Creating ‘fixers’ for a new generation of nursing home leadership

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Indiana’s largest skilled nursing operator is developing a new program to advance leaders across the organization’s footprint, focusing on soft skills and people management techniques that are necessary in a range of frontline and administrative roles.

Designing the program falls to American Senior Communities’ senior adviser Donna Kelsey, a 26-year navy reservist and long-term skilled nursing leader and ASC’s top executive for the last seven years. Having stepped back from the CEO role this spring, Kelsey will stay on into 2024 to focus on leadership and government advocacy.

Instilling values and badly needed skill sets into the overworked LTC workforce is a passion for Kelsey.

“We take care of very sick people, we have a challenged workforce and we expect them to be experts in so many things,” Kelsey told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News last week. “That’s why I’m excited about this program, to take them out of the building and say, ‘Yeah guys, you do a great job with the resources that you have now. Let’s take a look at your leadership styles here.

“We can make it easier, better for you so that you are managing your people with maybe a little less conflict with a little more passion, a little more enthusiasm.’”

The program began with a survey asking executive directors, directors of nursing and home office staff what qualities they want to see the company develop in its rising leaders. Key themes included motivating employees, building effective teams and developing others — important factors as sector turnover continues to reduce the pool from which companies can advance internal candidates. Others asked for help with more effective communication, whether that’s talking peer-to-peer, supervisor-to-peer or through language barriers.

The effort to build those skills will pick up this summer, as Kelsey presents the concept organization-wide. By late this year, the first cohort of 12 to 20 leaders should be in place.

Creating places for better leaders

While ASC already offers career ladders, tuition reimbursement, preceptor training and a healthy administrator-in-training program, the program Kelsey is working on is role agnostic. While some cohorts may be predominantly for building leaders, she sees a place for culinary managers and others who, thanks to staffing shortages, may have risen through the ranks too quickly to learn all the good stuff.

One critical requirement will be that participants are committed to doing the work, some of it in-person and out of their home building, and to being a support to others in the cohort. There also will be readings and assignments that require time and critical thought, a skill Kelsey said is often overlooked in the day-to-day business of running a nursing home.

“If you want to improve, you have to understand why we do the things we do, and then, how it can be different,” Kelsey said. “How can you do it better? And if the person doing the job, if we give them time to think about how you can improve, how to take five steps down to four … that will be one of the things in our program that we will talk a lot about. How do we really critically think through the problems? Because we are fixers of problems.”

With enough attention on these skills, Kelsey hopes to see a program that lifts struggling buildings, giving them a better shot at attracting and keeping strong leaders who grow loyal, hard-thinking employees. That, she said, should result in better retention organization-wide.

“You work for your boss. You don’t work for the company — you work for the boss,” Kelsey said. “You don’t leave because of the company. You leave because of your boss. And the stronger buildings have great leaders in them.”


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