Brightview Senior Living President and CEO Doug Dollenberg, Jr. believes change is inevitable — and necessary.
Dollenberg, who took the reins last year after previous CEO Marilynn Duker stepped back from her role to serve as co-chairperson, is laser-focused in 2023 on improvement at the company’s 46 communities.
Through the Changemakers series, Dollenberg talks about how he often views change as a sometimes uncomfortable but necessary step in a business that is evolving as quickly as senior living. He also describes how change must be a collaborative process, and not only dictated from the top-down.
How have you changed as a leader since starting in the senior living industry?
I don’t feel like I have changed as a leader, but I would say that I’ve doubled down on my focus on people and culture.
As a leader, I’ve always been intently focused on the importance of things like people and teamwork, engagement, and culture as key elements of business success. I think that is especially true in senior living. At the end of the day, in senior living, we’re in the people business, and our product, so to speak, really is our people.
Our success is highly dependent on the quality and talent, and capability of our team. For me, so much of my time is focused on our team, and how we continually elevate our associate experience. For me, that starts with staying connected with our team, visiting communities, having a presence, constantly listening for what’s working well and what can be improved within our organization within our team and how we operate.
Rather than what’s changed, I think it’s what stayed consistent in my case, and it’s that focus on people and culture. That’s why I joined the industry — and that’s why I’ve stayed at Brightview, and why I love what I do to this day.
Do you see yourself as a changemaker, and are you always excited to drive change?
I don’t get excited about change, per se, but I’m very comfortable with change. I fundamentally believe that change is an important part of the formula for business success.
At its core, I feel the world is constantly changing and evolving, and now it’s changing at a much faster pace than it ever has in the past. That means that we need to be changing and adjusting our approach and our business models in order to succeed. I’m not interested in change for change’s sake, I’ve never been that way.
For me, success is as much about change, as it is also about leveraging the strengths that we have as an organization and as a team, and leveraging what we already do incredibly well. It’s balancing current strengths and competencies with where we need to change and adjust. Fortunately for Brightview, I feel that we have such an incredibly strong foundation and culture, that we have so many strengths to build on.
For me, specific to the change point, my real focus is on continuous improvement and constantly raising the bar. What gets me jazzed up and excited is when you talk about continuous improvement. This concept of raising the bar, it applies to our associate experience, our resident experience and the overall success of Brightview. I get jazzed up by learning and exploring new ideas, thinking how to get better. I like problem-solving with my team, and figuring out how we create better solutions and approaches. The reality is, that’s where the ideas come from: The Brightview team, whether that’s our home office team, our community directors or our frontline team.
What are some ways that you think the senior living industry needs to change in the next five years?
Staffing is one. Two, resident experience. Three, embracing technology and innovation. And four, rebounding margin.
On the staffing front, turnover is a huge challenge in the senior living industry. It is in plenty of others, but especially in senior living. And we need to attract more people to the industry and help people realize that senior living is a great industry and a great place to build a career.
There’s tremendous career opportunities in our industry, and we’re only going to need more and more people over the next decade. There’s already something like a million people who know it’s a great industry, but we have to attract more people to it. I think it’s going to require creativity and innovation and change to get more people to enter our great industry. We also have to figure out ways for Brightview and for the industry as a whole to figure out how to increase retention.
Another is resident experience. Our resident needs and desires are evolving, and we need to be focused on addressing that for the residents of today — and also the residents of the future. The baby boomers, they’re not really entering our communities in the next handful of years, but as you go out 5, 10, 15 years, we really have to be thinking about them. As we’re looking at today’s residents and future, we have to be looking at what are the changes that impact our operations and the communities we develop for the future.
The third area that I mentioned is embracing technology, innovation and process improvement with the goal of driving efficiencies. I think that’s increasingly important in our industry, as we’re focused on margin. We have to search for and create efficiencies in our business, and so much of that is going to come back to those things that I mentioned: Technology, innovative and creative ideas, and process improvement.
The fourth big change in my eyes is margin rebound. Ultimately, our industry needs to get back to the operating margins that we had pre-pandemic, whether that’s getting back to them or near those pre-pandemic margins. That’s something that needs to happen, and that is the function of building occupancy, driving revenue, and managing costs. I feel the industry is working on that, which is a good thing. And personally, I feel really good about the progress that our Brightview team is making on that front.
