By Jack Cumming

Excessive rigidity in staffing communities can inhibit corporate performance. Written job descriptions and prerequisites are everywhere today. They veer toward the superficial: college graduation with a health-care-oriented major or, less often, a hospitality major. Sometimes, though, a highly educated generalist, say, with a major in the humanities, can be the wiser choice. Senior living is a people business. Where can one learn best about human nature?

The prospect of impending change for the senior living industry — such as consolidation, national branding, customer orientation, longer life and vitality, and vocal residents — calls for a new standard of preparation for industry supervisors, managers, and executives. A grounding in history can prepare future leaders to avoid the pitfalls and disasters that inevitably come with change.

One of the most likely changes coming to senior living, given increasing computerization and AI, is the collapsing of hierarchy as local leaders, executive directors, and their direct reports, are given more responsibility, more freedom, and more accountability for results and reputation. With greater responsibility, the industry needs to widen its recruiting. The times ahead call for generalists, not narrow specialists.

A broader approach to preparatory learning goes beyond the acquiring of degrees and credentials. It includes the kind of self-education that prepares people as they mature for more and more responsibility. Moreover, the reverse may be true, and the best candidate may have a generalist’s degree but also may have strong reading-learning skills to have mastered quantitative business.

Change Is Constant

Business education tends to be textbook-based, describing current practice for administration, accounting, and other processes. Yet, business is ever-changing. It’s people-based and creative. Business school textbooks don’t provide the same academic grounding as can be gained from grappling with the nuances and contradictions presented by the humanities. The human process of continuous social adaptation is the stuff of history.

Success in an industry as complex and variegated as senior living calls for a multiplicity of skills, ranging from understanding money and its management to motivating people and helping them to feel good about themselves. Knowledge can be gained from textbook mastery. Adaptability comes from skills of reading, listening, analyzing, writing, and clear speaking.

In 1960, when my career was just two years old, the top enterprises were General Motors, Exxon Mobil, Ford Motor, General Electric, and U.S. Steel, in that order. In the most recent ranking, the leaders were Walmart, Amazon, Exxon Mobil, Apple, and UnitedHealth Group. Obviously, for anyone who anticipates a career like mine, adaptability will be more crucial than knowledge of prevalent business practice in 2023. In 2083, just 60 years from now, 2023 will seem quaint and long ago. I believe this will be particularly true for the senior living industry.

Misguided Rigidity

In a recent conversation among a group of industry observers from across the nation, someone noted that the same inept executive directors move about from one community to another. The group quickly concurred. The most intriguing suggestion was that this condoning of ineptitude is attributable to the common job description requirement that candidates have pertinent experience and a college major in health care or a related field.

Of course, these superficial requirements don’t pertain solely to executive directors. The best leader for maintenance may be highly skilled and self-educated but lack a college degree.

A quick, true story reveals the downside of modern corporate rigidity: The central office human resources people required a college degree for the job. The best person for the job was highly skilled and streetwise. Three successive rounds of incompetent managers meeting the criteria were hired over him. Not one to complain, he patiently helped each to succeed. Still, maintenance suffered. Three rounds of firings ensued. Finally, a new ED risked getting fired herself by ignoring the central office and giving the post to the best-qualified person. Morale and performance have been outstanding ever since.

Myopic Thinking

As is true with the CEO post, the best-qualified executive directors almost never fit the human resources textbook mold. Robert Townsend, once the CEO of the #2 car rental company, Avis, famously said something to the effect of, “Things to do upon becoming CEO: First, eliminate the human resources department, with thanks to all for their service.”

Of course, we need human resources for compliance with the mushrooming explosion of laws and regulations, but that’s a post that can be located within the law department. Our challenge, and one of the biggest challenges confronting senior living, is to get competent leaders in the front office of every community in America.

Learning From People

In a companion article, I’ll detail salient business lessons that can be gained from a single history book — in this case, T. J. Stiles’ biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. If you don’t know who Vanderbilt was, put Google to the test and you’ll be amazed by his business prowess.

His rags-to-riches story is fascinating and highly instructive. His career was characterized by flexibility and adaptability. Senior living will benefit by bursting the bonds of conventional rigidity. Change is coming, and the prize will go to the innovators.