Doris-Ellie Sullivan is President of Retirement Unlimited, Inc., a senior living operator with a 21-community portfolio in Virginia and Florida. She came to the senior living industry by way of the U.S. Armed Services where she was a nurse.
Her history of service and dedication to those who need help have guided her throughout her time in senior living. Now, at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sullivan reflects on her journey and what it means to make change.
How have you changed as a leader since starting in this industry?
I came into senior living from the military, so that was quite a big difference. Empathy and servant leadership is definitely at the core of my leadership style.
The discipline and systems came across from the military, but I think it was more of the residents-centered focus – believing in the mission. Of course, our mission at Retirement Unlimited is to provide a lifestyle that our residents have earned and deserve. I think it’s a different mission. I think that you have to evolve, and that’s what sets me apart is evolving and always being open to learning.
Obviously, we at SHN think of you as a Changemaker, but do you see yourself that way — are you always excited to drive change?
I hope that folks see me as a changemaker. Change is always tough, even when it’s good for you. Everybody is always challenged with change. I think that change is necessary. We’ve all seen it in some of the things that have happened over the last few years, whether it’s the pandemic or the economy or the new capital markets and the workforce challenges.
You have to put changes in place to evolve, to meet the resident, to meet the team member, to meet the community, and to meet the capital markets at where they are now.
What are some ways you think senior living needs to change in the next 5 years?
One of the areas I would hope that senior living would start to collaborate more — I come from a skilled nursing facility. As most people know, we sold our portfolio in 2021. What I saw in the skilled nursing facility world, there was a lot more collaboration because there was a common agenda, whether it was regulatory or reimbursement, whether it was state or federal with CMS.
I don’t see a lot of transparency and collaboration. There are groups that are starting to form. The panels and the folks that I’ve met at Argentum and ASHA have helped start to develop those informally. I think that we need to collaborate and unite to tell the senior living story as far as recruiting. Senior living has got to be as exciting as going to work for Google when you graduate from university or tech college or community college or high school.
I still think there’s a big disconnect when our team, as motivated and as excited and bright eyed as they are, are out at those recruiting fairs. If there’s a senior living company and there’s a Google, I’m sure they’re gravitating to Google.
As you look across the rest of the senior living industry, do you think that it’s changing fast enough to keep up with the times?
Everybody needs to extend grace to each other, and everybody has just come through and is still experiencing the pandemic, and then piling on economic pressures and workforce. I think everybody just needs to evolve, but there’s also a nice balance of getting back to the basics. Sometimes there’s too much going on. Everybody asks us about our culture. We’re known for having very low turnover, and I think culture starts with systems and discipline.
Our customer coming through the doors is completely different. Part of that change is that we started last year customer-journey-mapping at all of our communities, because your customers are curating their experience, whether we like it or not. Going through a customer journey mapping, looking at other industries, I think senior living needs to focus on that.
Can you talk about a time when you tried to execute a change and things didn’t go according to plan? How did you pivot, and what did you learn as a leader?
So, that’s one of my five interview questions that I use when I interview for a leadership role. A great example is the pandemic. What works well for RUI is we never ask anybody to do anything we weren’t willing to do.
We are a very roll-up-your-sleeves type of leadership environment. During the pandemic, we did not close our home office. All of our leaders were in the communities, balancing the weekends, giving our community leadership time off. I think we just adapted. We would never ask you to do anything that we weren’t willing to do.
Any initiative, any new rollout, any new compliance, Everybody has bought into that because it starts from the top down and the bottom up.
How do you think about timing, so that your company can innovate without getting so far ahead of the market that a new idea doesn’t work?
We launched the MyRUI app in 2019 before the pandemic. We also partnered up with a lot of companies to prepare for the pandemic, not knowing that the pandemic was coming. I don’t think you can ever be early. I think innovation equates to adoption: What is the adoption at the community level? What is the adoption at the resident and family level? What is the adoption to the general public?
I think that if you can create adoption and not distraction in anything that you’re innovating, whether it’s AI or ChatGPT or some new software product or some hardware or some new system.
