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The senior living industry has a voice. You can hear it on Bridge the Gap podcast!

Ep. 129: David Hopkins

David Hopkins understands first hand the importance of culture, teamwork and perseverance within and outside the walls of a community. He is a keynote speaker and leader in the industry serving as an Associate Executive Director at LCS.

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. We have an awesome guest on today. A long time listener, long time friend: David Hopkins is on the program today. Thank you so much for being here. 

David: Thanks so much, guys. I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be on here, following both of your careers and just knowing you for as long as I have. It is truly an honor that you guys selected me to be on. I appreciate it. 

Lucas: Yes. And we’ve been friends for many years. You have been an executive director in the industry. You’ve given your passion, your career to this. And you know what I love? There’s so many things that I like about your style. I say this with the utmost respect, you’re a rule breaker, but in the best possible way. And here’s what I mean by that is that: you don’t follow the status quo and you are a bridge builder. You don’t lay out these lines and say, you’re on this side, I’m on this side and I’m just gonna keep my head down. You’re a unifier and a bridge builder. And so those are some of the things that we’re going to talk about today. 

You know, Josh, I know that you guys were in attendance recently to the Florida assisted living virtual conference. David was the honorable keynote speaker to open up the entire conference. And so let’s dive into that, David. And first of all, you’re welcome to give any sort of introduction to your, yourself and your career if you want to. 

David: Sure. So originally from Massachusetts born and raised, grew up in Cape Cod. Came to Florida as quick as I could. Worked for Walt Disney World, was an entertainment and performer and then got my leadership training from them and was very blessed by that. Got to meet my wife, got married at Disney. We have few kids still reside in the central Florida area. 

Been in senior living for about five years in the working capacity. But overall have walked that family journey about five times with four grandparents and my dad and said I would never work in senior living. And God has a funny way of saying, I think that’s exactly where you need to be. So through some fate and twists, I had been in healthcare for a number of years as a director of operations. Reached out to a community that had posted for an executive director. Said, I don’t have a senior living experience, but I do have a lot of leadership and think I could bring something unique. Interviewed on a Monday, got hired on a Wednesday and started working there. And haven’t looked back since. 

I think for somebody like me who has ADD and loves to jump from project to project and is so all over the place, this is a perfect industry for us because I can jump from culinary to marketing  to financial and activities back into clinical care. And it’s just, you know, that’s within the first hour of your day as everything starts to get rolling in the community. So I love it. I can’t imagine a different career. I encourage everybody to check it out and love that passion around it.

Josh: That’s so cool. And thank you. You know, you’ve been one of our original and first supporters at Bridge the Gap since the beginning. Been a friend personally to me and Lucas and not only at a professional level, but at a personal level. It’s really fun to have you on the show. It’s been just a long time coming. And I had the privilege of being able to attend recently the Florida Senior Living Association where you did do the opening keynote and you did a fantastic job. You talked about a lot of things we’re hopefully going to give our listeners today. Just kind of a shorter version of that. Very condensed. Obviously we don’t have time to go into all of it, but could you kind of take us on the journey that you took the audience and the listeners on during that show for those that didn’t have the opportunity to listen in?

David: Absolutely. You know, the biggest thing that I had in my talk and Rediscovering the Magic of You is really just an affirmation for people in senior living. This is an unprecedented, unparalleled time in our industry and in the world. We have pressures from not only federal government, state governments, corporate organizations, families, residents, employees, and at the center of it all, we have to take care of them, right? Everybody’s different. The employee need is different. A resident need is different. The family need is different. I mean, never been into this kind of an environment where we had to prohibit family visits. You know, that’s obviously the worst thing we can do with people with dementia right now. And just telling people in senior living, you’re gonna be okay, we’re gonna get through this, but we can get through this together and it’s going to be a lot easier. 

You know, one of the stories I shared is my first time in a senior living. So I’m not even a month old into this. I was in a community, a town, city area, and they were four assisted living, all owned by different owners and you know, kind of trying to feel out the whole landscape and what was going on. So I finally just reached out to the executive director and I said, I’d love to buy your brand. And they were a little skeptical, agreed to it. We met at our local restaurant for breakfast and when they all sat down, it was very, you could tell by the nonverbal communication, what is he after? What is he trying to take from me? But protection and walls were up defenses, high alert, and was just like, I’m ready for battle.

