Interviewed by Rick DeRose

How do you transform the perception of a $95B industry amidst a worldwide pandemic? Ask Jack Callison.

Jack Callison, CEO of Sunrise Senior Living, is leading the evolution of the senior living industry by championing the cross-section between personalized health care and hospitality.

In 2021, Jack assumed the title of CEO at a critical juncture – in the throes of the global pandemic. Amid business fluctuation and societal struggle, he forged an organizational culture of truth and trust, prioritizing the wellbeing of the residents and the team. Against the odds, he paved the path for growth while reinforcing a firm vision and mission and creating an air-tight culture. Sunrise today operates over nearly 250 communities across North America, with an extensive development pipeline that will continue to fuel the organization’s growth over the next decade. Sunrise offers a full range of personalized senior living services, including independent living, assisted living, care for individuals with dementia, as well as nursing and rehabilitative services in select communities.

Jack’s visionary leadership and robust industry experience contributed to his, and his team’s, success in reshaping the business. He has a proven track-record of building high-performing teams and leading mission-driven organizations at scale, having spent the past decade as CEO of Enlivant and as CEO of Holiday Retirement, both senior living operators. Under his exceptional stewardship, Sunrise has achieved remarkable growth and has been certified as a Great Place to Work for six years running – no doubt due in part to his participatory leadership style.

Jack joined the Brilliant People Podcast for a conversation on how he made this possible with Rick DeRose, co-founder and managing partner at Acertitude. Read on for Jack’s mission behind transforming the organization, his lessons for building resilience during sudden disruption, and his scorecard for successful executive leadership teams.

Culture as a catalyst

Rick: You have been the CEO at a few companies at this point. What were the big lessons you took from your past experiences to guide you in your current CEO role?

Jack
: I think the first one that jumps off the page is culture. Culture can be a squishy word that feels touchy-feely, but I think of culture as a defined set of pillars where you need a clearly defined mission: 1) Why you exist 2) Your vision and 3) Your values. These are the road rules that we all play by.

Culture is “the how” that connects your mission to your vision. These are the behaviors that we're going to rally around and celebrate, and I think that is especially important in any environment, but especially in the pandemic. Redefining and shaping a culture in a way that makes all employees feel involved and important will, no question, lead to more internal alignment.

The power of community engagement

Rick: I imagine that navigating disruption is challenging for any business in a space like assisted living during the pandemic. When faced with this, how did you, as a CEO, decide what to tackle first?

Jack
: I thought long and hard about that in the months leading up to taking the CEO job at Sunrise. When I came on board, I fully immersed myself in our communities and initiated a series of CEO listening tours. It was crucial to deeply engage with our communities, establish connections with our residents, family members and front-line team members before embarking on other activities. From these tours, I had the following takeaways:

1) Organization
: Your organization is only as strong as the team of people you have supporting it.

2) Culture
: Development of culture, mission, vision, and values is crucial to internal and external alignment.

3) Communication
: Talk to your people. Input is king. It will bleed innovation into your business.

The feedback loop that we created built trust and initiated meaningful changes in the business, and that is only possible through active leadership. Inclusive environments are built when you encourage each person to share their perspectives and recognize each person for their individual contributions.

Championing change through care

Rick: Share with us your efforts in pioneering industry innovation.

Jack
: First and foremost, we implemented a new and overarching vision that focuses on enhancing the lifestyle of the individual. That is, for older adults to enjoy longer, healthier, and happier lives, while simultaneously infusing care into the workforce.

By effectively communicating this new vision throughout our organization, we empowered ourselves to think more expansively and integrate elements of hospitality, lifestyle, and wellness into our services. This approach has created an environment where older adults choose to move into our communities, not out of necessity, but due to desire.

To initiate a transformation of this magnitude, we needed a complete shift in mindset. We encouraged widespread adoption and acceptance of this new vision, expanding our reach into new markets, thereby attracting greater consumer interest.

The change in perspective became the catalyst for our growth. At its core, it’s about leading with our hearts. Cultivating empathy. Caring for individuals and providing them with a lifestyle and experiences as if they are our own.

“Imagine a scenario where children don’t feel guilty about helping their parents move into communities, but instead, are actually envious of their lifestyle.

Leading teams through tough times

Rick: Leading an organization that fully embraces community and quality of life is not an easy feat. Share some of your insights as to what it was like to put people first.

Jack
: When I transitioned to the CEO role, we were squarely in the middle of the pandemic. As an organization, our purpose is to care for a vulnerable population and simultaneously find ways to help support our frontline healthcare heroes. Human lives were at stake. Rarely do you say that in business, but in this case, it was true. There was nothing more important than ensuring the safety of our residents — whom we have been given the privilege to care for — and living up to the trust that their families put in us.

Ensuring the well-being of our employees and creating a safe work environment held equal significance. Prioritizing the human element was paramount, while considering the business aspect alongside it. Keeping our people safe was always priority number one.

Building a successful team

Rick: We have worked on a number of executive searches together. Are there any particular lessons you have taken away from making a successful hire?

Jack
: The first step is determining what we need in a particular role – in terms of what experiences and traits we need candidates to bring to the table and how they bring them to the table. I also think about the broader team – the executive leadership team – which we rebuilt together with Acertitude. I mapped out the group's strengths and weaknesses and tried to make hiring decisions that make the entire leadership team stronger and more effective.

I think of the following: who's going to bring a different viewpoint, a different life experience, or who's going to help us shake things up a little bit more? This is a mentality that makes the team stronger and has paid dividends for us.

As the industry rapidly evolves, it is essential to anticipate the unique demands and expectations of generations to come. It is important to bear in mind that if we fail to embrace disruption, someone else will step in. Taking care to a new level has been the key to breaking free from the industry’s strategies of the past four decades and building a distinct business.

Nurturing our organizational culture has been equally imperative – our mission and vision is the fabric of our organization with our team being the thread.

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