So how’s a leader to see the full-orbed picture of the life of a community?

By Leslie Quintanar

I went to a breakout session at a conference once in which a senior living leader stated that every budget tells a story. Things like NOI, expenses, overtime, and occupied units lay a framework of clues for what is happening in a community. If those important key metrics are off, it can be an indicator all is not well with a property. 

Not All That Meets The Eye

But on the flip side, communities can often look really good on paper; exceeding budgeted occupancy, expenses under control, beating NOI month after month, and yet be riddled with leadership problems and personnel issues. So how’s a leader to see the full-orbed picture of the life of a community? How can you tell if a community is robust on paper, but limping along with poor morale and burdened employees? 

The answer is pretty simple: look beyond the numbers. 

A Silent Undercurrent

It’s pretty easy to tout a community’s effectiveness when they are beating all their budgeted numbers. But sometimes, things are going on below the surface that don’t immediately show. And if leaders aren’t paying attention to the signs, it can be disastrous. I was in a meeting recently and we were discussing a property like this that had been successful for years, but gradually started to slide. Before everyone knew it, the downfall was something akin to an avalanche. Now we are in the throes of a full-blown recovery effort, which will no doubt take some time to turnaround. It can be done, but not without a lot of hard work and change, which is often arduous and painful.  

I ran another community that suffered that same fate. Year after year it ran at 95% or higher occupancy, had a stable team, and made a lot of money. Then the leader changed and things started to spiral downward. By the time I started as their ED they hit their all-time low of 79%. Nearly two years later, with all but one department head turned over, reevaluation of market rates, and fresh energy in the marketing efforts, I’m happy to share that they turned around. They’ve now been back to their former high occupancy status and remain a prominent name in the community.  

While that community was a success story in their turnaround, there were signs with them too. There were rumblings of discord, unhappy department heads, and other things that were easy not to examine too closely because they were still making money. But eventually, like a leak that continues to grow larger, the dam gives way and a torrent of dysfunction and mess is unleashed.

How To Look Beyond The Numbers

How can leaders, especially those who may not be in the communities every day, ensure that they aren’t blindsided with a situation in which they must do significant clean-up? What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but some suggestions to help you look a little deeper and can serve as preventative measures to protect yourself and your company from being caught off guard.

  • Pay attention. Don’t assume because the numbers are good and the expenses well-controlled that all is perfect
  • Talk to your staff. Not just the EDs, but all the line staff, from the housekeepers to the front desk. Ask them how they are doing and really listen when they answer. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what you hear.
  • Train your EDs and other community leaders. Don’t assume because they’ve been in the industry for an inordinate number of years that they know how to effectively manage people. One of my former supervisors used to send her community leaders business articles she found useful. I loved this and to this day do it with those I lead. She taught me how important it is to develop myself and keep sharpening my skills so I can in turn invest in others and help them be better leaders. If you are oveerseeing staff, you need to find ways to encourage them to live up to their full vocational potential. 
  •  Trust your gut. That same boss who sent me those valuable articles also told me to trust my intuition, and I have never forgotten her words. If something doesn’t seem right, even if things look pleasant on the surface, look a little deeper. Sometimes we ignore our intuition, thinking of it as a cursory part of leadership, when in fact it is quite valuable. Almost without fail, every time that I have ignored my intuition I have been sorry.

Sometimes it’s hard to dig a bit deeper, to spend the additional time interacting with employees, and really listening to them with all the other daily responsibilities. However, in the long run, it is well worth the effort because you will be able to gain a more full-orbed picture of the community performance. You’ll be able to lead them to a place where the numbers and the story they tell is consistent with the everyday culture and you’ll see the true story being written in your community.