift me. And it’s allowed me to be in a position today where the vast majority of my team is women. They’ve given me the chance to develop the kind of team that I always thought about in a utopia.
And my team, I learn more from my team than I do probably from most people, because they’re not afraid to push back. I can guarantee you, I’m never the smartest person in the room, and I’m a better person for it because I’ve surrounded myself with people that are smarter than I am.
A lot of our conversation has been about the need for greater diversity. Can you speak about the business imperative to make this change in the industry?
I think people have to let go of the business norms and the social norms as they’ve known them.
I will tell you that if you were to ever be a fly on the wall when we’re at meetings, I often quote hip-hop music. I’m a hip-hop fan and I have been since I was a child. There was a time you couldn’t quote hip-hop lyrics in any business context. We have to speak a different language than what we were speaking 10 years ago if we want to be able to recruit millennials and generation Z. And so it’s not about them speaking our language or reaching out to us in a way that makes us feel comfortable. It’s about being authentic to ourselves and realizing that we have more in common with other generations than we realize. Especially as the millennials have come into the workforce, the younger millennials, I will sometimes make a joke if I’m quoting a rap song that, “You probably don’t even know that, right? It’s Tupac.”
And sometimes, they don’t. But sometimes they do, and they’re like, “I can’t believe that I work for a company where the COO is quoting Tupac in a meeting.” And we always keep it appropriate; we’re not using expletives and profanities. But being able to draw parallels with what we’re doing to what they’re doing and how it relates to them, we just think is so key.
I read that Beyoncé took a meeting, and she said, no one on this team looks like me, and she walked out. That shows the power of a diverse team.
I love that she did that, and that she had the boldness to be able to walk out of that meeting. Because today, 15 years into my career, I would do the exact same thing.
Do you think the senior living industry is ready for all the changes that are coming?
No, I don’t.
I actually think that the biggest challenge that operators are going to have is in their ability to change their culture. I think that culture, especially for the operating companies that have been around for a long time, has become a crutch and a reason to not change, because what worked for them 20 years ago from a cultural standpoint is really an excuse to stay stagnant.
I think that the winners are going to be either new operators that have a more nimble culture, or the operating companies where the senior level leadership, or the founding leadership, insists on the culture changing, because otherwise that won’t happen.
And culture is really hard to change, isn’t it?
It’s actually not a hard thing to do if everybody is committed to doing it. And that’s the biggest challenge. A high percentage of current [senior living] CEOs are of retirement age. I would tell you that unless they are willing to dictate the change, [they need to] hire people that will drive that change and support those people that are driving the change. That’s going to be really the next imperative, because they either have to lead, or they need to get out of the way.