Can you talk about a time when you tried to execute a change and things didn’t go according to plan? How did you pivot, and what did you learn as a leader?
A change that didn’t go seamlessly for us was in the post-Covid environment. We didn’t flex back to our normal culture of team empowerment quite fast enough.
Early in the pandemic, we quickly adjusted very quickly, like overnight, to a bit of a divide-and-conquer strategy to make decisions quickly and efficiently. New information was coming at us at light speed. We created a task force that would make decisions, that would process information, and then we’d roll that out to our community teams to implement.
In the early days of the pandemic, everybody loved that approach, appreciated it, and understood it. But while it was necessary in the early stage of the pandemic, it differed somewhat from the normal Brightview operating style.
Our normal style is that we seek a lot of input from our teams. We empower our community teams to make an awful lot of decisions under Brightview’s guiding principles and our Brightview philosophy. We didn’t change back to our normal operating and leadership style fast enough in year two of the pandemic.
Fortunately, our executive directors let us know and they wanted that Brightview culture back. They wanted that empowerment, they wanted that ability to make their decisions and lead their team. They loved that change and needed that change early in the pandemic, but as the pandemic dragged on, they were ready to get back to normal Brightview.
We’re incredibly grateful for the feedback that they gave us. We quickly adjusted and we made the change. That’s how we want to operate with that empowerment of our executive directors. The empowerment of our community department is because we hire great people and we want them to be empowered. And we trust the decisions they make under our guiding principles.
What are the key learnings from that? There’s a few that jump out to me. One is always to listen to the team and listen and appreciate and accept feedback. Two is to be flexible and ready to adjust. Third, it was a reinforcement about how important a culture of mutual trust truly is.
How do you think about timing so that Brightview can innovate without getting so far ahead of the market that new ideas are on the bleeding edge and don’t work?
There are really two key things that I think about. The first is, is the market ready and is there truly a demand for this new idea or this change? Second, does our team in our organization really have the capacity to implement the change, digest the change and make this new idea or new process a success?
For me, this whole topic is an issue about being measured and balanced. On one hand, you have to innovate, you have to implement new ideas; but on the other, you can’t do too many at one time or people in the organization will become overwhelmed. So much change that we implement requires rolling out an implementation with literally thousands of frontline associates.
We really need to think about change management and how much change can our organization realistically digest and implement well and successfully and be excited about it. As we do that, as I do that, there’s two concepts that I like to keep in mind. The first is we’re always prioritizing our initiatives. We can’t accomplish it all and that there’s generally more ideas than we have the time or capacity to implement. We’re constantly prioritizing the work that we think is going to have the greatest impact and making sure that we’re realistic in the amount of work and change that people can absorb.
The second concept is we like to do a lot of pilots, because pilots let us test new concepts or new ideas prior to a full rollout across our entire portfolio. In a pilot, we’re able to get input from our team, we’re able to get input from residents and families, and that helps us make go-no-go decisions on a full rollout, and it also helps us work out the kinks.
Changemakers tend to be risk-takers. Do you agree with that statement and how do you describe your own appetite for risk?
There’s certainly a correlation between driving change and risk tolerance. I do agree change always involves some level of risk and it’s important to be comfortable with that. I think sometimes what people miss or don’t think about is that there’s also a lot of risk in staying with the status quo. At times, the status quo can have even more risk. There’s risk out there no matter what.
As you think about change and change-makers and one element is risk. I think another element, which is at least as important is having a vision and thinking through where you want to go, how you want to get there, and aligning others in that vision and path. I’m very comfortable with measured and calculated risk.
If you could change one thing about the senior living industry, what would it be?
Now that I’ve been in the industry going on six years, I would love to change the public perception of senior living. I don’t feel that the general public or consumers or prospective residents or job seekers really understand what independent living, assisted living, and memory care is all about. In the eye of the public, senior living still gets mixed up with skilled nursing.
