How Merrill Gardens, Pegasus, 12 Oaks, Other Operators Improved Executive Director Hiring, Retention

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Since the start of the pandemic, senior living operators have grappled with staffing woes. Executive directors are particularly hard to hire and retain.

Long hours and a generally tough job have contributed to burnout and higher turnover among executive directors in recent years. And given the training needed for the position, there is also simply a smaller pool of hirees from which to pull.

But in 2024 after years of struggling with the issue, some operators feel as though they have finally gotten executive director hiring and retention under control. Just ask 12 Oaks Senior Living President Greg Puklicz.


“I’ve got 99 problems and the executive director position isn’t one,” Puklicz told Senior Housing News. “The success of our communities is so highly dependent on us having quality EDs and providing them support.”

12 Oaks’ progress hiring and keeping executive directors exemplifies how other senior living operators have better supported and retained executive directors in the past 24 months. Operators including Pegasus Senior Living have launched new recruitment models to identify good candidates directly and others have offered new bonus and incentive structures that allow executive directors to directly share in the value they help create.

“You do have to look outside the box and you have to be flexible and fluid and understand that you have a great leader,” said Pegasus Senior Living Senior Vice President of People and Culture Katheryn Pigott. “It comes down to showing your executive directors you are going to invest in them and celebrate them.”


Operators notch wins reducing ED turnover

Executive director turnover has long plagued the industry, but some operators have improved turnover for the position thanks to new tactics.

Grapevine, Texas-based Pegasus Senior Living reduced the number of executive director vacancies to three positions in 2024 across its 34-community portfolio, according to Pigott. That’s down from previous years of juggling multiple vacancies. This year, the company rolled out a new hiring platform aimed at identifying leadership candidates based on analytics and personality testing, and that has made a positive difference, she said.

Seattle, Washington-based Merrill Gardens in 2023 reported a 23% turnover rate for executive directors, known internally as general managers. Today, that figure has improved to 13%, according to Merrill Gardens President Tana Gall.

“We are shooting [to get] that down to 10%,” she said.“We’re not going to let our foot off the gas,” Gall recently told SHN.

Dallas-based 12 Oaks over the last two years was able to keep its portfolio-wide executive director turnover rate at just 2.6%, a figure exceptionally lower than the average turnover rate in the industry.

“We’ve given intentional attention to the ED role and we’re supporting the ED position more than we have in the past and the results have manifested in that very low number,” said

The retention rate of executive directors at Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Health Dimensions Group (HDG) has grown steadily in the last three years and is now at about 80%, according to President Amber Rogotzke. Of existing executive directors at HDG’s 55 communities, 95% have been with the operator for two years or more.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on career development and we really see that retention occurs having promoted those from other roles,” Rogotzke said.

Philadelphia-based Wesley Enhanced Living has retained all of its executive directors across its six communities, outside of one retirement in recent years, according to President of Human Potential John Odike.

New models and increased support for executive directors

Operators have adapted to staffing challenges by becoming nimble in hiring and retention.

Pegasus in 2024 launched a data-driven staffing model specifically aimed at identifying future EDs during hiring. Pigott said doing so has led to “more thoughtful” recruitment of executive directors rather than having to hire them out of sheer necessity.

For example, the company recently had a vacancy at a community on the West Coast that netted 90 applications. Of those, 25 were screened but did not make it through the company’s executive interview panel. The process underscores how Pegasus tries to find leaders that fit a specific community’s needs rather than hiring a candidate to fill a position.

Through its predictive analytics model, in partnership with a University of Texas professor Paul Green, Pigott said Pegasus is able to find candidates that can help rebuild occupancy or motivate a community’s workers to improve culture and results.

“The data showed that we needed to be more patient, more thoughtful and aware of who we were bringing in, because it’s really not just about the assessments,” Pigott said. “We’ve been looking from an analytical perspective on what is the best fit for that community and who we are searching for to fill specific needs.”

Finding the right fit for a community can be a challenge—something coupled with the fact that resident and family expectations of senior living are rising, Gall said. To retain its executive directors, Merrill Gardens reevaluated pay packages for leaders and restructured bonuses to directly benefit strong performance.

