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

Episode 71: James Lee

Executive Director Specialist James Lee shares how leaders in the industry can find life harmony while also helping your community be the best it can for both caregivers and residents.

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Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast with hosts Josh and Lucas. We are at the Argentum Conference 2019 here in San Antonio, Texas and we have what I believe to be the best-kept secret in senior living nationwide, maybe not in San Antonio he’s not a secret, but we have James Lee. He’s the ED of Brookdale San Antonio. James, welcome to the program. 

James: Thanks. I am super, super stoked to be here. I appreciate the platform to talk about our communities and I can’t- this is really cool. It’s very exciting. 

Josh: Yeah, we are grateful to have you on the show. Thanks for being here. We know you have a very, very busy schedule working in the business, in the communities, so thanks for taking time away for us. 

James: Happy to be here. 

Lucas: And that’s really a big part of this Josh, you know you as an operator in the business, I’m looking forward to hearing this dialogue because a lot of the people that are doing the heavy lifting, the hard work that we talk about that are creating and cultivating these love stories that we like to highlight, they are not able to come to these conferences a lot of times because they have to work. 

Josh: Yeah. Well that was part of the Genesis and the idea behind our podcast, right? We were like, how do we take this incredible thought leadership, this networking opportunity that we are so blessed to be able to attend and deliver that out to others? So a unique perspective today through the lens of James. So thank you for being on the show. Let’s dive into the conversation.

Lucas: Let’s do that. James, I’m an avid follower of your LinkedIn content, which is really been the impetus of you and I getting connected. You’ve really been a trailblazer in the business, working for some of the larger companies and in a variety of positions and what I find your origin story to be very unique. Let’s let’s unpack that a little bit so that our audience can get some context of how you’ve gotten to here. 

James: Sure. I think my story in senior living mirrors a lot of people’s similar cadence of their story. Everyone has a unique entry but similar, you know, and so for mine and that’s similar thread is that you didn’t mean to find it. You know, it’s like falling in love you, you just, it happened. 

So I’ve been in senior living for this is my 11th year. I found it at a time that I was really at a crossroads of what do I do with my education? You know, who do I want to be when I grow up? And so at the time I was applying to law school. I was living in Austin. I was applying to law school and I thought, well,  I need to get a job, but it can’t be a serious profession that I have to put on my resume and then have to explain. Why did I only do that for you know 6 months? 

So I went on not even LinkedIn or any of that it was Craigslist of all places. I went to Craigslist to start looking for jobs. And this address popped up. I didn’t even see the title. I just saw the address and I thought this place is across the street from where I live. I was in real expense crunching saving mode at the time so I thought, I can walk to work. So it turned out that the place was an independent living, assisted living community. I mean, I really had to look at what is independent living and so I took a position as a front desk concierge. 

And then a few weeks after, the health and wellness director asked me, hey, we need to fill a couple shifts and would you like to do that? And I thought okay, that sounds great. Probably a week or two after that. I mean it is the same feeling of falling in love of, like, what? What was that? And yeah, I really look forward to the weekends to to be going to work and talk to not just the residents but the people who are in that same love story, you know with you. 

And so a moment of decision came of do I continue to pursue, you know, law school or whatever educational pursuit I was thinking of or do I go full-throttle into this thing which at the time was paying me $10 an hour. And so I had to convince my dad and all these people who are invested in the other career path that, you know, senior living felt right and it was the first conscious decision I made in my life to pursue something that felt right and didn’t just sound right, you know, from a career perspectives. 

And 11 years later, you know, I get to do stuff that’s just- I never have a bad day. I have tough days, you know, but I never have a bad day at work and that’s pretty amazing. 

Josh: That’s fascinating. So we talk a lot about love stories so I appreciate the fact that you kind of painted that picture in your story. I think that’s a great kind of segway to talk about something that I have overheard a little bit and then Lucas has had an opportunity to spend more time with you here in Texas. But you know often times we talk about this work-life balance and you don’t really approach it like that. So tell us how you rephrase that and it seems like something you live by. 

