How Brookdale, Sonida Senior Living CEOs Embrace Change to Build Culture

Historic labor challenges. Occupancy recovery. New demands on resident engagement. If there is one unifying theme for senior living operators in the last two and a half years, it’s that change is inevitable.

Change is rarely without some hurdles — and that is especially true for leaders of two public and evolving senior living companies, Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE:BKD) and Sonida Senior Living (NYSE:SNDA).

“It’s hard to make sure that you’re focusing on what matters most,” Brookdale CEO Cindy Baier said during a National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) webinar Wednesday. “And yet, that is critically important because you need to move the business forward.”


But for Baier and Sonida CEO Kimberly Lody, success amid change is not only measured in metrics like average occupancy, but also in their ability to cultivate and foster culture, both broadly in their organizations and individually among staff.

While building culture starts from the top, Lody said senior living leaders must have humility and embrace vulnerability.

“I think that a mistake people make is wanting to have all the answers in these roles,” Lody said. “But your strength comes from being able to ask questions and by developing respect and collaboration within your team.”


Although occupancy and revenue recovery is of utmost importance for operators such as Brookdale, , Baier also noted that the pandemic has laid bare another hulking problem: a challenging labor market with a shallow labor pool.

“Attracting and engaging people is one of the things that is most important,” she said.

Beyond tackling recruitment and retention, Baier said Brookdale was focused on rebuilding its census across its portfolio of communities and growing revenue. Within the industry, Lody said change was “constant” and urged organizations to “be nimble” and adapt to internal and external pressures.

“Now that we are on the other side of the pandemic, it’s about rebuilding census and revenue,” Lody said. “It’s about leading through the current inflationary pressures that are impacting everyone.”

Lody said her greatest skill as a leader is her ability to rely on fortitude to remain focused, while Baier said her best quality is “a relentless pursuit of what is possible.”

“You have to be the rock,” Lody said. “You have to show conviction for your plan.”

Baier added, “You have to believe that you can overcome virtually any challenge.”

But senior living leaders never earn buy-in in a matter of hours —  it’s built from the ground up with each decision and each new hire. 

“The culture of an organization is created over many, many years,” Baier said. “It’s a dynamic, vibrant part of a business.”

Embracing change and getting staff support requires open dialogue, and collaborating with staff on changes before they occur can help minimize backlash or resistance to change, she added.

Baier recognized those efforts in her recently published book, “Heroes Work Here.” She wrote how she and the company’s corporate team put their heads together and developed “Hotel Brookdale,” an idea that involved an entire hotel floor in Chicago dedicated to the housing and care of Covid-positive Brookdale residents.

“It’s important to win both hearts and minds of people that you are trying to lead and they need to understand why the changes are necessary and what the thought process was,” Baier said.

In driving change, Baier said management teams must be aware how it could disrupt staff workflow and understand the amount of time it takes for new changes to take root.

Empathy and understanding is also crucial for senior living leaders in 2022, she noted.

“Even in the most positive change, there is a loss that occurs,” she said. “[Give] time for people to really understand how the change affects them; to go through the grief process, whether it’s loss of friends or loss of a process they were comfortable with.”

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