NIC Chats Podcast with Cindy Baier, Heroes Work Here

Facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, senior living providers responded with courage and resilience. Offering a behind-the-scenes look, Cindy Baier, President and CEO of Brookdale Senior Living, returns to NIC Chats to discuss her new book, Heroes Work Here, with Beth Mace. Baier shares how the book preserves these caregivers’ important role in history from their efforts to save lives throughout 2020 and 2021 and serves as a guide for leaders who are navigating unchartered waters.

Hear how Brookdale’s heroes responded to the public health crisis and the steps Baier took as a leader to make employees feel valued and listened to. All net proceeds from the book will go to Brookdale’s associate compassion fund, which provides financial assistance to eligible associates facing financial challenges. “This really is the story of our incredible associates, our everyday heroes, so it’s only fitting that the proceeds from the book should go back to support them when they need it most,” said Baier. 

Beth Mace: (00:02)
Hello, welcome to the NIC Chats podcast. My name is Beth Mace and I’m the chief economist and director of the research and analytics team here at NIC. Thank you for joining us today. The focus of the NIC Chats podcast is talking to interesting people that have ideas I think you’d like to hear about. Today, I’m speaking with Cindy Baier, the president and CEO of Brookdale Senior Living. If you’re a follower of NIC Chats, you may have heard my conversation with Cindy earlier this year. I’m delighted that Cindy has agreed to return today to fill us in in on her new book, “Heroes Work Here.” An extraordinary story of courage, resilience, and hope from the front lines of COVID-19. Cindy and her team were indeed on the front lines, running the nation’s largest senior living operator during the greatest public health crisis this country has faced in over 100 years. Cindy, thank you for joining us today,

Cindy Baier: (00:54)
Beth, thanks for having me.

Beth Mace: (00:55)
Great. So to start with, can you tell us what inspired you to write this book?

Cindy Baier: (01:00)
Absolutely. I have worked in so many different industries during my career, but senior living is an industry that is very special and unique and the book really highlights some of the heroes that helped save lives throughout 2020 and 2021. And it preserves their important role in history. By sharing behind the scenes information, we can help others learn from our experience at the same time, the book serves as a guide for leaders who are navigating unchartered waters to bring out the best in their teams for the good of their companies and for the greater good of society. The book is really both a keepsake for those who stepped up when it mattered most, as well as a guide for other leaders to overcome whatever challenges they may face.

Beth Mace: (01:48)
Wow. So tell us about the title and its meaning.

Cindy Baier: (01:52)
Brookdale’s response to COVID-19 pandemic has really been unmatched within the senior living industry, and that’s really due to the heroes that work at Brookdale. I have never seen so many people who are willing to sacrifice so much for the benefit of others. At Brookdale we have a culture of caring. We genuinely care about the people that work with us and the people who serve in our communities. We rally behind those in need. Our spirit of servant leadership is really what led us to success and those lessons are universal. Telling Brookdale’s story, celebrates our everyday heroes and they really deserve to be celebrated.

Beth Mace: (02:36)
Here, here to that. I totally agree with you. So as you look back now at the final published document and its really rich content, what were some of the things that you learned that most surprised you about the pandemic and its impacts?

Cindy Baier: (02:48)
Absolutely. I think the thing that we learned most is something that we always knew is that the focus on the mission is vital. Our sense of purpose, our creating a culture that people really wanted to be part of that was at the center of absolutely everything that we did at Brookdale. You know, I’ve often said that people want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. And that’s absolutely something that we saw during the pandemic. I think it’s also important to recognize the energy that you bring into a situation. Negative energy just zaps the spirit of the people and the company where a positivity creates energy and a sense of hope and optimism where we can do this. It’s also important to know that every single person had an important role to play in the crisis and beyond. And so really leveraging everyone’s strength was critically important to us. I think we knew that before the pandemic, but really the complexity and intensity of the pandemic brought that into a very clear focus for us.

Beth Mace: (03:57)
So what were of the things that you may have done to sort of reach out to get everybody involved and get everybody on the same page?

Cindy Baier: (04:04)
Well, I think that we did a lot of communication and we really solicited ideas from all levels of the organization. If you go back to the beginning of the pandemic and you think about how much had to change so quickly. There were things at the corporate office that we had the resources, that we were unmatched in terms of our ability to do like securing PPE when it was very difficult to be available. But when it came to connecting with residents in the communities, we found that the people who were closest to the residents often had the best ideas and they could understand just what each individual resident needed in terms of engagement and relationship. And so creating the structure to communicate broadly, and we used every type of communication imaginable, but also to have forums where ideas could bubble up and best practices could be shared between the resident engagement teams between the executive directors and just creating those forums and those paths for sharing information that really allowed the best ideas to get considered and put into action as quickly as we possibly could.