Yeah, I’ve tried and I think a career and life should evolve at the same time and I firmly believed in work-life balance up until I started in senior living and I thought you spend your time at work, you spend your time in your personal life and, you know, hope that they’re a good enough match. But what I’ve really learned and subscribed to this kind of feeling of work-life harmony, you know, and not even work-life harmony, but just life-harmony, that all of the things that you do in your life, whether it’s work or friendships, volunteering, the type of pets you have, that if those things are in harmony, you’re never, you know, needing to negotiate time between passions. You’re just, you’re living your life. 

Work happens to be a component of that harmony, but every day I get to go to work and if I feel purpose in the connections between the managers and care associates and residents, that’s harmony, right? So I don’t count how long I’m at work. There probably are weeks that I’m there, you know, 30 hours and then others that you know they’re longer, but in the end it all averages out to whatever it needs to be because you found harmony in your pursuits. 

Josh: Yeah, I love that and I would say I experienced that. I don’t know about you Lucas, I would assume so because you’re so jazzed up everyday about doing what you do. I mean you’re one of the most exciting people to be around and I thrive on your energy, but you know, that’s something even though you know James firsthand the work we do in the communities is so important. And it’s often times, you know, kind of a thankless job because you’re doing things that aren’t necessarily glamorous and but when it is your passion and your purpose, you almost get energy from doing it. So I can sympathize with that. 

Similarly, as I’ve shared with Lucas, when I started in senior living like you, I didn’t really know what it was and it was not what sounded right as you mentioned that but it was right in that I wanted to help people and I had a passion for that. Didn’t know how to apply to senior living. So I’m so fascinated and thank you for sharing your story. 

So in senior living, we have to build a lot of teams. So like everything is around a team. You do so much in building the right team so talk with us a little bit about your perspective on where our industry is on team building, where we’ve come from, maybe where you feel like we need to be going and what we need to be doing. 

James: Sure. You know, as an insider, I think we can talk about things and not disparage them, but you know talk about the reality of the things that we’re doing well and we’re not. You know, Josh you mention that it can feel like a thankless job and the first in line to be giving that thanks should be the leaders, you know within the industry and I think when you think about the kind of quintessential example of who might feel thankless, I go right to caregiver. I go to the people that aren’t earning the wage is what it feels like, you know, I can relax and enjoy this. They’re thinking about. I have caregivers at our community that take two or three buses to get to work, that it’s a two-hour commute on a good day to get to work, right? So if they miss a shift, you know, our natural thought is if somebody calls off on a shift, well, you know, they’re not showing dedication or whatever, but then you think about, well, it takes them two hours to get there and back tonight and for them if they miss a shift, it means a great deal to them. 

And so I think you know as passionate as we are about resident care and family, when we say customer, we really mean that the person who’s paying us, right? But we got to think about the people that we’re paying for. We have to be as obsessive about meeting the needs of our workers, our managers, our caregivers, everyone at the community and if we’re doing that, everything else falls into place. 

Josh: I totally agree with you and I think oftentimes in our industry, I hear people say it all the time, our residents are number one, you know, our families are number one and you know, they’re going in that with the right intentions, but often times what you see is you see such an intentional focus and you see intentional incentives put in place for making that resident or that family happy, but so infrequent do we actually build our reward systems, structures and intentionality in plans around what how do we invest in making this team member the best possible team member? How do we invest in making this the best experience for them? And out of that abundance when they’re well taken care of, how much easier is it to reach that resident and that family member, that consumer as you say. 

What’s been your experience and maybe some successful strategies that you’ve implemented? 

James: At the heart of all of our kind of leadership strategies at the community is a real belief and we got to give them something other than their wages. Wages- and we all talk about should we raise wages? Should everybody go up to X dollars an hour? But the problem with that is that it doesn’t actually solve the problem of thanklessness, you know? And so what if you can make $15 an hour or $18 an hour here, if everybody’s paying that, you’re just still bouncing from one place to another. So our commitment is how do we help our associates to gain the additional that will help them beyond this role, beyond their pay. 

So the way that we deliver that is education. We spend a lot of time on workshops. I start with the managers. I know that I can impact the entire team to the same degree. So instead I focus on my group of managers that are direct reports and I think about how am I adding skill-sets to their plate? How am I padding their resume for the next job and when I arrived not a single one of our managers had ever seen a financial statement before. 

Josh: Wow.

