Changemakers: Steve Lindsey, CEO of Garden Spot Communities

Garden Spot Communities CEO Steve Lindsey is shaking up the traditional continuing care retirement community (CCRC). From embracing trends like fast-casual dining to innovations like hot air balloon rides for residents, Lindsey is a changemaker, setting an example for the whole industry from New Holland, Pennsylvania-based Garden Spot Village.

Garden Spot, a nonprofit CCRC serving more than 950 older adults, has also invested time and money in a cooperative living house as well as in Sycamore Springs, a “pocket neighborhood” consisting of 27 homes that are clustered together around a common green space. The concept has been a hit, but not every one of Garden Spot’s projects is as successful as Sycamore Springs — and that’s perfectly fine, according to Lindsey.

“One of the things that I talk about is that we need to build our failure resume,” Lindsey said. “The idea with failure is not just to leave it there but to fail forward. So that has become kind of one of our mantras at Garden Spot Communities.”

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Lindsey spoke about how he’s brought about change at Garden Spot and about his vision for how senior living needs to evolve to avoid being the option of last resort for the coming wave of aging baby boomers.

What are some changemaking efforts you’re most proud of?

One of the most important roles of a leader is to tend to the culture of their organization.

We have had a phenomenal experience here, at Garden Spot Communities, in creating a culture that is other-centered, that is service-oriented, that is purpose-driven for the people who live here and the people who work here.

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I have also worked very intentionally at creating a culture of innovation.

Garden Spot Communities is affiliated with the Mennonite church. Part of the Mennonite tradition is looking for a third way. When it seems like there’s only two choices, a binary decision, it’s that opportunity to step back and look for a third way. So, we have tried to do that pretty consistently, and tried to find new ways and different ways to tackle the challenges that come our way.

Our most recent program that we introduced, our cooperative living house, is an example of that. It’s a co-living experience for older adults, regardless of their level of income. They pay a month-to-month, sliding scale rent. They get to have an incredible life together, and an opportunity to avoid the isolation that oftentimes comes with aging and with aging and poverty.

Regarding the pace of change, we have heard some senior living providers describe their communities of more cruise ship, less speed boat. Which is Garden Spot Village?

As senior living organizations, we tend to kind of put all our stock into one big change effort. We wait, we tool around, we play with it, we implement a big change effort, and we meet resistance with that, and we have challenges with that. By the time we get done, the leaders in that situation tend to be bloodied, they tend to be worn out, they tend to be exhausted. So the natural response it to retreat from that and wait until all of the market forces pressure us into some other big change effort.

Rather than take that approach, what we try to do is have ongoing change.

It’s a culture where we’re always looking at small, incremental changes that we can implement along the way, not waiting for that one, big, monumental effort. I think what that does is it gets people accustomed to change. It gets people anticipating change, and looking forward to the benefits and the challenges that change brings.

So, when we do have some significant change event, people are ready for it. We have to be nimble, we have to be ready to implement change and not drag it out. Otherwise, we’re going to fall behind the curve.

Describe some other current changemaking efforts.

A number of years ago, we recognized that we wanted to be more environmentally friendly in the way we purchase our food, and that opportunity to think locally was really important to us for a variety of reasons, including wellness, healthy eating, environmental issues and so forth. Out of that effort, we ended up building an aeroponic greenhouse on our campus where we grow our own fresh, organic produce.

Sycamore Springs was also certainly something that came out of our desire to create community. I think we’ve realized that the suburban experiment post World War II just has not done a lot for our emotional health, our social wellbeing and so forth. A lot of us find ourselves living in isolation in those suburban landscapes. So, this kind of goes back to those small villages, those small neighborhoods, and recreates that sense of life that we used to value and used to know.

What other changes would you like to see in your organization or senior living at large?

I talk about the value of that Maslow’s hierarchy model, and how that’s something that we really focus on a lot in our planning.

It really is that idea that we all are yearning to be the best version of ourselves. I think unfortunately, we have a lot of organizations in senior living that tend to focus on those bottom levels of the hierarchy, that safety, and security, the health care aspect. Those are good, but I think that’s table stakes in today’s world. We have to have that. Our market is calling us to do more, to be more.

People who are coming to us now are not just buying health care for the future, but they’re buying a sense of community that will lead them to a better version of themselves.

It’s interesting, we think of the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy being self-actualization, but actually, Maslow, a few years before he died, added another level on top of that and he called that transcendence. It’s that idea that once you become the best version of yourself, the natural expression of that is to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and to share who you’ve become out with the world. I think that’s the perfect calling for senior living.

Our market is calling us to do more, to be more.

We have people who have lived long lives, who have gained life experience and, hopefully, some wisdom. Now, there’s that opportunity not just to sit on the front porch in a rocking chair, but to become engaged with the world around you and to share that wisdom, to share that life experience out into the world, and to make a difference. To cement your legacy, and to build your legacy, even, in this season of life.

So, I think that as senior living organizations, that’s our calling. Not just to provide trendy housing, not just to provide great dining. Those things are all important. But we need to actually create an organization that helps people to live their best selves. Frankly, I think if we do that, the future is extremely bright for life plan communities.