We saw that happen a lot during all the news coverage throughout the pandemic. I feel that so many people just don’t realize the vibrant and engaging lifestyles that our industry creates for seniors. Our industry, it’s just incredible. It’s fun, it’s engaging. We have tons of great people working in the industry and providing an invaluable and really a life-changing service to so many older Americans. If we could increase the visibility and positive perception of senior living to let people know this hidden gem that we have, I think it would be helpful in attracting more job applicants to the great careers that our industry provides. I also think it would be helpful in attracting more prospective residents and families.
If you had advice for other senior living operators who are no doubt going through some resistance to change they’re implementing, what would that word of advice be?
It begins with accepting that there is always resistance to change because change is unnatural and uncomfortable for so many people. Resistance is normal and that’s okay. It’s just human nature.
It’s our job as leaders to explain the need for change and help people get comfortable. As I think about that, there’s a couple of keys to minimizing resistance to change and managing that resistance to change.
First, it’s critical to engage the team in the idea generation stage. This is getting input from people throughout the organization. It helps create better solutions, and it also begins to align people on what the solution can be and the need for change. By engaging people at all levels of the organization in this very first stage, you’re making that resistance to change reduce.
The second key for managing resistance to change is piloting the change whenever possible and getting input and alignment from more people as you begin to proceed with the roll-out of the change. The chance for success really increases as you get more advocates and more influencers on board with the process and the change.
Then the third key for me in managing resistance to change is to communicate to people constantly along the way and be candid about the change. For me, it is so critical to address and explain the why behind the change and how we see it as beneficial for our business and our people. Many of the changes we make are truly beneficial for both of those groups, our business and also our people. We need to make sure that as leaders we understand the resistance. As I said, it’s always there. You need to recognize that it’s there.
There is usually logic behind it. So, address the concerns that people have in the communication plan, which so often needs to include one-on-one cascaded communication, especially if it’s an important change so that people have a chance to share their concerns and have them discussed and addressed.
How do you see the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry and what are you doing to drive change in that regard?
It’s an important topic for our society at large. I think it’s so important for our industry, because a large percentage of our associates are from diverse populations. It’s a critical topic because it’s about showing respect and appreciation and gratitude for our team. For us at Brightview, there is absolutely no question of a strategic priority as it’s the right thing for our team, and it’s also the right thing for our business.
We are so focused on being a Great Place to Work. It’s what drives and motivates us every single day. As we think about DEI, we want to make certain that we create an inclusive environment where we are a great place to work for all, and I stress all of our associates, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other diversity factors.
We have a task force working on DEI. We have initiatives in our business plan, and it’s part of our five-year strategic plan as well. We’re very proud of the inclusive work environment that we have created. We also know that we have more work to do and that we’re very committed to continually making progress on this important front.
2023 is shaping up to be a year of growth and evolution for many senior living operators. In what way is your organization changing for the times?
We are incredibly excited for the future. Of course, there are some current operating and financial headwinds that the entire industry is navigating, but I’d also say that the future is incredibly bright for the industry at large and specifically for Brightview.
The first way is by achieving our full financial recovery in this post-pandemic environment, which is getting our occupancy back at all our communities, getting our margin back, with lots of initiatives on sales and driving revenue and rebounding our priority focus communities, and managing expenses.
That second big focus area for us is enhancing the resident experience. As we now operate in this post-pandemic world, we want to and we need to make certain that our resident experience is fully back, that it’s extraordinary, and that it’s consistent across all 46 Brightview communities.
Third is addressing the staffing challenge and making sure that we’re optimizing our staffing. We’re investing a lot in recruiting to make certain that all our communities are fully staffed, that we’ve eliminated agency use, and that we have a great associate experience across all 46 Brightviews to make certain that we’re helping ourselves on the retention front as well.
Then finally, the fourth pillar for us is planning for the future. While this involves a mix of operating initiatives and development initiatives, we really focus on the development initiatives right now, and we have four projects under construction. We’re planning to break ground on a couple more this year. We’ve got a robust pipeline for development over the next several years, and we’re very excited about the opportunities ahead, about opening new Brightviews, and we’re full speed ahead. We’ve raised our new fund, and we’re beginning to deploy capital from that, and we’re partnering with our banking partners to do new development and new construction.
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