What happened to personal drive and self initiative? Is it their own lack of ambition or are current employees simply unaware of opportunities for career growth in senior housing?

By John Gonzales

I’ve worked in senior housing for over 30 years starting as a food server in the dining room of an upscale retirement community in San Antonio, Texas. Since then, I’ve held nearly every position in our business, including food server, caregiver, marketing director, community manager, and on up the proverbial ladder.  

Over the years I have been blessed to have had opportunities to explore new challenges and grow into new positions. I am eternally grateful to those mentors who provided me these opportunities to learn and grow and I am committed to doing the same for the current “ladder climbers” in our industry.  

Employee Engagement Surveys

Over the years, I’ve participated in a large number of Employee Engagement Surveys, and always made a point of reading each and every answer, comment, complaint and suggestion. Candidly, I’m surprised by just how many employees working in senior housing do not feel that they have an opportunity to grow within their own company and even within our industry. They seem to see their positions as transient, or as a place saver or stepping stone to eventually move on to something (some other industry) with greater opportunities.

Unaware of Opportunities

I believe much of this perception comes from being unaware of opportunities and examples that career growth in senior housing happens all the time. Over the years — not only have I witnessed this — I’ve personally participated and benefited from it. I have seen and initiated dozens and dozens of promotions in nearly every area of our business.  

Promoting From Within 

Recently, I was honored to have promoted someone into a Director of Wellness position, who started out as a caregiver 2 years prior. This individual took the initiative to go to school, get her nursing degree, and overtly express a desire to move upwards in the company. She was a terrific caregiver, strong team player, showed initiative and when the opportunity presented itself, she was the obvious choice. About a year ago, while consulting for a community on the east coast, I met a caregiver who had strong interest in social and activity programs; she coupled this interest with initiative; she took classes, volunteered to run activities, and stepped in whenever there was a need. Shortly afterwards she was promoted to Life Enrichment Director for the community. I recently heard from her and she is not only excelling in her new role – she’s personally thriving in it.

This happens all the time. Cooks promoted to Food Service Directors, Executive Directors promoted into Regional, and/or District Management positions, Director’s of Wellness and Administrative Assistants promoted to Executive Director, and the list goes on.  

The Millennial Generation

I know there has been much written recently about this Millennial generation; about the death of customer-service driven staff, and I don’t disagree. But at some point, as professionals in this business, we need to take ownership of this shortage and light candles in this perceived growing darkness. We must make this industry more attractive for young folks looking for a rewarding long term career.  

I am now fervently compelled to encourage and motivate our employees who desire growth and promotion to pursue it! To let their supervisor, Executive Director, District or Regional Manager know about their goals, and then encourage each person to take the initiative to prepare and equip themselves with the skills and knowledge they’ll need.

Desire for Growth 

Twenty-seven years ago, I wanted to get into sales and marketing when I was still a food server. I didn’t know how to make this jump; but instead of simply accepting my station, I read as much as I could; I found books, articles, any and everything on human relations, influence, marketing and sales techniques, and realized that I could apply these to what I was doing at that moment, as a food server.  

I also expressed a desire to grow to my Executive Director who was supportive and provided me with opportunities to develop and hone my skills by gradually allowing me to field inquiry calls, “selling” to potential residents and their families when they dined in our community, and taking time out of her day at least once or twice a week to listen to my ideas on ads, incentives, etc.  I continued to demonstrate my ambition by learning and practicing the knowledge and skills conducive to sales and marketing. When an opening came up, I was ready and was given the opportunity. 

Compassion, Drive and Integrity

Our industry needs compassionate, personable people with drive and integrity. Practically, everything else can be learned. Growth opportunities in our industry are plentiful, it’s incumbent upon us — the current generation of industry leaders — to ensure the next wave is being cultivated and nurtured now. I am convinced that it is not only an obligation we have, but for those of us who are considered “industry veterans,” it’s in our own best interest.