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Episode 109: James Balda

Argentum CEO James Balda discusses the association ambassador program, public policy, and developing next generation leaders.

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2020 Conference Updates 

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the gap podcast with Josh and Lucas. We were at the NIC conference and you know what? We have an amazing guest on today. We have James Balda, the CEO of Argentum. Welcome to the show. 

 

James: Thank you. Thank you. I’m excited to be here. 

 

Lucas: I was just sitting here thinking, I was like, you know what, we tried to interview you at the Argentum conference. That is that was a mistake on our part. And so we said we gotta get him at another conference when his schedule is a little bit lighter and we made it work. 

 

James: Well, this is a great one to do it at too. 

 

Josh: Yeah. Thanks for making it happen. I appreciate the time with you. 

 

James: Well, thank you for the opportunity. 

 

Lucas: Yeah. So Argentum is an official partner of the podcast this year. Maybe or really because our mindset and our mission and our goals align so well. You know, we’re trying to be the tide that rises all boats, to bring thought leadership to the forefront, to educate, inform, and influence the industry that we love so much and there’s such great alignment with Argentum and we just, you know, we’re very grateful for that. Very excited.

 

James: We love the partnership and love having you at the conference. So appreciate everything you’re doing.

 

Lucas: Absolutely. So, Josh, we’ve talked about it before. You know, we’d love to get backgrounds on people. And, and James, I’ve looked and heard about your background but I’d love for our listeners to understand, it’s definitely been a process and a progression for you to find your way into senior living.

 

James: Yeah. Yeah. And actually I had no idea what senior living was before I even took it. So, oddly enough, I’m an association professional by background, which is actually a real career. I didn’t even realize that was an opportunity, but I got my first job working part time for the newspaper association years and years ago, sort of a shell of their former selves. But I just loved the ability to learn more about an industry and you know, take on different roles within that industry and ultimately help it. And so I went from newspapers to healthcare and from healthcare to hospitality with the restaurant association. And then I was approached about, you know, senior living and it just sort of seemed like the right fit. It’s, you know, a lot of my past experience and mission and, and giving back all rolled into one. It’s great.

Josh: It sounds like a great fit. You know, we often hear people and we call it, you know, our industry, hospitality meets healthcare. So some of that background I’m sure has been extremely beneficial in leading the great organization of Argentum. So very fascinating. So what, what is really the passion driving what you guys are doing at Argentum right now and kind of the direction that you guys are going?

 

James: Really, you know, if I were to boil down our focus, it’s helping the industry prepare for the future. I mean it’s still a relatively young industry, about 30 years old, but you know, everybody talks about this wave of boomers coming and there’s tremendous opportunity, but the industry has got to be prepared for that. And so really we use that as sort of the focus for everything that we do. So you know, whether we’re talking about helping find workers for the, you know, the next 10, 20 years, we’re talking about public policy challenges and opportunities. We’re talking about developing the next generation of leaders. That’s really sort of how we think about it. It’s how do we help the industry reach its full potential in the future?

 

Josh: So let’s talk through some of your big picture objectives to kind of prepare the industry for what you guys feel are some of the biggest challenges that we call the biggest opportunities that we have to kind of rally together to problem solve. And I know you guys have a lot of objectives, but what are, what are a couple of the big ones?

 

James: So I think first number one, number two, and number three is probably workforce, right? And it’s a, it’s a challenge today, but it’s just gonna be more and more of a challenge. But to your point, it’s also a great opportunity for us to go out and find the right talent. It’s going to come in and say, you know what? This is great. It’s aligned with my sort of mission and I’m going to be in this industry for the next 30 years. And so really we’re focused on how do we build a pipeline of talent? How do we find the folks that want to come into the industry, pull them in and give them a career progression that they can sort of stick with? And then also how do we educate and empower our existing team members to follow a similar career progression? So for example, we’re doing a lot in the area of apprenticeship programs. So recently we got a grant from the department of labor, a $6 million, four-year grant to develop 7,000 apprentices in senior living over the next four years. And so that’s, we’re going to be bringing universities, community colleges, operators, health systems together to develop that talent. And I think that’s a real opportunity for us to show people that come into this industry that yes, you can, you can have a career path, you can have a career progression.

 

Josh: I love that. So around that how can, if someone was interested in either learning more about that or being part of that from the provider side or getting involved with that apprenticeship program? I mean, what is the channel that they would find at Argentum to get involved?

