Changemakers: Chris Guay, Founder and CEO, Vitality Living

Changemakers: Chris Guay, Founder and CEO, Vitality Living

Changemaker in leadership development

Chris Guay is the founder and CEO of Vitality Living. Guay started in the senior living industry in 1999, and has continued to maintain an interest in creating value and quality for residents and staff alike. Guay said he strives to help people through his work at Vitality Living.

In this Changemakers interview, Guay discusses growing and evolving in the industry, the importance of staff diversity, and how he uses his experience and knowledge to create a safe and quality environment for all people in his communities.

How have you changed as a leader since starting in the senior living industry?

I don’t think I was a leader when I started in the industry. A lot of us found the industry and then had gotten experience and had good mentors and evolved as leaders. I’ve always tried to be focused on where the business really happens. I think that is one of the advantages I do have, because I started out as a single site executive director. The business has changed a lot since that 25 years ago when I started doing that.

The job’s a lot different. I always try to filter everything through how it’s going to affect an executive director, because, at times, the farther you get away from the business, you sometimes can think something is a great idea then it gets to the level of where it really matters, and we find out it didn’t work as well. I try to always think through that. I think the other big change that I’ve made as a leader is I always talk about self-work.

I’ve learned to really work on myself and work on how I show up, react and manage myself. If I’m going to lead people, I really have to make sure I emulate the values that we have as an organization and that I am putting forth the same effort in showing people that I care and I’m focused and I’m trying to do these things to make the same goals and achieve the same difference that they’re trying to make. I think that’s important. Sometimes we can lose focus on that as leaders.

We at SHN think of you as a Changemaker, but do you think of yourself as a Changemaker?

I do see myself as a Changemaker. I believe it was always in me. I started out working with Emeritus, and I think I was a Changemaker there; always trying to push us to do things differently and work things through. Then when I got the chance to start my own company, I had to put a little of that on hold initially, because you’re trying to build an organization and build it forward. We’ve been fortunate that I’ve got a really great team of people. We’ve been able to build a really good company.

The last couple of years, I’ve been able to shift back into that Changemaker role. I like to change things. I’m always innovating, always trying to change. That sometimes drives my team crazy. I have to find that delicate balance of pushing us forward, but also making sure we’re not pushing so fast that we’re changing just for the sake of changing.

I ask myself, “Is this going to improve the experience for our residents?” I’ve really tried to hone in on if a change is going to improve the experience for our team members as well. If a change makes it harder for a line staff or caregiver, it’s probably not a change we should do.

The third customer that sometimes gets forgotten in this business, “Is that change going to have a positive impact for our ownership partners?” I filter everything through those three pieces. Then based on how that comes through that filter, then I decide what we’re moving on.

In what areas or area do you think that you’re a Changemaker?

We’re really, as an organization, a Changemaker in how we’re looking at the business and how we are really developing our leaders in the business. What I mean by that is we’ve really tried to shift. This business is very mission-driven. That’s very important. There’s a lot of people that could go work in some other industry, but they come to work in senior housing because there’s a mission. When you do good work in this industry, you make a real difference.

We’ve done a lot of work on discovering how to educate our leaders on running their business, including having a good mission and good margin, and being able to balance both in the right way. It really is like showing operators if a finance group is going to come in to buy your building, here’s what the value of that building would be. It’s based on numbers. It’s really about how can a really good mission develop, deliver a great experience for your residents, but also run your margins in a way that you’re delivering great outcomes for your ownership partners. That’s the beauty of the business.

We do a lot of education with all of our leaders from the community level up on really understanding their numbers thoroughly and understanding how to balance that business. The second thing we’ve done, I’m fortunate that we’re a partner-owned business. There’s five partners that own Vitality. One of our partners sits in a chairman role, but has the capacity. He’s really good at the coaching and development of people. We’ve started to do a lot of coaching and leadership development for our regional mid-tier managers.

Because one of my fears when I started my own company was, when we’re small, I can be really involved in everything. Myself and my COO, Kelly Lindstrom, can drive culture. As we’ve gotten a little larger, it’s harder. There’s more people and more layers. I want to make sure we’re still driving the same values and mission.

We do meetings that are specifically around leadership. We’ll talk numbers, but then we’re also going to dig into how we become better leaders. How do we drive better outcomes? I think it’s something just from the feedback we’ve gotten from our people.

I’ve got some people that have worked in this industry for 20 years and never had someone work on them as a leader to help them be better. If we can make everyone in this organization stronger leaders, that’ll help perpetuate the results. Because then they’re going to be able to lead the mission and lead the margin evenly and have really good outcomes for everybody that we need to provide good outcomes for.

Can you talk about a change that you’ve made in that area, leadership, promoting value, and why you made that change?

We use a tool called the Culture Index, and we’ve made it as a programmatic tool where every hire from the leadership level up. Let’s say we’re screening for an executive director. We’ll look through the initial candidates and before we start the interview process, we’ll have them do the culture index.

We have set minimum scores. What this tool has allowed us to do is to show the behaviors and the traits that certain jobs people are going to be successful with. It’s not a 100% match, but we know pretty close that, if you have these traits, if you’re this type of personality, you’re going to do better in the executive director job. If you don’t have them, you’re going to struggle.

If there’s a minimum threshold score of 60%, if someone doesn’t hit the job standard by 60% or more, we don’t interview them. We just know in our system those traits you need to be successful.

It’s really been a huge gauge here. Now, is it 100% accurate? No. Is it perfect? No, but it’s starting to bring more data into a decision that a lot of people make with gut. We all use this data to say if this person’s got the traits to do it. Then, we interview and see if they fit culturally.