And I think it was the first time the four communities ever sat at the table before, because I said to him, I said, look guys, I know this is a thing, siloed industry, let me steal your residence so I can get the move in and said, but I’m going to tell you one thing I’m not doing that. I refuse to. I will in fact pick up the phone and call you if one of your residents comes into my building door.  And it took a while. And, you know, they were very skeptical coming out of the meeting, but I would follow up with phone calls and emails. We ended up meeting quarterly for breakfast because it’s a lot easier than trying to get out for lunch. And I said, you know, we’re going to work together because if one of you fails, they’re not going to title it. The community name, you know, did this. They’re going to say senior living. And I’m part of that. So I need you to succeed as well as I need to succeed. 

And in fact, two months later, I had a resident come through and pick up the phone and I toured the gentlemen around and his big complaint was meatball. He couldn’t get a good meatball. And so I picked up the phone, I called the executive director and she’s like, I told him, we’re changing the meatballs next month. I’m like, forget about next month, go down to Publix, buy some meatballs and get this guy some meatballs. Literally, this is your move out over a meatball. And they did that and they saved the resident. 

And she called me back, you know, a couple of weeks after they had kind of gotten through that storm of the meatball storm. And I’m like cloudy with a chance of meatballs. And she said, thanks.  I really didn’t think he would do that. And I said, I gave you my word. I’m not breaking that word. 

And from there, you know, they had instances and they had already, they would move down and they couldn’t take them. And they would pick up the phone and call me and say, instead of sending this back out, you know, letting the family scramble, we have partners in the industry where we said, oh, I can’t take you because of X, Y, and Z, but I know this people can, so let me get you right over to there. And the family is like, wait a minute. You’re sending me to the competition. Yeah, absolutely. Cause they’re going to take the better care of you. They have the license, they have the clinical expertise to handle that situation.

And the families look at you going, that’s strange. And I’m like, this shouldn’t be strange. Having been a family member, having to make decisions. Not only, you know, I talked about losing my dad and having to get that call in the middle of the night that he’s being sent to the hospital and having to go through that journey of five days in an ICU and asking a nurse to step in and be my hero because I was going to doubt everything I was making on that decision. And sure enough, when I remove life support, it’s like come over seven and a half hours. I was so exhausted and I was doubting every hiccup and cough that goes through that. And it was a tremendous burden on me and my family. And he didn’t end up passing till two o’clock in the morning. But that nurse John from ICU stepped in, he reassured me, told me what he was doing.

Come to find out later, we got to be friends. He had just come back from vacation. He was looking for an easy night. It was a Wednesday at midnight and it wasn’t a Wednesday for me. It was the day I was removing life support from my dad. And he stepped right into that hero location for us. And we together as senior living can do that for each other because we’re not in it alone, right? Everybody is facing this pandemic. Everybody’s facing pressures of immense magnitude from move ins and move outs and just overall wellbeing for our residents. It’s so hard. We don’t need to do it together.

Josh: Well, you touched on a couple of things, David that I want to point out. I’m so thankful for you touching on in your keynote as well as today in your first story, which I think touches on the issue of trust and transparency, where you are able to break down the barriers that existed even among what some would call your competitors. And I think that’s really, we’ve talked about this Lucas on this show over the past couple of years, that is something that I think our industry really needs more of. And I think the consumer, which is the resident and the rent resident’s family needs more of that from us. And that also that story you shared illustrates that. 

And it’s amazing how often times I think we get into that competitive spirit and we kind of forget why we started, and I know you touched on that in your keynote as well, and that why, and ultimately if we go back to the why that’s what keeps us in the, in the space and that should lead us to building trust and transparency for the ones that we’re going to lead in teams, as well as the residents and their families that we’re going to care for. And so I love that you touched on that. 

I think we need more of that and, you know, Lucas, you and I have talked about this with some other thought leaders on the show like David, where it’s amazing how little as an industry of the age and income qualified people across the country that need our services that are actually even living in our communities. So if we did a better job, helping each other, helping our residents with their unique situations, there’s more residents out there than our industry currently has the capacity to care for, right?

David: Absolutely. You know, and talking about the why Josh, you know, so many people watch Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk. I mean, it’s amazing, right? Why? And he reconstructed that of why Apple’s more successful because it was around the passion and why they did things, not what they did. And for our organization and for senior living, it’s just, that’s what we breathe every day. Yet most of our organizations out there will take that and say, oh, here’s my why, you know, that was a great buzz word. And then it goes onto the shelf and we forget about it. But that why is how we make decisions. It’s how we justify ourselves. It’s how we measure ourselves. Are we being successful? My why is to create, you know, an overwhelming, extraordinary experience for people who are retired or engaging in a memory care walk or dementia. If that’s your why, that’s how you need to judge it. How are you being successful around that is your measurable..

