Exploring Compassionate Leadership

in Senior Living By Kenya McCullum


he Arbor Company had encoun- tered an issue that is not uncom- mon in the senior living industry:

Although health care professionals that stepped into managerial positions were ex- perts in resident care, they didn’t necessarily have the skills they needed to lead a team. “From their experience, people go to nurs-

ing school to learn how to care for people, not to be managers,” said Mary Ellen Sanajko, who provides leadership coaching to senior living organizations. “They were seeing first- hand the need to better support their nurse leaders because of communication challenges with the employees who report to them, col- leagues, and even families. They saw that ef- fective and successful nurse leaders needed to be skillful at negotiating, setting boundaries, setting priorities, and asking for help.” Sanajko helped The Arbor Company

by creating a customized training program for new leaders that would cover areas like stress management, time management, and assertive leadership—all of which are essen- tial when it comes to addressing problems on a managerial level. In addition, Sanajko’s training also helped The Arbor Company adopt a leadership philosophy that is rooted in compassion.

What is compassionate leadership? “Compassionate leadership is a mod- ern-day leadership style based on years of research on how a leader can better engage with employees through deeper understand- ing of who they are and their needs,” said Kevin Keith Whitehurst, MatrixCare’s SVP of skilled nursing solutions. “This type of leadership begins with the leader being cognizant of their own needs and being compassionate to themselves.

Ideally, this mentality will influence the entire team they 58 SENIOR LIVING EXECUTIVE MARCH/APRIL 2019

manage, and in many ways, give a boost to the entire organization.” Compassionate leaders must be able to al-

leviate the discomfort of those around them while still finding solutions to their problems. This often requires telling people what they need to hear to solve a problem, rather than what they want to hear to make them feel better. In order to do this, leaders must hone their ability to communicate assertively, but in a compassionate way. In addition, they must be able to show genuine interest in others, provide support when needed, and recognize when people are doing a good job. “Organizations benefit from compassion-

ate leaders in many ways, but the biggest perk is having a deeper understanding of what motivates staff.

Staff motivation is a key part of an organization’s success,”

Whitehurst said. “Organizations also ben- efit from having more buy-in and more contribution from their employee base. This has a positive effect on carrying out the company mission. High performing or- ganizations incorporate compassion at some level into their core values and the results are evident in their leadership team DNA.” The results are also evident in resident

care, and ultimately, an organization’s bottom line. Workers who feel compassion from their manager are more engaged and better posi- tioned to pass this empathy along to residents and families, which boosts the quality of care and service they provide. As the culture of an organization becomes more compassionate, it actually makes it more profitable and able to sustain profitability even when there are shifts in the economy.

ADOPTING COMPASSIONATE LEADERSHIP Senior living organizations can reap many benefits by integrating compassionate leadership in their organization, but the change won’t come without careful planning. Here are some tips:

• Do an assessment. Senior living organizations won’t know what to do unless they know where they stand. This can begin by assessing the behaviors of employees and using resident satisfaction surveys.

• Define goals. Senior living communities must clearly define what they want to gain from the new approach to leadership so they can measure their progress.

• Get senior leadership support. The adoption of compassionate leadership has to start from the top and be demonstrated and supported by those who run the company.

• Incorporate compassion into all business operations. It’s important to incorporate this model into all areas of the business. From marketing to recruiting to accounting, compassionate leadership makes every part of a business run more efficiently and effectively.

• Be realistic. Sanajko noted it’s important to remember it’s not a magic bullet that will fix everything going wrong. “Compassionate leadership doesn’t fix all that ails, but it does open up the space for possibility, and it does open the space for those difficult conversations for seeing others’ points of view,” she said. “That is laying the foundation for addressing some of those systemic things.”

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