James: I mean, not a one of them and it wasn’t because they weren’t interested or had the capacity to understand it. Nobody just opened it up and said here’s our business, you know, when we ask our managers to be business leaders and drive our business, but they don’t have just the basic language around it, you know, we’re asking people to participate in something without giving them the respect of here’s the knowledge, right? 

So from our caregivers through our leadership levels there, we’re really focused on building skill sets that are transferable beyond whatever you’re doing here for us. 

Josh: Okay. So, I’ve heard you and Lucas talk a little bit about how your approach is more of like a career- what it would turn to use? Career consultant or something like that in your approach to that. So that seems like that ties in really well with what we’re talking about here. 

James: Yeah, and maybe this is an odd perspective, but when we talk about the turnover problem in our industry, everybody makes the same inherent assumptions about it, that turnover’s bad. Here’s the right range that you should be at and then all you end up doing is trying to fix it to get to a level, right, without understanding the things that drive it. So our turn- I will give you the numbers. Ironically., I’m going to set it up that way but give you numbers. 

When I arrived, turnover rate I think at the end of that year I was about to arrive mid-year was summer about 125%. Pretty, pretty astounding again and then within a year’s time we were able to cut that down by almost half, to 62%. But the way that we did that was thinking about let’s not solve a numerical problem of turnover, let’s try to enhance the way people are turning over, right?

So we are actively trying to work to position us as an employer that’s going to help you grow your skill sets, right? So if we have a caregiver who is engaged and productive for a year versus somebody who is disengaged for 3 months, right or disengaged for 5 years. Let’s say tha-t we retain somebody for 5 years, but they’re they’re not really engaged at work. Would, you know, in your communities, would you take the caregiver for a year who is fully engaged, who participates and mentorship, in bringing the next people up? Would you try them out for the 5-year employee who’s there, but not giving you their heart?

Josh: Not engaged. That would be awesome. 

James: So retention and all of that is not a numbers game, it is about can we make it productive for us? So, you know what, if we never dropped below 50% retention or turn over but every single person who comes through is giving us their all, whatever their time frame is, I’ll take that. 

Josh: You know an interesting discussion and I think it kind of parallels what you’re talking about. You have a very unique perspective and I had never really thought about, you know, would you trade when you asked me that question the highly-engaged one-year worker that’s preparing for the next thing. I’m assuming if you do that successfully, they also become sort of an ambassador for you.

James: 100%. 

Josh: So they’re out there recruiting for you. But, you know, we often hear you guys hear it at all the conferences that we go to, all the articles that you read. Everybody’s talking about labor challenges, wage challenges. You know, how do you recruit? How do you retain? And it seems like to me there’s like a missing conversation or a couple of missing conversations, one of which is what you just brought to our attention. But you know, I was telling somebody the other day, James, you may have and Lucas you may have some insight on this, we recently with our day job at our company, we actually took over an existing community, a very old community in a metro area in the southeast. I was fascinated that the community, it’s nothing pretty to look at. It’s the place that everybody would drive by and think, you know, that’s not really flashy. That’s maybe not where I want to work. I was astounded that they have almost no turnover- employee turnover- and haven’t had for years. It’s a small owner-operator place. The wages you go in and I look at him and I’m like, they’re a little bit probably under the market. They offer no insurance benefits, no retirement benefits. So in other words from the outside looking in I’m thinking, oh my goodness how do they keep these workers? 

One by one by one, I meet with them, I talk with them. They’re happy. They love what they do and then it causes me to go back to all these panels that I’ve participated in having these conversations like right now with you guys and think, what is it that is there that causes these people to buy in so much to what they’re doing that is the reason why they’re retaining and it has nothing to do with the wage, with the benefits, you know? So what is that? 

So I don’t have the answer for that yet. But I think you’re touching on it. And there’s something there that I think we should be talking about in our industry. 

James: Yeah, I think in the pursuit of doing the right thing for our associate, all of our business metrics are going to rise, you know, to that. The same approach I have with our what we call the front staff, I take that to the managers also and I think, am I developing their skill sets in a way that makes sense and are they involved in that discussion? 