Josh: I love that you. Give our listeners too: so you touched on some leadership principles that I thought were really cool, that Disney instilled in you, that you tried to instill in your teams and how they approach kind of the, the experience I would refer to it that may not have been the correct way. I don’t have my notes in front of me, but you gave us some polls and some fill in the blanks. Can you touch on a couple of those that might be take aways? 

David: Absolutely. So Disney, you know, really trained me well, in fact, when I got into leadership we’ve the program at that time was called apple core because you were the core to be apple as a leader. I spent six months in training. I had a senior manager that was my mentor and guide. I did classroom work every Friday. I had specific assignments I had to complete throughout the week, you know, and I worked all shifts. Disney’s a 24-hour operation, just like healthcare and senior living. And so I was in with third shift, you know, hosing down sidewalks, getting the park prepared. I was pushing ice cream carts. You learn everything so that when you truly walk in as a leader, you’re prepared. And Disney does that by not only, you know, their guests expectations is to exceed them. It’s not to meet them because if you meet them, sometimes you fall short. If you exceed them, sometimes you fall short, but you’re still meeting, right? 

And it’s gauging your guests that as they come in, I gave the example of, you know, the dad and mom coming in with three kids and they’re exhausted. And their plane was delayed two times and they were planning to be there at three o’clock have a relaxing afternoon, get dinner, go to bed early so they could be up early for the park. Well, they don’t want to hold big song and dance when they get checked in, they want to get these kids to bed because they got a busy day tomorrow. They probably got FastPasses already arranged and they need to be exceeded by their expectations. So maybe that’s a quick check in, get the luggage there. What else do you need? Let me turn down the lights, close the blinds. The kids are in bed in a matter of an hour by the time they walk on the property. That’s exceeding their guests expectations. 

And the way they do exceed guests expectations is they pay attention to the delivery details. And that’s the magic where it happens, right? So if you pull up to a community in senior living and we don’t have a Portico, and you know your perspective resident is coming in to tour, you have somebody who’s standing by that door with an umbrella, ready to run out and help them so that they can pull up somebody to park their car so that they’re not getting wet. It’s just a small little detail. So maybe they come in and they already had an umbrella. Do we have an umbrella bag for them to put it in? And let me hold that for you. So you don’t have to be troubled while you’re touring around. Do you need the restroom right away? Were you driving up from us location far away because we want to be closer to your parents to your daughter or so?  And once you get here, oh my God. I’ve just spent the past hour and a half in the car in the nice cold glass of water, especially here in Florida right now, or an ice tea or a lemonade. Here’s the restroom. Let’s get your settled and cool down. Before we start you on a tour. 

Those little attention to detail is how you exceed your guest’s expectation. And then the way you service that and the delivery. And this is ingrained into me so much. I feel like if you cut me open, this would spill out in my blood with it. And that’s the four principles of how Disney manages to deliver exceeding guest expectations and paying attention to the day detail for delivery. And it’s very simple. It’s only four things. 

You know, I got into healthcare and there’s these mission statements that are like three paragraphs along a vision statement that’s a paragraph and a half, and we’ve got 10 key principles and these pillars help you to know what to do. And I’m going, that’s a lot of stuff. Disney only has four and it’s ingrained from the minute you hit tradition your first day in to your park or your hotel orientation, and then even into your division location. So if you’re a housekeeper, they talk about it. Everything is constantly reinforced on these four things. And it’s so easy and it transcends into healthcare that I still use it today. 

It’s safety because that’s always the first thing. Nobody wants to go to the unsafe assisted living or the unsafe, skilled nursing location, right? Oh, let me look at those reviews. Nope, not that one. Let me go to the other one. 

And then it’s courtesy because you have to take care of your guests. You have to treat these people like family. I tell everybody senior living is the only job or passion or career that you will have where your customer will come up and give you a hug or at 6:30 at night, come knock on your door because they see your light on in your office and say, what are you still doing here? You have a family go home. I’ve worked at Disney world and that never happened to me. Never. This is the only industry that that happened. 