 

James: Well, so Brent Wyle on our team was phenomenal, sort of leads all our workforce development initiatives. So I just say go direct to Brent and somehow he finds time to reach out to everybody. I don’t know how he does it. But from a programmatic perspective, we launched an initiative called Senior Living Works a few years ago and that’s really where we’re funneling all of our workforce development initiatives. So if you want information about the grant and how to participate, you know, you’d go to senior living works. It’s actually seniorliving.works. But if you want to learn about how to become an ambassador, that’s a, another thing we’ve really been focused on is, you know, we’ve got so many people in this industry that are passionate about the industry, how do we get them out telling them their story, talking to other people? And so we launched an ambassador program two years ago and by the end of this year, we think they will have reached about 50,000 students talking about careers and senior living. So that’s another opportunity for people to engage.

 

Josh: Yeah. So you mentioned in the multiple groups that are kind of collaborating around this apprenticeship program, I heard universities. We’ve talked on the show, even an earlier guest that we had on the show today about kind of bridging the gap so to speak between our industry and these universities. There’s- fortunately, we had a great opportunity to speak with a great program ambassador from Cornell that’s here at this conference. So that was encouraging and exciting. It sounds like you guys are going to be doing some of that. So what are some of the things that may be either onboard now or maybe future initiatives to get universities talking more about our industry? Because it’s been even from a personal level, I’ve talked with Lucas about this as we’ve gone in and talked to some, some universities, many of the top business schools in the country their senior level students have one, less than 1% have even heard about our industry. And so, you know, I think we’re real quick to throw stones at the universities and see like, you know, how, how are you not doing that? But then, you know, we reflect back on ourselves and say, well, maybe we’re not doing a great job at, at telling and selling our story. Is there anything that you guys are doing to bridge that gap?

 

James: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think you’re right. It’s on us, right? We need to go to those universities and tell them what they need to do. They don’t, they don’t know the industry like operators. So really what we’re doing is working with the vision 2025, which is a consortium that was pulled together by Ed Kenney and Joel Nelson at LCS and a few others. And we’re committing to connecting at least this year five operators with five universities in a partnership to go in and say, this is the curriculum that we need to be able to put forward, you know, really quality EDS in the future and help fund the program at that university, but then also make sure that there’s paid internships that are coming out of that university because that’s the critical component part of it. And it’s really a symbiotic relationship between the operator and the university. 

 

Josh: Sure. 

 

James: University can put together the educational program, but the operator’s gotta have jobs at the end of that.

 

Josh: Yeah, I love that. So talk about a little bit that initiative cause we were talking a little bit about the recruitment of new people to the industry. You also talked about taking care of the people that are in the industry. But still on the topic of recruitment, what has it been like for you know, new people, rookies to the industry, people that are maybe student level? Do we have any population of those individuals that are attending Argentum now? 

 

James: We’re starting to go down that path quite honestly. We haven’t done enough of that. But what I am pleased to say this year we’ll have I think close to 15 universities attending the conference. And we’re getting them to start pulling their students in and we’re starting to offer scholarships for students to come to the conference so that we can start to get people engaged in that. I was talking to somebody here earlier about, somebody from Cornell that came, and just out of their own, you know, they, they looked it up. They said, oh, I’m going to go to NIC in San Diego to learn more about the industry. And that’s the kind of thing we need to, we need to push along further.

 

Josh: That may have been our podcast guest. 

 

James: Was it? 

 

Josh: We had someone from Cornell, a bright young man and man, I was really excited for the future. If we have more people like him, young students that are not only kinda challenging our thought by asking some provoking questions, but you know, there was some things that I thought were touched on. I don’t know if you guys, if it’s on your radar or not, I hadn’t thought of it, but he was bringing up some questions, the student that is, of how the leaders that have really shaped this industry have built this industry that we’re very proud of to be, to be part of about asking some challenging questions, not only about well, what does this, what are you gonna offer me as a job? But what are you gonna offer me as an opportunity to shape culture? 

 

And the fact that the young generation is asking those kinds of questions led me to think, well, are our elders in the industry, so to speak, that C-suite that is about to pass the mantle, are they prepared to provide that kind of collaborative culture to allow some of the things that they’ve built their culture on to be changed, to change with time? So I think there’s also a preparedness that we have to be preparing the C-suite. They’ve got to be ready to adapt. Right? 

 

James: Absolutely. 

