Radiant Senior Living Chief Operating Officer and Co-Owner Jodi Guffee is proud of her time in the senior living industry, even though she has in the past worried that she didn’t belong there.
Yet she has proven herself a leader and a disruptor and then some, from developing employee “care plans” to spearheading CRM research that is changing the way Radiant does business. Now with nearly a quarter century under her belt with Radiant Senior Living, Guffee ponders how change happens and what will change next.
How have you changed as a leader since starting in this industry?
I think the first thing that comes to mind is humility. I was a fairly young professional right out of college and took on some significant leadership roles right out of the gate. At the age of 21, you really don’t know that much. Through the years, I’ve really learned a great deal from my own mistakes.
We have a philosophy in our company, taken from a chapter in Greg Bell’s Water The Bamboo, called “Sometime’s It’s Messy in the Garden.” There are times when you have to clean stuff up and replant the seed and start watering it again so that you can develop deeper roots. That way, when the crops grow, they’re solid and ready to grow well.
This philosophy helps me be humble enough to recognize that I don’t have all the answers. I am always seeking to learn something new so that I can then translate that into helping others.
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 think it’s called Imposter Syndrome. For the longest time, I was like, “No, I’m not qualified to talk about that. Why do they keep asking me to do these things?” Pretty soon, I had enough people around me say, “No, you really do know about this stuff, and look at this, that, and the other thing.”
We recently were a part of a case study with our CRM, Welcome Home. The study featured how we at Radiant Senior Living managed to do away with expensive, third-party aggregators through analyzing our data, streamlining our processes, and training. Those efforts combined with our utilization of our partners for SEO, advertising, virtual sales assistants, and our CRM really combined to create real success. It really felt great.
I’ve been talking about that lately as being a real disruptor and being able to do away with those big aggregators that, as we all know, are paying a whole lot for advertising to outpace you. When you pull away from them, it’s kind of a leap of faith. What we’ve been studying over the past several years shows that we shouldn’t need them.
Those are pretty exciting results for disrupting what had previously been considered a normal part of doing business in this industry.
What are some ways you think senior living needs to change in the next 5 years?
I think we need to embrace the younger generations and how we approach employment career opportunities beyond jobs. I really enjoy going into high schools, into their career fairs, and any opportunity I get to ask them questions. What’s a driver? What’s a motivator? What matters to you? I think something really interesting that’s come up repeatedly is that in these next generations, their No. 1 motivator is safety. It’s a very interesting thing.
What does safety mean to them, and why is that a big motivator? We’ve been asking that question, and quite honestly, it comes from this next generation; they’re fearful. They don’t know what their world is, they don’t know what it’s like. A lot of them don’t have a lot of trust. Safety and security might mean, they’re not going to work in an environment where there might be gun violence, or they’re going to work in an environment where health and safety is a priority because we’re regulated for that.
How we can sell health and safety, at the same time, to a generation that wants to be part of something good. In seniors housing, we have an awesome opportunity to show the next generation of workers that this setting could be perfect for what they are looking for. And also, that it is a career path that doesn’t have to be [caregiving].
It could be your first job in culinary arts. It could be your first job in digital marketing. It could be your first job in advertising. It could be your first job in administration, life enrichment, all kinds of different things. We’re a full hospitality stack. It doesn’t need to be just about taking care of elderly people if that’s not what the generations are looking for. How are we going to present this?
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?
No. That’s a short answer, I know. There are several layers to that. Probably one of the biggest ones is funding: funding for staffing and funding for a generation that’s going to have a hard time paying for what we have to charge. We have a huge middle market segment that needs to be served, and we have models that are unaffordable for the most part.
There are some genius people out there really doing some cutting-edge stuff that I’m really looking into. I think it’s fantastic, but I don’t think that there are enough companies that can pivot quickly enough for us to be able to serve this baby boomer “silver tsunami.” We just don’t have the people to take care of them, and the people who are going to need our services may or may not be able to afford them. Where are we going to see some government subsidies for lower-income, reimbursement rates?
Our home offices are in Oregon. We have a very lucrative reimbursement rate for memory care, but not for assisted living. They aren’t very different [residents], but we have an extremely good reimbursement rate for memory care. We’re also pioneers here in Oregon. There are very few states that have good reimbursement for the private sector to be able to take some state or federal funding for residents that are low income because it’s not affordable.
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?
Gosh, there are so many. I’ll say that the ability to turn and pivot and see through different lenses is probably the key. [For example], when we were at the beginning of COVID and then in the middle of COVID and then coming out of it, we see the statistics are scary.
We lost 40% of our women in the workforce. In our setting, that’s a lot of the people. They had to either stay home to take care of children who were online schooling, or they couldn’t afford childcare, so it was more affordable for them to stay home.
That was and still is a very scary time in that everybody has a staffing shortage. What are we going to do about that? It kept me up at night for a long time. We were trying so many different things and being flexible, and things just weren’t working. We weren’t getting people back into the workforce.
Our entire industry, as you well know, took a major dip in our census. How are we going to pay for those good workers, too? Subsequently, we’re starting to rebound now. When I look back at it, there are a few things that I would have done differently — like real flexible schedules, bringing childcare into the community, and job sharing. Two people might have four kids in total and could have partnered them up for childcare.
It’s still a challenge. It’s starting to trickle back in. It’s not all the same workers, though, because as I mentioned we’re trying to find that new generation of people and inspire them. Some of the workforce we lost are coming back, but not all of them. It’s been frustrating, but what I think we’ve cracked the code on is that you have to meet people at their need.