Do you thrive on change, or are you generally more cautious?

For better or for worse, I tend to get excited about change.

I tend to challenge the status quo, to look for new opportunities, and to push that out. One of the benefits is, I have a team of people around me in the organization who range from being adventurous to being a little more cautious, who are more anxious about significant change. It’s a good opportunity to have discussions, to really plan and work through those things.

But I think one of the things that keeps us from change, and one of the challenges in that regard, is the fear of failure. We have to be willing to take some calculated risks, some smart risks, and be willing to fail at times.

I think as leaders, we have to model that. Because it’s one thing to say to our people, “It’s okay to fail.” But if they never see us failing, and if we’re not transparent about our own failures, then it doesn’t ring true.

One of the things that I talk about is that we need to build our failure resume. We need to be willing to share that with others and talk about our failures.

The idea with failure is not just to leave it there but to fail forward. So that has become kind of one of our mantras at Garden Spot Communities, this idea of failing forward. Of doing the post-mortem, understanding why we failed, and then taking those learnings and using those to pivot and to be successful in the future.

Can you describe a time where you tried to bring change about and it didn’t work?

Yes.

The idea for Sycamore Springs goes back a lot of years. It started when, quite some time ago, we had heard about the co-housing movement. We went out and spent some time at a co-housing community in California, we learned about it, we were excited about it, we did some focus groups. It seemed like it would have some traction here in Lancaster County.

We got to the point where we were ready to do kind of a public introduction of the concept. So we had someone come from outside the area who was instrumental in bringing co-housing to our country. He came to do kind of an introductory public presentation. We had about 250 people show up for that presentation, which was phenomenal. And we thought, this is going to go great, we’re going to be awesome.

What happened was, in the middle of the presentation, he put up a slide on the screen that I’d never seen him use before. In fact, he later admitted he had never used it in one of his presentations. It was that picture from the ’60s or early ’70s of the psychedelic school bus, and all of the hippies lying around on top of the school bus smoking dope. His comment to our group was, “If this was you in the ’60s, you’re going to love co-housing now.”

Now, we’re in very conservative eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Amish country. And that was not that group of people in the ’60s. Frankly, for the next weeks and months, I got hate mail, I got phone calls. The message was the same, “Who do you think you are, bringing hippies and communists to Lancaster County?”

So, that was something that we were really excited about, and thought that was just going to be transformative for our own organization and for senior living, and it just completely blew up.

What happened out of that was — again, this concept of failing forward — we dropped back, we stopped the project from moving forward, and we spent a lot of time with the people who were in the focus groups that liked the idea, as well as the people that were really, really angry at us for even considering it.

Out of all of that, what we learned was, people really loved the architecture of co-housing. Of having that small neighborhood of homes, very walkable, around a common green space, and so forth. That was what eventually became Sycamore Springs, with some tweaks and adjustments, and some additional learning. But it was that complete, epic failure that ended up turning out to be one of our great successes.

What traits or skills help make you an effective changemaker? Can anyone become a changemaker?

I think there are certainly personality types that lend themselves towards being a changemaker, but it’s also a skillset.

One of the things, I think, that has helped me early on and throughout my career has been just a sense of curiosity. I’m always intrigued with new ideas, intrigued with the concept of the slow hunch, where you just collect ideas over the course of time, and let them bang around and interact with each other.

There’s a great quote that says, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

What it means is that really nothing is original, that all of the innovation, all of the artistry that we create comes on the shoulders of those who came before us. But to steal an idea, as opposed to just copying it, means that you take it on as your own and you break it down into the individual components. And you start to do a remix of those components, and add in some ideas from another area, you know? And create this whole mashup of something new. That’s where I think innovation comes from.

The other part of that is curating ideas. One of the things that we say here is you have to curate in order to create.

Whenever I’m out somewhere on a trip in another part of the country — or even in a new place, in a new experience here, locally — I always have my smartphone with me and I’m constantly taking pictures of the most ridiculous things. My family always gives me a hard time when we go on vacation because everybody else is taking pictures of the beautiful mountain range, and I’m taking pictures of the recycling container that they have, or the crosswalk at an intersection, and things like that.

I think that idea of curating and just allowing ideas, a space and a place, to grow and develop, has really helped me and helped our organization to become innovative and to become changemakers.

I think the other thing that really helps is a sense of empathy with the people that we work with and the people that we serve. My background is as a social worker, and so empathy is part and parcel to that profession. I think that is something that has really served me well over the course of time, of trying to place myself in the shoes of another person to see their perspective, to see the way they view the world and the way they view their circumstances around them, and then to shape solutions based on that.

And I think my faith, quite honestly, has been a huge part in who I am and how I see the world and becoming a changemaker.

How do you win other peoples’ support for changemaking efforts?

I think having an inclusive discussion is really important. The first step is really casting a vision, to compare and contrast the current reality with the future desired state. If you can cast a vision in a way that helps people to really begin to understand, to begin to see the benefits, to begin to see how it will make an impact on the lives of people, then that really creates the path of least resistance to getting there.

