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The Rise and Fall of the Executive Director

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By Kent Mulkey

This morning I scrolled through Executive Director job openings, just for the fun of it. But it quickly became not so fun as I began to grasp a certain reality in our industry. It is a conservative estimate to say there are well over 500 ED openings nationwide. 

Wait, where did all the executive directors go?

Where are the ones allegedly waiting in line to work in the greatest industry on earth? How do these 500 senior communities operate at their maximum without someone at the helm?

The Big Problem

Here’s how – we have set up a system that points to the ED as the one to blame for all things that could and do go wrong. Then, we fire them, or they leave from being burned out or pushed out.

Let me flesh this out. The bar is set high, perhaps too high. Say we want to see a 99% average occupancy and a 40% operating margin, even though no other operator in the market is even close to these performance markers. What happens when the 28-year-old ED with little to no prior experience (the typical ED) who can barely read a P&L doesn’t hit these numbers?

Out the door. Next!  We need to find the brightest and the best. And the churn continues.

It’s Your Fault

So here is what I want to say to the operators out there who recruit, hire and train executive directors – it's your fault. It is your fault that ED turnover is so high, that on any given day in the country you are looking for more and more EDs.

Do I sound a bit over the top?  Perhaps, but read on. 

I’ve been on both sides of the equation – working as an ED (for 15 years) as well as hiring EDs. I know it isn’t easy and our industry faces tough challenges in figuring out where to find, how to hire, and how to purposefully develop leaders.

Making It Better

Here are a few tips:

  1. Stop telling EDs that the job is 24/7. Nobody can sustain that kind of expectation especially when you pay them a barely adequate wage for the hours they are in the community.

  1. Create a reasonable job description. I received one that was 8 pages, single-spaced. I had a hunch right away that I wouldn’t make it, and I didn’t. I guarantee you wouldn’t create one that long for yourself if you even created one at all.

  1. Encourage EDs to possess and develop a specialty. At one company I worked, EDs were referred to as Generalists, as though we had no real talent or marketable skills. After 20 years of work in senior living that is what I amounted to . . . a generalist. Nice.

  2. Stop telling EDs that they are the CEO of the community. It is a lie and unfair to encourage them to think they have a certain amount of autonomy and decision-making authority when they don’t. Plus, the pressure is too great.

There are too many burned out EDs on the side of the road, wondering what happened to all their hopes and dreams. Go back and pick up some of these folks. They are worth it. They need you to believe in them, support them, laugh with them, train them, and go to the wall for them.

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