That meant making bonuses an annual occurrence to a quarterly occurrence based on performance. That allowed executive directors at Merrill Gardens communities to track building performance in real-time rather than waiting a calendar year to reap the reward of operating success.

Onelife Senior Living, which recently merged with Ally Senior Living, also takes a similar approach in finding specific personality traits and specific skill sets of future leaders to determine what a community needs, according to Co-CEO Dan Williams.

If a building is lagging on occupancy recovery, Onelife may look for someone with a marketing and sales background. Or if a community is facing stiff regulations, the company will seek out those with more health care experience.

“It’s about going back to trying different things and sometimes you swing and miss—and that’s costly,” Williams said. “Giving them autonomy like that is usually a good thing for the culture.”

Merrill Gardens executive directors had a direct role in the creation of a discretionary spending fund that can be used in providing bonuses to frontline employees based on performance.

“It’s more of that immediate gratification on a job well done,” Gall added. “The more I can put the decision-making in their hands, the better because they know their communities and how they operate better than I do.”

Merrill Gardens also drafted an “operations playbook” offering insight to new executive directors on key facets of the company’s values and operating standards. While it’s not a “holy grail” of operating performance standards, Gall said the document helped inform newer leaders on expectations going forward.

Having a “high-touch” model of staff support for executive directors is key in retaining strong leaders, Puklicz said, who equates having strong executive directors in place as the “franchise quarterback,” likening the position to the key football position.

12 Oaks, pairs executive directors with regional vice presidents that oversee five communities and provide needed oversight and support. On a quarterly basis, 12 Oaks executive directors meet for impact training at the home office to share best practices and give feedback to leadership.

Executive directors at 12 Oaks also have direct input in drafting community budgets, allowing for feedback and providing insight into operations in ways corporate leaders might miss.

“That two-way feedback is vital,” Puklicz said. “They’re responsible for all operations and the relationships and staffing and financial performance but we need to provide them the support they need to do their job.”

‘Throw our net wider’

Beyond recruiting, operators have also built internal leadership development to create career ladders, with the idea that homegrown talent is valuable and worth cultivating.

“It can often feel lonely at the top and it’s our job to make sure they feel that they’re part of a greater network,” Rogotzke said. HDG has prioritized internal leadership development and training to bring new leaders up the ranks.

Williams said it remains tough to attract leadership talent from outside the industry due to some of the high-acuity care and regulatory environment of senior housing, something that can be intimidating for leaders coming from the hospitality industry.

“It will be tough because there is a steep learning curve,” Williams said.

Pigott echoed Williams’ sentiment of the tough nature of bringing in new leaders from outside the industry due to the “pressure of clinical care.” But that hasn’t stopped Pegasus from trying to recruit leaders in hospitality to make the jump to senior living, having done so recently at a community in Texas.

“They came in and actually gave a great example to our other communities on where we were lacking from a hospitality standpoint and we took those best practices from him and mentored other executive directors to give them the confidence they need to succeed,” Pigott said.

Merrill Gardens is also pulling leaders from the hospitality sector. Doing so helps give fresh perspective to corporate leaders in new ways, Gall said.

“Is the talent pool more shallow than in the past? Maybe,” Gall said. “That just means we need to throw out our net wider as we fish and we can look for the people that have a heart and passion for senior living.”

Wesley Enhanced Living’s Odike called the competition for top talent in senior living “fierce,” noting that senior living providers face off against other healthcare facilities and industries outside of healthcare.

“There is quite a difficulty in finding qualified candidates due to the specialized nature of the role and the specific skill set required,” Odike said.

12 Oaks’ internal leadership is an important part of having a strong pipeline of future executive directors, Puklicz said. While staffing issues remain, he is optimistic that operators will continue to see success in hiring executive directors if they are given the needed support.

While the role of the executive director is not getting easier, Rogotzke said the outlook in hiring new leaders was positive but dependent on operators taking steps to better support community leaders.

“We’re going to have a lot of ways to augment their leadership and it’s important that we find ways to double down on the efforts to support them,” Rogotzke said.

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