 

Josh: And that may fall in line with the other side of what you were talking about, which is taking care of our own and the education. So maybe touch on some of what you guys are doing for the existing workforce.

 

 

James: So really we’re sort of taking a look at it in two areas, leadership development and then just professional development and educational resources. And so on the leadership front, a big part of what we’re focusing on is helping develop future women leaders in the industry. Now our industry actually does better than most in terms of women leaders. You know, about 70% of the management in the industry is women. But there’s more that we could do and we should actually be leveraging that as a way to bring in more women into the industry. 

 

And so a couple of years ago we launched under the leadership of Collette Gray, a women in leadership initiative. And so they’re working on mentoring rising women in the industry. So you’ve got CEOs that are identifying, you know, some of this younger talent and helping mentor them over the next couple of years. We’re also taking a look at other industries so that we can go out to some that may not be (or) have as much opportunity for women to say, hey, look at us over here. You know, we’ve already figured it out. And so that’s a big effort that we’re undertaking. 

 

But outside of women in leadership, a new program we launched, it’s called Lead, which is helping develop sort of a future leaders, mostly at the corporate level, but sort of that next tier of talent so that we can get those CEOs that have established the culture, sort of mentoring the next generation of leaders. So they have that conversation, right? Whereas, you know, things are going to need to change and everybody needs to recognize that and be flexible. And so that’s a big opportunity for us. 

 

At the other area, you know, in terms of professional development is really developing certifications for folks. And people often say, well, why do you need to certify somebody if they’re already, you know, sort of the best in the industry. And part of it is to give them sort of that honor, right? To give something for people to aspire to in their careers. If we want people to stay in this industry, they need to constantly be challenged and constantly be looking for that next opportunity. And so we launched our certified director of assisted living program a few years ago and we have, I think over 600 people that have been certified to date.

 

Josh: I love that. So we know and have heard more about the educational opportunities. Obviously a lot of people know about the conference, but you guys work really year round nonstop at helping shape change and a lot of how Argentum does that is by rallying our industry to shape policy. So can you talk to us a little bit about some of the policy initiatives that you’re working with the providers for to really shape change in (and) at the federal and state levels?

 

James: Yeah, that’s a great question. So first and foremost, you know, our objective is to maintain a strong state regulatory framework. Healthcare care in general is local. And that’s where it should be regulated. And so that’s sort of the bedrock principle around everything they do. But increasingly, there is opportunity for us to find bipartisan support in Washington on certain initiatives. So we’re starting to hear and gain some traction in conversations around workforce development, not immigration reform. When we were talking about immigration reform, everybody shuts down. But if you talk about workforce development, people start to open up. And so as an example where we’re starting to make some headway with the concept of a and we can’t take credit for this, you know, many organizations are involved, but a low skilled worker visa program that would specifically target long term care and senior living so that we can help bring in some talent from overseas to help, you know, what we have is a major gap. So we’re starting to see some, some interest in that. Increased funding for training for long term care workers is another area that we’re taking a look at. Increased funding for apprenticeship programs and the healthcare sector in the service sector. So those are a couple of the areas that we’re working on. 

 

But the ones that I’m really excited about is around retirement security. So everybody knows that, you know, we’ve got this wave of boomers coming 74 million strong. But the majority of them don’t have the savings they need to pay for their long term care needs. And increasingly, policymakers are starting to recognize that. So last year we were successful in getting the Secure Act passed, which raised the minimum age distribution from 70 and a half to 72 and a half. It’s not enough. It needs to keep going up because what that does is it lets people push back their savings through when they need it when say they’re 80, 85 and moving into a senior living community. So, but we’ve had some success there. 

 

We’re supporting Senator Toomey’s bill getting ready to launch that would let you use your retirement savings for long term care insurance. But there’s also interest in taking a look at 529 plans for long term care or using HSA funds to pay for long term care. So there’s, I’m really excited about the interest in Washington about trying to solve some of these issues without a massive entitlement program, which won’t go anywhere. There’s no bipartisan support for that. But these changes to tax law I think is a real opportunity.

 

Josh: I think that’s so cool. So talked a little bit about certifications, talked about policy and kind of along those lines. You know, I’m a firm believer that our industry kind of has to rally to set industry best practices. Even though we’re state regulated if, you know, I, I’ve heard someone say if we don’t kind of set a standard, a high quality standard, someone’s going to come in and set it for us. But you guys have done a lot of work, are doing a lot of work around helping the industry find some best practice quality standards. Could you just scratch at the surface?

