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  • Writer's pictureJames Lee

Pros & Conferences

The first time I went to a national, industry conference for senior living I was so excited to go. I had been in the industry for almost 7 or 8 years by this time, and I was jazzed to be there. I'll admit, it made me feel important. Here I was in the room with all the decision-makers, the executives, the big-wigs, and I was walking among them in a senior role of my own.

The second time I went to a large industry conference a couple years later, I was an Executive Director. I had made a concerted investment in my senior living career by taking some time to sit in the driver's seat of a community's operations. I recognized that while I had previously understood the role of an E.D., I couldn't truly empathize until I did it myself.

This time, I paid my own way to attend. I paid the fees, took time off, and entered the doors - excited once more. This time, the experience was far different. I walked out thinking:

  • I didn't realize how expensive it was to be at conferences. When the funds didn't come from my own pocket, I approached the conference differently - in truth, a feeling of self-importance and rubbing elbows with the right people. When I had to use my own money to go the second time, I walked in with an "investment" mentality. I also thought about specific residents at my community who were counting on me to learn something and make their lives better for it. The "ROI" had faces to it. [Note: I did end up getting reimbursed for the conference fee a couple weeks later, but I didn't know that at the time of attendance, and my supervisor was not too happy about it.]

  • The second time around, I realized something. Most of the people in the sessions were on their phones - scrolling and clearly replying to emails. I saw the same people sitting with the same people from session to session (typically from the same company). It's not a scientific observation, but it appeared to me that the people paying attention and taking notes were in "lower" positions and likely first-time attendees.

  • The big one - the topics were essentially the same as the first time I attended a couple years back. The aha moment for me was that our industry hadn't had any real aha moments for several years. I wondered how many topics had just been recycled from year to year - and how far back? I attended a session that challenged attendees to rethink how technology was viewed and utilized; one session was about drawing from other industries' successes and adopt them as our own. As I realized most of the executives weren't paying attention, my heart sank.

I think the reason I felt especially sensitive to these observations was because I had experienced - for the first real time - what if felt like to have conversations with residents and their family members who could no longer afford to live in our community for one reason or another. One resident had been visiting my office for months leading up to her move out. A short-term pension she relied on was coming to an end, and she would only have the social security income left - far lower than the lowest monthly option we could offer. After a few months and both parties out of viable options, the resident moved in with her daughter. On the day of her move-out, I was helping with some of her boxes and she said, "I know you tried everything, mijo." (what she called me.) *cue broken heart*

A New Mindset

If we are going to change - leap forward as an industry - we first need the courage to examine our collective mindset and renew, reengage, and reconstruct our commitments. The conference experiences, for me, are a microcosm - an example for something we have to change. We effortlessly say things like "resident centered care" and "residents first" and "mission driven" and "passion" and other compelling turns of phrase. But, guys, we have gotten too comfortable with self-importance. I'm raising my own hand here and not pointing fingers.

EVERY DOLLAR we utilize to run our business ultimately comes from a senior. They sold their homes, liquidated their savings, used their military or work pensions, or any number of actions to trade their lives' savings strategies to give us that dollar. The exchange isn't just a black and white residency agreement too long that most people don't read it. The exchange comes with an implicit promise: "I'll do right by you with this dollar you give. I will do my part to make your life better." The promise isn't represented in the monthly invoices we send. The promise lives in our organizational activities that cost money. Their money.

I don't dislike conferences. I hope to go to many more - paying my own way, and I think important work CAN be done here if we reconfigure our commitments going into them. And believe me, it is not lost on me that as I forge ahead in a consulting business, I risk offending the very people who would potentially hire me. It is the executive, after all, who can authorize my engagement with their organization. But, early on - now, I choose to draw a defined line in the sand - to work with companies and leaders who are not offended by this type of message but softened by it - encouraged by it - emboldened to feel the deep connection to their core reasons for doing this work in the first place. These leaders will not hear dissent in my tone but a deep love bruised by frustration.