You know, I think one of the one of the best lessons I had in leadership was that this moment I had prepared all of this insight into what she was doing well, what she wasn’t doing well. This is earlier on in my as senior living career and I remember having a conversation with her and at the end of it, I had you know expand upon these these great insights and she looked at me and said I appreciate all of this, but you know, I don’t want that job you’re talking about it. She said I just really want to love this job and it was this light bulb moment of like I have not served this associate in this conversation or in the way that I scheduled her day or let her schedule her day. 

But it was a real wake-up call to say that, you know, leadership has nothing to do with how well-prepared you are. It’s how well did you listen to them in the first place? 

Josh: So let’s make a quick shift here and kind of round out the conversation a little bit. Talk to us a little bit about how you think our culture views senior living for the good or for the bad and how that translates to how our industry views senior living.

James: Josh, that’s the big question. That- that’s it. So yeah in a part of my outlook onto this is that everybody here, everybody behind us, we’re all after good. We’re all after doing a good thing. But I think fundamentally the question that we ask is what do seniors need? And then let’s all work together to find it, package it and get it in front of them. But the real question we need to be asking is what do we need of our seniors? You know, because what is at the, what underlies that question is an inherent belief that the seniors are providing value, right? 

And so, you know, when when you think of seniors as the end recipient of a transaction, you know, they’re customers and we have to create some beautiful things and sell it to our customers. But when we ask what we need of our seniors, then we’re creating services and solutions for them that they care about, right?

I have a resident at our community that is looking for a job and he’s 84 years old. And you know we’re working through some stuff, some things that were going on in his life and we came to this kind of decision or he did rather and I just asked I think the right questions. He said, you know, maybe I might like to work and he had a pretty great career. I mean his resume would dwarf the three of ours combined I bet. But you know, he didn’t have a clue about how to get started on that and I realized okay, well, what if the answer to what do we need from our seniors is we need them to continue to be productive, you know, in society in a working capacity and look here’s somebody who wants that as well. 

So, you know instead of planning a calendar of activities that we think they might enjoy what if we cared enough to ask those questions and say what do you want? And let us enable that. So hopefully, you know, we’ll find a job you know for him. I you guys are hiring, let me know also. I’ll send his resume over. 

But I think if you ask that question, our cultural belief of aging is that, in my opinion, I think it’s despite our best efforts to dress it up with nice words, you know, it’s just kind of decided that if they can’t do for themselves and we have to step in and do that.

Josh: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. We talk about this a lot. I think that we put some of our most valuable resources and assets on the side line once they get to our communities and often times it’s not just a job that they need, but it’s a purpose. So for their whole life, they’ve been living for a purpose and engaged and then somehow when they come to the community, we just start telling them, you know, here’s what you need to be doing rather than asking the questions. I love that fresh perspective. 

You know, without getting overtly spiritual Lucas on our show, I’ve told my teams for years and I think it takes home what James is saying in that it’s you know as humans, we all are given a God-given purpose right? Regardless of our age, regardless of our frailty, if we’re breathing, if we’re living, we still have a purpose and so engaging residents in that purpose and I firmly believe that you know, a lot of times they have lived their whole lives, had good experiences, bad experiences and are this wealth of information and they’ve been prepared through all that for the time that they are now in this part of their life that they just happen to be living in our community and how do we engage them in that? So I love that fresh perspective. 

Lucas: It’s a great and beautiful discussion. I’ve so enjoyed just, you know, the wheels are spinning here and I highly encourage our listeners, if you’re not, if you’re not following James Lee on LinkedI, you need to be. 

Josh: You’re missing out. 

Lucas: You’re missing out because if you’ve enjoyed this conversation, he posts regularly his thoughts and ideas and feelings about his area of expertise and his work. His day-to-day life, the things that he’s encountering, his thoughts and views and perspectives. So if you’ve enjoyed that, please connect with him. We’ll make sure that we connect with James in the show notes as well. 

And then we would love to get some feedback. We’ve had a lot of diverse guests on the show and we’re going to be having some more community-level type people in the future and, you know, we’d love to hear from our listeners. How is the resonating with you? What ideas do you have? Is this in line with what you’re seeing? Connect to us on our show notes, through our show notes. You can go to btgvoice.com. Connect to us on our social media from there and thank you once again for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap. 

James: Awesome.

Thank you to our supporting partners NHI, RCare, NRC Health, TSOLife, ERDMAN and Sherpa.

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Episode 71: James Lee