 

James: Yeah. So we’ve been working on that for a few years in terms of, you know, how do we identify the types of standards, what areas should we focus on? We haven’t really been focused on developing best practices that cover all aspects of operations. We’ve really been talking about those, those areas that are of most risk to the resident and in turn to the community and in turn to the operator and in turn to the industry, right? Whether it’s, you know, medication errors or instances of impacting residents safety or falls or what have you. And so we’ve started going down that path, but increasingly we’re getting interest from other associations and other stakeholders to be involved in that, which we’re excited about. And so there’s conversations going on now that I think are going to be fruitful, where, collectively, the entire industry can come together and say, okay, how do we elevate quality? You know, how do we identify things like quality measures, best practices? How do we take a look at state regulations and make sure they’re as strong as they should be? That kind of thing. And, and I think, you know, associations serve as a catalyst. Oftentimes I may not actually solve the problem, but we can help shine a light on it and get people involved. And so I’m really sort of energized by the conversations that we’re having with a lot of stakeholders about how to improve quality.

 

Josh: That’s exciting. So you guys are working hard, your team around the clock in all these areas and many more, but you kind of come together a certain times of the year for kind of the Superbowl for the industry to kind of come together to, to not only network but to talk about topics, to get some education, to have thought provoking conversations. You got a conference coming up in Tampa this year. Can you give us some teasers of what people are going to expect?

 

James: Yeah, it’s a great event, great lineup. Before I go into that, I do want to sort of address the elephant in the room, you know, coronavirus and everything we’re seeing in the media. And at this point, you know we haven’t seen any indication that people are not planning on coming. Registration is pacing ahead. Expo sales are pacing ahead. So at this point we’re continuing on with the event. We’ll of course notify people in the event that that changes as we monitor things.

 

 But we’re really excited about what we think will be one of our best events ever. We’ll be starting with them, a new celebration of the industry. On the first afternoon of the conference, Marcia Gay Harden, I don’t know if you’re familiar with her. She’s an award winning actress who won an Academy award for her role in the movie, Pollack. She’ll be, and she wrote a book seasons of my mother about their struggles with Alzheimer’s. She’ll be hosting that event where we recognize our heroes. 

 

But then we’ve also got Mark Bertolini, who’s the former chairman and CEO of Aetna and, and sort of the architect of the Aetna CVS health merger. And he’s going to come in and talk sort of about that, that convergence and disruption in healthcare, much of what’s being talked about here. But also about mission-driven leadership, which is really central to what we do every day. 

 

And then we were going to be talking a lot about innovation. So we’ve got Robert Richmond, who’s the culture strategist at Zappos, is going to come in and talk about how they developed a culture of innovation, but then he’s going to lead a panel of our CEOs talking about how they can develop innovation within their companies or how they have already, so a lot of exciting speakers and sort of get a theme. We tend to look outside of our industry for a lot of the content. There’s others that are already doing a lot of this that can help us learn and help us do better. So we’re pretty excited about sort of the lineup that we’ve got.

 

Josh: That’s really exciting. Lucas, we talk a lot. We’re better together. It seems like that’s the theme and in learning from those that are already doing great things. I know we’re excited, right? A Bridge the Gap will be there at your show. I love the partnership. And it’s right around the corner of Tampa is a beautiful city and that’s a beautiful time to be in Tampa. 

 

Lucas: Absolutely. It’s going to be a fun event. We’re excited. And we also want to tell our listeners that we do have a discount code that that you guys can help to get a little bit of money off on your registration. So we’re thankful for the partnership and how we can leverage our platform to help drive some attendance and just really respect a lot about what’s going on in Argentum and really looking forward to Tampa. Appreciate it, James.

 

James: Thank you. And thank you for the partnership and you know, register early, register often, I always say. 

 

Lucas: Well we’re registered and we’re ready to go and we’ll definitely connect in the show notes to all the information that we talked about and the links to all of these different aspects of the, these initiatives that Argentum has in play. Because I know our listeners are going to want to tap into that. And also don’t forget to follow us at btgvoice.com. You can get all of our social media access, all of our past shows listen to us on iTunes and Spotify, whatever you want to listen to your podcasts on. And thank you for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

Thank you to our supporting partners NRC Health, OneDay, TIS, Morrison Living, Argentum, Solinity, and The Bridge Group Construction. 

Episode 109: James Balda