So we have safety, courtesy. The next thing is show. It’s about our environment. It’s about that detail. It’s about how your community looks, right? We’ve all pulled up to a community and seen that front garden bed with a sign in it. And there’s some pretty flowers in there. And then there’s that one long weed that seemed to have got the Miracle Grow the best, right? And it’s sprouting up. And when I was choosing a place for my dad, I’m like, man, they can’t even garden. What makes them think they can take care of my dad? He’s high maintenance. And that’s the first pay attention to those details that we need to do in senior living and do a better job. 

And then the fourth thing is efficiency. So it’s safety, courtesy show and efficiency. And this is where all my marketing folks out there start freaking out. What do you mean efficiency is last? It needs to be 20 emails a day and 10 phone calls. And you need to have personal touches and let’s create a special gift that we can send them to remind them that we’re the best. And that’s where they need to move into. Those are all great. But if it sacrifices your safety, courtesy that you talk to people in your environment that you’re trying to create, it’s going to work against you every time. 

And so many times, do we hear that? You know, people are salespeople, we’re not selling something. This is a lifestyle. This is a choice in my life that I only get one chance at to do it. Right. I’ll tell you secretly for me, this is a chance to make up for mistakes. I made with my dad and my grandparents. Cause I can see it coming and I can have hard conversations with people and say, I understand you think your mom is functioning, but she’s in here for a reason, the dementia is taking hold it’s time for you to stop being a son or a daughter and be the parent. And this is something we never thought we’d have to do, but just like your kid, you wouldn’t let them run out and traffic and play in there. We need to make better decisions for mom and dad right now because they’re not making the best. And we want them to live and thrive with dignity.

Lucas: It’s compelling, very, very compelling. Josh, I love those, those principles. I’m taking notes cause I’m thinking it does, it transcends so many different things. And it really illustrates the kind of my thesis that has always been, which is the common thread that binds people in senior living together, which is the people that do this work, right, Josh? 

Josh: That’s right. And you know, I mean, so often, you know, everything you were touching on requires such an intentionality, such a, an awareness such planning and such a centralized thought around the care that you’re going to provide that environment, the safety, all of those things. And I think so often we just get distracted. We allow excuses, we allow barriers. We allow just the monotony and the routine of the day to get in the way. So it’s so great to have you remind us of that. 

You know I’m curious to know from you putting you on the spot a little bit, David leading so many teams like you have, and I know you’ve come into environments, maybe where this culture, you didn’t create it, but you’re trying to fix things. And what are some of the challenges or excuses or barriers that you have to break down to allow people to get into this type of mentality, into this type of thinking?

David: Yeah. When you come into a different culture and you’re, you’re seeing it and you know, there’s an issue and you can feel it right. We’ve walked into communities and are like, wow, that’s strange. That feels, it doesn’t feel right. Your residents and your guests and their family members pick up on that. There’s a feeling. Sometimes that’s the excuse, right. But they give is just, didn’t feel like home. Okay. There’s a problem. We’ve gotta figure out what that feeling looks like for them. The cultures that you walk into and you know, a lot of people will come in and they’re like, so I just need to tell you I’m a very direct and upfront leader. Okay, great. That might not work for everybody. You might scare some people off. 

When I was in hospitals, I used to wear a suit. I was always a suit and tie kind of guy. And I started that with senior living until finally my lead nurse pulled me aside and she goes, you know, you’re pretty intimidating when you wear a grey pinstriped suit with a red tie. I’m like really? I feel like I’m pretty approachable in my mannerisms, my dynamic and how I, I talked to people. I said, okay, so, you know, I’ve gone to this there’s times, I’m in a polo shirt trying to be more approachable. And that’s something that I know that I have to work on. 

But walking into a culture, you have to sense what’s going on. Because if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you can go. And a lot of the times I use that kind of a Simon Sinek, Ted Talk. We talk about what you do. We talk about how you do it. I provide care. I’m here from 7 to 3. I have 16 residents. I have 10 residents. I bath, I get them up. I have to help feed. Okay. But why? You can go somewhere else, right? There’s not a lot of senior livings out there that aren’t hiring at this point in time. You could go down the street. You could go here. You can go to the hospital. Why are you here? Sometimes it’s a job. Okay. Sometimes it’s I took care of my aunt. Okay. Now I’ve got something to sink my teeth into. And those are the people that I look for. Especially even when I’m interviewing, I want people with a passion. 