It’s that focus on making sure we set people up for success and we set the business up for success. I think in this industry, a lot of folks are really great folks and are in it because they like taking care of seniors and older adults. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good fit for certain roles.

This tool allows us to have very transparent conversations with folks. We even use it now once people are in the organization because as jobs change, we start to realize their job may no longer be the best fit for them. So, we figure out a role that’s better. When you’re talking about who someone is and they go, “That makes sense.” That’s a lot easier of a conversation than just having it cold and telling someone they’re not a good fit and not giving a why behind the what.

What are some ways that you think that senior living needs to change in the next five years?

I want to believe we learned from the COVID experience, and we’ve learned what we were doing prior to COVID in a lot of ways wasn’t working. I want to believe that we’ve also learned that we have to be more innovative, and we have to change because our customer base is changing, our market is changing, our capital markets are changing. I want to believe that’s happening.

Some companies are very innovative but when I talk to others, they’re not changing. I think the industry really has to evolve.

I think you’re going to see a lot of shakeout in the next five years where the operators that truly are innovative are looking forward and figuring out ways to operate in this current and new environment do really well. Looking forward, I think we’re going to have to all evolve.

The bricks and mortar, it’s going to be a lot more competitive because we’re not only competing against each other, we’re also competing against all this technology delivering things in people’s homes and giving our customers more reasons to say, no, I’ll stay at home.

We’ve got to really evolve and make sure we’re able to show the value proposition for why moving into one of our communities is so good. As people start to age, it’s the managing of the wellness side. That wellness management. You can’t do that effectively on your own at home. You need a team. I think there’s a lot of companies, ourselves I would put in this boat, doing a lot of things to make sure we’re showing our residents and their families what we can do to help manage.

The second thing that’s really important is that social interactive piece. COVID really taught us how important social interactions are for every human. In older adults, they’re even more critical. Because as you age, your world gets so much smaller. You might be able to get food brought in, you might be able to get more additional services, but you can’t replace a human-to-human interaction.

I think we got to really build on those two pillars. I’m always looking for innovation and technology to help build those two pillars out, because that’s what we’re going to have to be able to articulate why staying at one of our communities is a better option than living at home.

The decision used to be driven a lot more by fear or by something happening. People are getting more informed, which allows them to make the right decision for themselves. I think if you could tap into that wellness and social piece better, that’s going to help people choose you as the place they want to be.

Do you think that the industry is changing fast enough to keep up with the times?

I don’t. I find myself getting into the same conversations that we’ve had for the last 10 years. There’s opportunity in that because if you are a company that’s innovative, there’s opportunity to excel.

However, it’s hard to innovate when you’ve got different weights dragging you down. It’s not an easy time. I don’t think people aren’t changing because they don’t want to. I just think there are some headwinds that keep dragging us back. You’ve got to keep fighting, you’ve got to keep pushing.

Can you talk about a time when you tried to execute a change, and things didn’t go according to plan? What did you learn as a leader?

When I founded Vitality, I had a different partner, equity group that was involved, and we were going to be all development.

We were digging into sustainability, green technology, some really cutting-edge things. Then the market started to change and my partners realized that they saw things that they didn’t want to be in the senior housing group or industry anymore. They sold their other portfolio. All of a sudden, Vitality wasn’t a development shop.

That was really difficult because I had to put on pause a lot of things that I know would have made a real positive impact and maybe changed us as an organization and maybe made some pretty good changes in the industry.

Time and capital just didn’t work. That’s the reality sometimes. We pivoted, and we went back to what we knew. We decided to focus on becoming an operating company.

We are currently doing some things in the existing portfolio we have that I think are creating good outcomes and are changing. Maybe the innovation isn’t happening as fast as I want, but we’re able to do it. The only reason we’re able to do that is because we could pivot.

Can you talk about the need for diversity, equity and inclusion in the senior living industry and what you’re doing to drive change in that regard?

It’s not just the senior housing, it’s that we all need to be more inclusive everywhere. I try to be very mindful because I’m trying to educate myself. The reality is I’m a middle-aged white man. I don’t know what it’s like to be a young Black man and get pulled over just because of the color of my skin. I don’t know what it’s like to be someone who’s got to deal with racism, ageism or sexism as much.

If you look at our mission statement, we want to create an environment where people feel like they belong. That’s important to us. In an environment where people belong, you have to be yourself. You have to be comfortable to be yourself.

If you’re going to be world-class, diversity, inclusion and equity have to be part of your narrative. That’s got to be part of your infrastructure. Because if we can create an industry where young people can come into this industry — whatever color they are, whatever race they are, whatever sex they are, whatever religion they are — and feel like they have a chance to grow and develop, that’s when it grows.

The coming year is sure to be a year of growth and evolution for this year’s senior living industry. In what way is Vitality growing and evolving?

One, we’re preparing and we’re building. We like to build a team around what we see, where we think we are. We don’t wait for it to come. We try to get ahead of it. We are really trying to be a world-class sales organization.

We also look at the digital space. How we win there and how we get really innovative there is important. We decided to invest on the people side.

We’re really shifting into how do we become a world-class people organization? Easier said than done because this is a tough industry. We’re really working on that. We’re going to start on the recruiting and branding, and then we’re going to work on the onboarding to go through. We’re bringing people from outside.

Use a movie, book, or TV show title to describe the year ahead for the senior living industry in 2024.

“Back to the Future.”

The premise is all about going back in time to change issues. I feel like this is the year where many of us are going to be able to get back to the future and get out of what the last four years has put on top of us.

Choose one artist, scientist, entrepreneur, engineer, or any other person, living or dead, to help change the senior living industry for the better. In only a few words, who are you choosing and why?

Steve Jobs.

If you read his biography, he wasn’t the best person, but he had a vision and he drove it relentlessly at any cost.

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