By Leslie Quintanar

DISCLAIMER: If you are looking for a salacious tell-all about third-party management groups, you will be disappointed.

Just over four years ago I made the decision to leave the owner/operator company I had been with to jump into the world of third-party management. I came in at the regional level, had the opportunity to work with many different owners, serve on a state Argentum chapter board, labor alongside several other talented professionals to breathe new life into a dining program needing a makeover, and helped with a challenged turnaround portfolio.

Then I left.

I worked with some remarkably talented people, grew professionally, and got to participate in driving change and fueling innovative programs.

That all sounds pretty great, right?  So why would I leave?

The Foundation and the Why

Now in my 21st year in senior living, I have always been amazed that I actually get paid to do something I love so much. I don’t think I am alone in that line of thought. You see, most of us got into this business because we are caretakers at heart.

We genuinely have a love for the older population in all its iterations. We thrive on seeing those families breathe a sigh of relief when they realize their loved ones are safe in our care, when we see those breakthrough moments with those suffering from dementia, and form bonds with residents that often carry on long after leaving a particular community. It is our “why”. And because it is our why we are often prone to throw ourselves into our work. After all, we are serving people and that’s very different than making widgets. Add to this the desire to be successful and you have a recipe for overwork, burnout, and in the worst cases, disengagement.

The Lure of 3rd Party Management

After many years of working in an owner/operator setting, the lure of 3rd party seemed really attractive. It represented a different facet of an industry I knew very well in other areas. I had already worked for companies that were publicly traded, privately owned, and both for-profit and non-profits. This opportunity seemed like a great way to continue to work in senior living but to see it from a different vantage point.

I was not wrong. I learned more than I ever thought possible.

My Biggest Takeaways

  • As a company, it is essential that you jealously guard, cultivate, and constantly nurture your culture. Owners will have different ideas about culture. Some aren’t concerned with it at all, and some will openly challenge the foundational principles you’ve laid so carefully for the health and success of the company. If you aren’t firmly rooted in your why it can be tempting to be swayed in the name of keeping the business. Having to navigate these waters with various owners taught me the importance of being resolute and unflinching in my focus.
  • Senior living is a competitive business. Owners are savvier, competition fiercer, and 3rd party operators must be nimble. If you aren’t willing to constantly evaluate your programs, systems, and overall operations, you run the risk of an owner deciding they want to go with another operator. Having to navigate these waters taught me how to always look with an eye for innovation, dare to try new things, and to not be afraid to correct course if those chosen things didn’t work as planned.
  • It is always best when we focus on people because profits will follow. Some may disagree with me, but after 20 years, 7 of those sitting in the ED seat, I have never found it to be incorrect. When you develop and pour into people, support them, and equip them to be successful, your communities will thrive. I’ve watched it happen over and over. You rarely (if ever) hear of a really amazing community with terrible leaders in place. Having to navigate this reality only served to strengthen my resolve that we are building leaders and investing in people who in turn are caring for our most precious commodity: our residents. If that isn’t paramount, nothing else will be right.

So Why Did I Leave?

I learned a lot, worked with some pretty special people, and got to participate in developing some innovative programming, among many other things.

 Here are a few of the biggest reasons:

  • Balance – I had none. I was pulled in so many different directions by owners’ expectations, which were sometimes in conflict with our company. And the demands were high. Each owner expects to be treated as if they are the only one. That essentially means you have two sets of direct report supervisors. I was going at a breakneck pace all the time and I was finding myself becoming resentful of the career I had long loved and regarded as my life’s work.
  • The inability to serve one master – Having excellent programming, great onboarding, and the ability to innovate with the best of them was exciting. Having to temper that excitement with the realities of the very different expectations that many of our owners had was a different story.
  • Freedom – this one may sound a little silly, but in reality, this was pretty significant. Knowing that our programs and our ability to effect change had the potential to make a tremendous impact upon so many made it equally as frustrating when we were often at opposing opinions with owners. From budgets to programs to opening dates, all became a little more complicated when you had to run it through multiple lines of approval to get something completed. Working for a company who is both owner and operator simplifies things in such a way that you know the expectations and company culture. And the vision of the community is focused and clear, not encumbered by multiple perspectives.

Going Back

It’s been almost a year since I left that role and went back to an owner/operator company and I can tell you it’s been an interesting 300+ days. COVID-19 has thrown some challenges our way that no one was expecting. We’ve all had to pivot to make sure we can still run our business while keeping residents safe from an ever-evolving virus that is no respecter of persons. But even through all of the additional layers this pandemic has added, I am learning to love senior living again.

I was so busy all the time that I lost sight of why I was even laboring so hard. It took some time to get used to not going on adrenaline 24/7. And I am better for it in every way. Sometimes I miss the excitement of constantly changing projects and being able to maintain that pace successfully. But I find myself more focused, concentrated, and able to dig into my current communities in ways I could not do in a third-party management setting.

In the end, I’m glad I had the experience, and I can share it with others considering jumping into the mix of third-party management. You’ll learn a lot, grow even more, and be stretched more than you bargained for. For a great number of people, that’s a great fit; I encourage you to take the plunge and jump into the waves! If you prefer slightly calmer waters, perhaps you, like me, may find your niche is much more closely aligned with an owner/operator model.

Either way, keep making a difference in this senior living space- the world is better for all your efforts!