By Jack Cumming

No post is more central to senior living than that of executive director.  A challenge, though, is that job requirements specifications can artificially screen out the best candidates.  Sometimes that means that candidates, who just aren’t up to the job and who have moved from post to post, appear to have the required experience.

Rigid requirements for prior experience or narrow education can be counterproductive.  Recycled candidates with long resumes can sometimes fit the profile but they can’t succeed in the job. Adding a simple phrase like “or best qualified” to the excessively rigid specifications can allow hiring officers to find suitable generalists with the business judgment and creative spark to bring success to the community.

In a related article, we presented the premise that the search for talent requires flexibility. Rigidity, e.g., hiding behind requirements on a paper job description, is a way to avoid responsibility. Acceptance of responsibility is the first character trait that we should seek in all hires.  An all-encompassing eye for talent is the most important characteristic that a great leader can have.

One premise of my thinking about how to find leaders with strong people skills for the people-centric senior living industry has been that we would do well to recruit people with basic undergraduate grounding in the humanities. They can learn on the job. Of course, this is true of other corporate officers as well, but no other position in senior living is as demanding, and as unforgiving, as is that of executive director.

Enter Cornelius Vanderbilt

My experience is that you can learn more about business from studying history than from studying business per se. Recently, I’ve been reading T.J. Stiles’ massive biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Arguably, Vanderbilt was the first modern businessperson. He didn’t graduate from Harvard or Harvard Business School. His education was in the School of Hard Knocks.

Stiles’ book is hard going. He delves into details about people and personalities that most biographers would simply skip over. Stiles doesn’t, and in the course of trying to absorb all that detail, we quickly learn that people and personalities are more central to business success than anything else. In fact, nothing else comes close.

Takeaways From Vanderbilt

We can all benefit from self-education through reading, and history provides some of the most salient insights. Here are some takeaways so far from T.J. Stiles’ in-depth, highly detailed probing of the life and business success of the unlettered Cornelius Vanderbilt, arguably America’s first modern tycoon.

  1. Personalities matter more than theory, analysis, product features, or anything else.
  2. Even more than in business, personalities matter in politics. Politics doesn’t build value. Jack Ma, the great Chinese entrepreneur, counsels, “Love the government; don’t marry it.” Good advice, which he forgot for a moment, to his detriment.
  3. Corporate machinations more often reflect the character of the CEO and the board than they do the interests of the corporation, its owners, or its customers.
  4. Greed and penury are false guide stars for business.
  5. Try to make today’s rivals tomorrow’s comrades.
  6. Honor and integrity matter more than cleverness. That makes Jeff Bezos more powerful than either Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, as clever as the latter two may be. Vanderbilt was known as a man of his word, even when that turned out to cost him dearly. He didn’t trick people. He outwitted them.
  7. Cleverness is not intelligence.
  8. “The guy with the ideas thinks he should be in charge, and the guy with the money thinks he should be in charge, but the guy with the money is the guy in charge.”
  9. Family connections are not the best guide to merit, and while some may believe they are a guide to loyalty, the opposite is true. Choose your friends carefully and your rivals more carefully.
  10. There’s a natural conflict between capital and enterprise, but a wise conciliator can balance that conflict to the benefit of all.
  11. Likewise, there is a natural conflict between competition and cooperation. Competition is clever; cooperation is genius.
  12. The key to success is keeping customers and the public on your side, rooting for you to succeed. Streaming video ubiquity is a gift to build trust and transparency.
  13. The best corporate defense is to operate frugally without being miserly.

Lastly, don’t seek the limelight for itself, but be visible with a reputation for honesty and brilliance. The rest will take care of itself. In short, don’t be a sucker, but ….

Vanderbilt famously said when betrayed by partners in a deal, “Gentlemen, you have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt.”

The “but” is, absent betrayal, put others before self, and self will be the gainer. In this instance, Vanderbilt knew how to give customers better value than his cheating competitors could. He did ruin them but restored them after they came to him begging forgiveness.

In business, a strong moral compass is central to success. As the Bible wisely counsels, “Let your light so shine before [people], that they may see your good works.” People will trust the enterprise that proves to be trustworthy.