If you don’t do a good job of casting the vision, and you haven’t thought through that clearly, and you haven’t really done a good job of articulating that vision, and that future condition, or that future desired state, that it just gets all mucked up. Life gets muddled.

If we continue to design for older adults, to design for seniors, then we’re going to miss the mark entirely.

When we can create kind of a clear, logical path from where we are now to where we want to be, and then you invite people to create the solutions to make that happen, then it really starts to work. There’s always going to be resistance. So, we try to include people in the process, we try and have people be a part of creating that solution, that path towards the future.

Traditionally, I think what we’ve done, and one of the pitfalls that we’ve fallen into as changemakers is, we focus way too much energy on the resistors, and try to turn them around. If we can get hold of those pioneers and create the passion for moving forward in them, if we can cast a vision that gets that middle group of folks interested and intrigued and ready to move, then as an organization, we’re going to be able to move forward, and we’re going to be able to create a clear path to the future.

Some of those resistors will come along, and some of them will decide it’s not for them and they’ll go in different directions, and we have to be able to say, “That’s okay.”

How do you get ahead of the curve but not too far ahead of the market?

If we want to be leaders, and if we want to create a better future for ourselves and for our organizations, then we have to be pushing forward. But I think it’s also important to have a team of people around you that are part of the discussion.

There used to be this idea of the lone genius, the Albert Einstein, or the Pablo Picasso, or the Mozart who goes off into their music room, or off into their laboratory, and comes out two weeks later looking sleepy and disheveled, but has had this great a-ha moment, and this great new invention.

That happens sometimes, but more and more, we need to have an ecology of talent. We need to have all different types of people involved who are thinking about the opportunity and the vision in different ways and from different perspectives. I think that’s the key to moving forward at the right pace and making sure that we’re doing things at a reasonable pace.

I’m somebody that can tend to get out in front too far. I love to finish building the plane while it’s in the air. So, it’s important for me to have people who are willing to kind of stick the pin in the bubble occasionally, and go ahead and blow it up. Then we pick up the pieces and work forward.

Great organizations have always had that combination of talent. Walt Disney had Roy Disney, Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates had Paul Allen, and on and on and on. You always see those different types of people with different perspectives and different skillsets who help to flesh out the ideas and make sure that they’re market-ready before you go charging into the vast unknown. I think that’s really critical.

We’ve had some situations where we’ve gone into those efforts not sure if they would work or not. So we have tried to work very intentionally at building off-ramps. Before we even enter into something, saying, “Okay, here’s the first threshold. If we don’t meet that threshold, then we’ll consider the off-ramp. If we do meet that threshold, we’ll go on to the next one. When we get to that threshold, if we don’t meet that, we’ll look at the off-ramp.” And so forth.

That has, frankly, saved us a ton of time, a ton of money, and a ton of aggravation. Because there’s been things that just haven’t worked that we’ve stepped out of before it was a complete disaster.

Does senior living need more changemakers? Do you think the industry is too stuck in its ways?

I really do. I think we have to become a little more risk tolerant. I think we have to be willing to innovate. We have to be willing to create change.

Like I said, I think the world is changing so quickly around us. One of the things we believe is that we are in, and even moving deeper into, a post-demographic society. If we continue to design for older adults, to design for seniors, then we’re going to miss the mark entirely. Because of the connected world, and because of the internet, our typical demographic is now exposed to ideas from all over the world and all different age groups, and they’re getting excited about lots of different things.

So, those old demographic silos are sort of falling away. We have to realize, as senior living providers, that it’s not about designing for older people, it’s about designing for people. It’s not about creating community for older people, but it’s about creating community that we all want to live in. That’s dynamic, that’s exciting, that draws us forward, that helps us to be our best self.

If we can do that, then I think we’re going to be fine. But unfortunately, there are so many organizations that are relying on the old model and doing all of their benchmarking within senior living and kind of getting stuck in a rut.

The metaphor that I like to use in relation to that is the old outhouse. That back in the day, when outhouses were developed, they were state of the art. That was a thing that radically transformed public health. It got the sewage out of the streets and made such a huge difference.

But now, if somebody has a choice between an outhouse and a modern bathroom with indoor plumbing, they never choose the outhouse. It’s still fully functional, it still meets its intended purpose, but it’s never anybody’s first choice. We only go there if there’s absolutely no alternative.

If we stay stuck in our ways in senior living, if we continue to design for a demographic that is passing us by, then we’re going to be the outhouse of the future. We will be there for people when there’s no other alternative, and they will come to us, but the fact that people are moving into senior living when they’re 83, 85 years old, is indicative that we might already be missing the curve on that.

We know that basic human needs haven’t changed in thousands of years. But the way we meet those needs is changing very rapidly. So we have to be willing to keep up, to step up, to look over the horizon, and to anticipate the future, or we’re going to be in trouble.

I think our industry desperately needs changemakers to come forward and to cast a vision for a brighter tomorrow.

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