I had the pleasure of interviewing my former colleague and friend of many years, Wendy Simpson, who recently received the McKnight’s Women of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award.
Wendy has served as President and CEO of LTC Properties, Inc., a real estate investment trust (REIT), since 2007 and was appointed chairman of their board in 2013.
The path that would lead her here is nothing short of extremely impressive. Growing up in a small town, she says she was not aware of the opportunities that existed for women in the workplace, especially when it came to positions of leadership. She studied accounting in college and upon graduation, went into auditing healthcare companies. She credits this exposure to the healthcare industry as a pivotal moment in her career. She would go on to become the chief financial officer of LTC Properties, Inc. and as you’ll learn from my interview below, her caring nature, ability to connect with people and unwavering dedication to her work made her destined to eventually lead the entire operation.
I can attest to what a wonderful person Wendy is from my own personal experience. Wendy warmly welcomed me in my first COO role at Senior Lifestyle. She sent me flowers on my first day and took me under her wing after that. Our open and insightful conversations really helped me learn the ropes, and when my grandmother fell ill, and my mom and I were caring for her, Wendy thoughtfully sent me a book about navigating the challenges of being a caretaker to a loved one.
Congratulations to Wendy – who is truly beyond deserving of this award – and thank you for taking the time to discuss your incredible journey and unique perspectives with us.
During the McKnight's Women of Distinction Forum, you said that you have dedicated your life to your career and have found such fulfillment in your work. What are some of those fulfilling aspects?
I was brought up predominantly by a single mother, so I saw her work her whole life, while supporting her three children. I think from that I realized I always wanted to have a career where I could support myself and take care of myself. It's kind of embarrassing to say, but I don't have much of a maternal instinct. I never really wanted to have children, so I've enjoyed the relationships I've had through my work and that sense of camaraderie.
I also enjoy the act of making decisions. Oftentimes people will talk about a problem and then they'll make an appointment to talk about the problem, and then they’ll schedule a follow-up meeting to talk about the problem some more. I like being able make a decision, see the result of that decision and learn from that decision. Occasionally, you might even have to make a different decision, but at least you’re moving the process forward. Women are powerful decision makers and should be harnessing that power in business.
How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
I don’t just value what everybody's doing, but I also really value the people doing it. I give them credit and I like to see them succeed. I think back on all the people that I've worked with and all that they've done to help me get where I am. I think I've been blessed in my career to work with people who were even smarter than me, so I've been able to harness that and help others be successful.
What makes a great leader in the long-term care industry?
Someone who recognizes that the only way we can be successful is by taking good care of people. For example, I would think Mary Barra of GM cares about a car rolling off the production line. She cares about her product. Our product is the people, the people that are being taken care of.
LTC Companies is a finance company; we're a little like a bank. But I really respect our operators who I believe, even at the top level, truly care about who’s in the facility, how they're getting taken care of and not necessarily just what the cost per day for food is, for instance -- the ones who are concerned about the actual people.
So, in our industry I think it gets down to the care level, whether you're an executive in finance or an executive in development or an executive in accounting, a great leader should understand the core of the business, which is care, and focus on that business.
What makes women specifically such great leaders?
Again, it goes back to our people skills. We're more inclusive than men, like to see others succeed and as I said before, we are great decision makers.
I will say, a lot of us have gotten to a level that nobody would've expected, and we need to be better about owning our success and the hard work that went into that. My good friend, Lynne Katzmann, said in our McKnight’s session, "I've been so lucky," to which I said, "You know, men don't often say they're lucky. Women do."
In your current role, how are you mentoring other women operators?
I go out and see operators as often as I can and I think it's important for women in the workforce to see a woman in an executive position. When one of our operators was forming an advisory board a few years ago, we talked about who they would have on the board, and no women's names came up.
I said to them, "I bet 90 percent of your workforce is women. You should have somebody on the board that represents the majority of your workforce and can recognize their needs." And they were fine with it, they just had not thought about it like that.
So being a woman leader in this business is about educating others and reminding them to recognize that we do in fact have a seat at the table.
What are some of the challenges women leaders are facing today?
I’ve noticed I’ve had to fight to explain my position. As women, we want to impart all our knowledge on somebody so that they can embrace that knowledge and better themselves. But, for example, my board just wants the essential information to make a decision. They don't want to know how the cake was made or that you got a deal on the flour. They don't want to know all of that detail. They just want to know they're going to get chocolate cake and it's going to happen pretty soon, or they have a choice between chocolate and vanilla.
That’s probably why many women become teachers. We strive to teach. But, when you get to a certain level, you just have to provide enough information to make a decision. It’s important to read a room and understand your audience.
How do you see operators overcoming the challenges specifically around workforce?
We need to be better about communicating that this is an amazing industry to work in, and that if you get some experience in it and you like it, you can work anywhere. There are just opportunities galore – and a lot of promotion opportunities, whether it's through housekeeping or through medical records or through dining.
Also, we must let people know how valued they are. They're not just an employee. They're a caregiver.
How well do you think that the operators today are communicating the amazing opportunities available? Are they doing it well or do you see a greater opportunity to do a better job differentiating?
I think there's a greater opportunity. We all tend to love somebody doing a good job, and you want them to come in five days a week and do that good job and you don't have to worry about it. But these people want more.
Lynn has told me they are cross training people in different departments, so they get a view of the entire operation and not just a tunnel view of their job. And through that, they'll see more opportunities as they learn what others are doing, and possibly gravitate to another area of the operation. I think this is an excellent example of how we can offer more opportunities to employees.
If you had to predict what impact this pandemic will have on the long-term care industry as a whole, what would you say that is?
Obviously, everybody's going to be more concerned with infection control, which might even mean a little less socializing and fewer activities in big groups. It's probably even going to change the footprint of some buildings, so residents are not all eating together in large big dining rooms.
I think another big change will be an increased use of telemedicine. My mother was in an assisted living facility for the last few years of her life, and her life revolved around going to doctors’ appointments. Now, knowing that we could've done the same thing via a screen in her room, we could have eliminated the chance of her falling and getting hurt every time I took her out of the building. I think the convenience of telehealth is really becoming more accepted.
One thing, I will note, that will not change is the need for the service. People are still aging and not every family can take in their loved ones at home or many older adults do not have loved ones to take them in. So while the mode of care delivery will change, the need for care will remain. And that need is one of the reasons that we stay in this business.