If you’re here for a paycheck, go to McDonald’s right? Their almost every week, they’re generating a paycheck. Then you’re living typically pays twice a month. This is an opportunity to change somebody’s life. That’s much bigger than a paycheck. And if you walk into a culture where you’re sensing things, and you’ve got to dive in, then you’ve got to reinforce those four things. And that’s usually where I start with. Listen, we’re safe first. We’re courteous. Second, we work on our show third, and then we’ll worry about efficiency. And sometimes that frustrates people because we look at all the safety things first. So we need to clean that up. We need an extra staff for this kind of a ratio that we have in memory care or assisted living. And once we get that and keep reinforcing that. 

And then you as a leader, have to have those hard conversations. Why are you here? Are you being courteous to our residents? I was walking by the room. That’s not really the way I want you to talk to Ms. Betty. Is that the way you’d want somebody to talk to miss your mom? And then having those coaching conversations ongoing? 

One of the things I said in my keynote is Disney went away from annual evaluation because most of the time, and I’ve been in healthcare, right, it’s a onetime, sit down with your boss. Here’s how well you’re doing. And you’re like, Oh my god, I didn’t realize I was failing this. Or I don’t think that’s an accurate statement. And they’re kind of blindsided. Disney went to you should be having weekly conversations with your team. 20-30 minute check-in. Take some notes, keep it going so that when you come to time for an evaluation or a pay raise, you can sit down and go, Hey, really good job, Lucas, you are knocking it out through November and December. I know you had to go take care of your dad. He was in the hospital during that time in January, but you bounced back. And I appreciate you so much for spending the time in February when we had a hurricane and pitching in on that evening event, I just recapped Lucas’ whole year and a matter of seconds instead of blind siding them and just concentrating on the time that maybe he needed support.

So it’s really taking that ownership as a leader and getting to know each person individually, cause they’re all gonna respond individually. And for you as a leader, you need to know how you react. And, you know, I mentioned, there’s a bunch of personality tests out there. I’m licensed to do a couple of them, core and Myers Briggs, and predictive index. And these are all tools to help you understand you. 

I’ll tell you. I took one a couple years ago and I hated it. I was mad. I didn’t talk to the facilitator for two months because I’m like, that’s not me. I’m a strong commanding individual. I know what I’m doing. I’m business driven. And that wasn’t. And it took a while for me to even evolve out of that later in my career, to understand who I was. And once you do, you can lead much better because you’ll know that if I need to talk to somebody, who’s a hard driving business adult, sitting down and talking to their family about their family for them is not going to be successful. That’s not a comfortable position for them. You have to meet them where they’re at.

Lucas: Yeah. You know, David. Josh, this is going to turn into a two part series. I think David back for sure. I hope that this is the first of many conversations. 

So with that being said, David, you know the, the beautiful thing about the industry and the things that you’re talking about: it’s complicated. It’s not just this kind of monolithic thing. And it requires a lot of people. And we’ve said that before, you know, we’re better together.

So in closing, you’re on the front lines you have been sent for many years, but since day one of this pandemic in closing could you give a message to the rest of the people that are on the front lines: the executive directors, administrators that are out there that have been doing this tirelessly for months on end?

David: Absolutely. Guys, your heroes, you have stepped into an industry that needs heroes. I gave the illustration: the Avengers. If you watch the first Avenger movie, it’s a lesson in leadership. It’s a lesson in support of your team. Originally the Avengers got together and Captain America is pretty awesome. And so is iron man and the Hulk. And they tried to fight individually and it wasn’t successful. But as soon as they got to organize and work together as a team, they became the Avengers and they saved the world. 

That’s our job. We’re the heroes. You’re the heroes stepping in to people who need help and support to make a decision, whether it’s your employees, whether your residence, whether it’s your family members or whether it’s another executive director who is your competition down the road. Call them a partner and see how that changes your perspective. Because we’re in this together and together we get through it. 

Josh: So awesome, man. I am like, I’m about to get like tackle some tackle dummy here in my office or something. You just get me pumped up. 

David: Awesome. 

Lucas: Let’s go out into avenge man. This is great. Thank you David, for taking time, we know that you’re there at your community in Florida and you’re taking time this week with us here at Bridge the Gap. Great conversation. I’m looking forward to the feedback from our audience, our listeners out there. And so everybody out there in senior living just know that we’re thinking of you, we’re praying for you and we’re rooting for you. Thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap. 

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  1. David is amazing! I’m not there, yet, but when I am, I want to live in David’s community!❤️