One of the things that we’ve learned with the MyRUI app — and with any innovation that we’ve put out there — is that it’s not a one-time, “Let’s have this big party and launch it.” It’s every three months, you have to almost do a soft launch to keep the adoption rates going.
More showing us as shoulder-to-shoulder versus telling people that it’s going to make your lives easier, that is a big difference that we have at RUI.
Changemakers tend to be risk-takers. Do you agree with that statement? How do you describe your own appetite for risk?
From a resident side, I’m risk averse. I’m a big compliance person. As far as innovation and leadership risk-taking. A lot of folks have used the word disruptor, I like changemaker better than disruptor.
For example, at RUI, we don’t have a DEI program. We don’t have a dedicated DEI person, but you can look at our leadership page, you can look within our communities, and we are a DEI campaign. We’ve just gone to our core values of hiring the best people with no judgment, and it just turned out that way.
I think that’s not focusing on, “I’m going to be a disruptor or I’m going to be a changemaker,” but focusing on your core values and what your mission is; and figuring out how you can be efficient with your systems and with everybody’s time. It then evolves, and I think that’s where the magic happens.
If you could change one thing about the senior living industry, what would it be?
I would love to tell all the seniors and all the families out there that the socialization, the care, the love, and even without the fancy signature programs and the fancy buildings that are within the community walls of most senior living, that it’s okay.
If the world could see inside the senior living walls at RUI and at a lot of our ‘co-opetition,’ out there, they would see we are providing socialization and purposeful living.
That would really kind of resolve a lot of issues, whether it was workforce development, whether it was a census, or whether it was the delicate mission versus margin if everybody’s eyes could look at senior living the way we within the walls see senior living.
What is a word of advice for managing resistance to change?
When we’re launching a new initiative, that’s going to have resistance to change, I think the first thing is having a very open and transparent conversation.
We actually start a lot of our initiative launches with, “Everybody, put your defensive shoulders down. Everybody, just take a deep breath.”
Everybody says, ‘A great team is a team that works well together.’ I think that it comes from trust, and then empowering what that change is that everybody has a piece of that to launch or to follow through on.
It’s just being transparent and being open, but also being humble and open. I have changed systems and the way we’ve done things as we went through the pandemic. I think there was a lot of good that came out of the pandemic.
I was working as a CNA in our Richmond building and saw the way they felt that the assignment should be structured. We changed our whole staffing pattern because our CNAs obviously know better than the directors of nursing or the regional nurses or the chief clinical as far as efficiencies. I think that if they become part of the solution, they won’t be part of the problem.
Can you talk about how you see the need for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the industry, and what you are doing to drive change in this regard?
I am a female of Asian descent and started this business in the 1990s. I and several other women out there had the great opportunity of being on an all-female panel a month ago with some other pioneers like Shelley Edsen from Sonata Senior Living and Sevy Petras from Priority Life Care.
It’s just important to find the right candidate for the position. If everybody has that focus and they’re looking for the right candidate with no judgment, I think that that blossoms into opportunity. As I said, we looked for the right candidates and created a very diverse home office, a very diverse community operations side, and a very diverse region.
That comes from trust and that comes from everybody understanding and being kind to each other but just being open. It is interesting.
We have people from every facet of life in our home office. It’s a beautiful thing to see everybody collaborating, and working well, and I think a lot of that is because of respect.
I would hope that it comes out in what we show. When people are talking about DEI, but then you see their leadership page and it doesn’t look like DEI, then it’s hard for the line staff or the regional staff to believe it. I think that it’s almost like one of those old adages: “See what I do, not what I say.”
2023 is shaping up to be a year of growth and evolution for many senior living operators. In what way is your organization/company changing for the times?
I’ve heard it a lot, I’m not the first one to say it, is the balance of mission versus margin. I think that for us, we are focused like everybody else, but one of the things that we’re focused on is we have a lot of great young leaders who are dynamic.
We are seeking out growth to ensure that our young, talented rock stars have opportunities to continue to grow within our organization and don’t need to look outside for professional development.
I think that we’re really focused on internal growth from the community level, to the regional level, to the home office level. I think that we’re looking at, I think probably one of our biggest is mission over margin and making sure that there’s a balance with that.