We bring a resident into our communities and they have a very detailed care plan — from the fact that they like their coffee black at 8 AM to they need a shower assist. What we’ve started to do is recognize every single one of our employees or potential employees needs to also have their own “care plan.” We need to know very individually who these people are and how we meet them at their place of need.
We call this their “FORD,” which stands for their family, occupation, recreation, and their dreams. Once we’ve identified this in the first week, we’ve got this down to a policy and procedure and a QA that we follow implicitly.
At the end of week one, we task our department heads and others to find out at least two things about a new employee’s FORD. Then we get all together around that and we say, “This is what we really know about Sarah. She has two kids, she’s a single mom. These are her needs. She would love to take her kids to do some thing or other.” Then we come up with a personalized gift around that FORD and we send it to the home.
We don’t just give it to the employee, we send it to the home where their family will see how vested our company is in their mom or dad or whomever. Then it brings their family into our family. Then when mom has to work late or has to work a double shift or can’t make it home for dinner, there’s more grace in understanding why that’s happening and that we do care about her as a person.
Changemakers tend to be risk-takers. Do you agree with that statement? How do you describe your own appetite for risk?
Yes, definitely. I guess because I’ve already been a risk-taker and I’ve learned in the risk process that sometimes I’ve lost. Sometimes we’ve made a mistake in those risks. Someone famous once said, “I don’t think you’ve really made it until you’ve gone bankrupt twice.” I haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet, but those kinds of risk-takers, I believe, are the ones who affect change and set the path for those who might be fearful to do that.
I’m not afraid. I joke with my husband because we work together. He’s our president and CEO, and I’m our COO. I’m directly in the operations, and we joke all the time that if we got a new something in the mail, say it’s a camera, he’s going to take the manual out and read it in four different languages before he takes that thing out the box. I am going to take that thing out the box, and when I find a problem, I might try to find the shortcut in the quick-start guide.
I am definitely a risk-taker, but not to the point where I would potentially jeopardize others’ livelihoods. I will take risks in things such as a new structure of acquisition. Right now, the lending market is upside down. Interest rates are a mess. There are lots of opportunities out there for us to acquire, buy, build, partner, but the lending structure is really upside down.
I’m willing to look at doing things differently from what we’ve done it in the past.
I’ve never done that kind of structure before. Maybe we’ll try it. I’m not totally comfortable with it, or we’re going to start operating in a state I haven’t operated in before. I recognize there’s risk because sometimes you need to be part of a good old boy club to go into Montana. I’m willing to blaze trails.
If you could change one thing about the senior living industry, what would it be?
One of the things that I really wish that we did better, as Americans, is embracing the historical value of our elders and how amazing they are. We’re caught up in such a fast-paced world that we have forgotten how valuable our elders are in teaching us things, in being our history lesson and allowing us to be more compassionate towards each other.
I think we are missing the value of what we can do in senior housing to bring generations back together again. I’d really love to see that.
Structurally, [I’d like to change] how we’re going to serve the middle market affordably.
I like this model: It’s almost a concierge-neighborhood-type model where the resident population participates in the community to whatever level they can. They volunteer, say, 10 hours a month, and that equates to $1,000 less in their rent. While it does need to be something that would be an income saving, either revenue generating or expense saving, that can be anything from helping serve in the dining room or helping clean up or running the gift shop or volunteering in the community and driving leads into the community.
If they’re out in the community and they volunteer at the senior center and they’re talking about how wonderful their community is and they’re pushing leads in, that’s still a revenue generator. [We need to utilize] our residents because they want to be needed, too. To the extent that they can participate in some kind of volunteering in the community and the community at large and that then enables us as operators to create more of an affordable model for them. I think I would really like to see something like that.
What is the single greatest driver of change in today’s senior living operating environment?
I have a lot of answers [to that].
A lot of thought leaders are there talking about AI and what can replace a human. We don’t want robots giving residents showers, but what can AI do?
When we’re all challenged with the lack of an employment pool, what kinds of things can we create, be flexible with, and embrace? One example right now that’s becoming quite popular are serving robots that are programmed to take food and whatnot from the kitchen and it knows what table it’s taking it to. There are things that can replace some of those human elements that I think we really need to embrace.
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?
Here in Oregon, our Oregon Healthcare Association is one of the best. I think if you talk to anybody across the country, they will tell you Oregon Healthcare Association has been pioneer for a long, long, time. They have specific training programs around equality, and equity, and they are making that available for us so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s consistency to the process and training. I’m really embracing that.
I don’t have to create this program and not really know what’s the best way to go about it because I don’t feel that I should act as an expert around topics that I’m not an expert in. I really appreciate that there are others that are creating really good programs and training that we can bring into the communities for free.
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?
We are in a growth mode, which is great. Over the years, we have put ourselves in a place where we’ve divested of some older products. We’ve acquired some. We’ve shifted to make sure that what we are offering is relevant to the choices that people want to make these days. We have to have more choices.
We can’t take everybody right now and put a square peg in round hole. It’s like we’ve got to create this a la carte world.
Somebody may not want three meals a day, and so we’ve got to make an option that offers one, or they can buy their meals [a la carte]. Somebody might want to go out to eat very often, and so we need to partner with outside providers, Uber Eats, transportation companies, mobile medical equipment, those kinds of things.
We’ve got to be able to flex enough to bring choice — not just to the baby boomers, but to people who are coming in right now. Choice matters to them. How are we going to create a choice, a la carte, affordable model that can appeal to anybody?