Here's an exercise I do when I need help reconfiguring my perspectives. I imagine that there are no barriers to trying something new. What would I do if success was guaranteed? If I were creating my own conference (again, a microcosm or example of the bigger picture of senior living), here are a few things I would do.

Not a Conference

As an Executive Director I rarely held "meetings". I held workshops. Each department manager came to these workshops with the right mindset - preparation, engagement, and an expectation of an ROI of our time together to directly plug into our business strategy. We clearly defined the problems we were trying to solve, and we brought evidence/data/ideas into the workshop to fine tune our collaboration as a team. We set aside time for strategy so that we could better execute. By the third time we held these "Business Strategy Workshops" the dining director was leading the discussion about revenue and the nursing director was taking the lead on discussing data analysis.

With that in mind, I submit to you an idea of a different conference - a non-conference.


  • Rising Stars: community level leaders (not just managers - anyone) applied to attend the workshop based on their merit, contribution to the industry, and/or commitments (ideas) to strengthen leadership in our industry. Selected attendees would be paired with mentors with the right skills, connections, or expertise to further the Rising Star's work.

  • Mentors: established leaders in the industry must also apply to attend with at least one current (within the last 12 months) and new testimonial by someone (not a direct report) that they mentored and supported.

  • Local Senior: seniors from local senior living communities and the greater community of the city where the workshop is held. They directly represent their own voice, opinions, and needs in the workshop sessions. No empty seat representation here - actual, beating-heart representation in the room.


  • Rising Stars: able to attend through sponsorships, scholarships, and contributions by their organizations. Awarded based on merit and need.

  • Mentors: encouraged to pay their own way without corporate funds or a blended rate, but would leave this responsibility to mentors and their organizations.

  • Local Senior: no fees (gratis)

  • At this point in the exercise you may be thinking, "Great, James, but how would you pay for this?' Answer: not sure. This is a "no barriers" exercise, and I believe solutions present themselves when the problem is clearly defined.


  • Workshop sessions: problems facing the industry voted on throughout the year by industry professionals. This ensures accountability to relevant problems.

  • Pre-work: mentors and rising stars are paired at least 4-6 weeks prior to the event to begin their preparation for each workshop session. (Think pre-work for students entering their first year of college.)

  • No Speakers. Workshop Facilitators only. Plenty of other conferences will have speakers. This workshop is 100% engaged participation. Sponsoring organizations can nominate representatives to facilitate the workshop sessions - setting the stage, keeping the discussion moving, and ensuring deliverables.

  • Live Streamed Presentations on the Last Day - selected presenters from each workshop session develop a hybrid live and web-stream presentation to communicate their findings, recommendations, and action items to advance solutions developed in their session. The live stream is available to any registered guest - including residents of senior living communities. One-sheet summaries and recommended action are distributed to all registered guests.

I call this the "Senior Living Legacy Workshop" because it engages the current as well as future leaders of our industry, and it directly involves our end-consumer in a way that invites transparency and genuine accountability. Another learning and development principle at play here is active engagement (workshop) versus passive involvement (watching a speaker).

If I meet my untimely demise - life, career or otherwise, I hope someone will develop this on their own. If I am blessed with a long life and career, I hope others will join me in developing something like this. Would you sign up for this workshop?

Instead of just giving annual awards to our best caregivers and associates - a trophy and photo are nice and all - what if we awarded them entrance fees and accommodations to a career-advancing workshop like this? I think it would be more comfortable to say things like, "we invest in our people" and "our people are our greatest assets." If that's true, we need to do what any sound investor would do with a valuable asset - grow it.

The "no barriers" exercise has a unique payoff. When you begin to unpeel the reasons that perceived barriers exist, you realize something - the things we are capable of are not hindered by external forces as much as they are by our own imagination.

Just imagine.

What could we do with a little changed perspective and a sharp right turn?


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