Beth Mace: (05:15)
Well, I remember really well those days, and they were really challenging from just simple things. We didn’t know whether the disease was airborne or whether it was surface born, or how to control for it, what the vectors were for having the transmission come through the organizations. It was a bad time. I hope it’s way behind us. So now we’d never have to go through it again.

Cindy Baier: (05:34)
Here, here.

Beth Mace: (05:36)
So how did the pandemic affect your style as corporate leader? You’re the CEO of one of the largest senior housing providers in the country. And how did it influence your leadership style? What did you learn and what came up from that?

Cindy Baier: (05:50)
Well, I think that sort of connection is really key. And so we made very intentional efforts to connect with team both personally and professionally. I think this was a time that required strong leadership. So we had to learn to be flexible, to be clear and to be compassionate because everybody in the organization, no matter their level or their position had an impact from the pandemic. I think it had to really make us focus on our listening skills so that you could determine where action was needed and then empowering people to act. As, as we said earlier, we wanted to make as many decisions as close to the residents as possible. And so that was a part of leadership that I think got amplified during the pandemic. And I think that particularly during the pandemic, we had to do a lot of work to ensure that our industry, the senior living industry was an attractive place for people to fulfill their purpose, to earn competitive compensation and benefits and to grow professionally.

Cindy Baier: (06:52)
So we were very intentional about making sure that our company was as attractive for people as possible. And one of the things that I’m particularly proud of Brookdale for is we have so many career options because of our size. We’ve got communities located all over the United States. People can move from the corporate offices into the field, they can move from the field into corporate. They can move across the country in different opportunities in the field. And that really gave people sort of added flexibility. And then I think about the resources that we have the ability to provide and how do we really leverage that scale so that it makes it better for associates and better for residents. And I think about how lucky we were because of our size we had tremendous support throughout our organization. We had tools and system capabilities that could support our associates.

Cindy Baier: (07:45)
There were tremendous opportunities because of size and scale to serve and grow. That included sort of deep support for resident programming, dining, asset management. There’s just a wealth of subject matter expertise at Brookdale that is really helpful. I also think that when you had to onboard as many associates as you did through the pandemic, we have the resources to provide great learning systems and learning processes, as well as to help the teams with onboarding through some virtual foundations, which is something that we learned how to do during the pandemic. And it worked really, really well.

Beth Mace: (08:21)
Yeah. So let’s go there for a second in terms of technology and how you use technology. Cause I think it was the pandemic sort of served as an accelerator for that. And you among your staff, but also among your residents, correct.

Cindy Baier: (08:33)
Absolutely. I think that the good news about the pandemic is that technology made us much more efficient in terms of how we would connect. I think it also gave our residents a chance to connect with their families in ways that they hadn’t before I heard so many stories of residents attending granddaughter’s wedding or seeing the birth of a grandchild through video conferencing, which is something that they just wouldn’t have done before. And I think telehealth is one of the things that really is a game changer. Think about how convenient it is to be able to see your doctor in a video setting, as opposed to having to leave the comfort of your home, to brave traffic and the doctor’s office. And it really is something that I think has improved both healthcare and senior living. And I’m really grateful. It’s one of the silver linings of the pandemic.

Beth Mace: (09:35)
That’s great. So let’s go a little bit more into sort of some of the significant traits that you might have seen in some of your staff that really shined a lot through the pandemic. I mean, to get up every day and to go walk into this situation when their own health was at risk, as well as, you know, helping people that were sick or are frightened as well.

Cindy Baier: (09:54)
Absolutely. I think we are united by our north star, which is the health and wellbeing of our residents. And of course our associates. And the culture at Brookdale really has four cornerstones; passion, courage, partnership, and trust. And I think that we leaned on our culture more during the pandemic than any other time. You know, I am grateful that the people who choose to work with us really have a strong sense of purpose. They want to help seniors solve the challenges of aging. And I think it did take a lot of courage during the pandemic to step up, to come to work every day when much of the, the country was sheltering in place. But I also think that the partnership element, no one was alone. We were in this together. If somebody was struggling and they needed help, all they had to do was raise their hand. So I think that, that our cornerstones really were very, very helpful and certainly front and center during the pandemic.

Beth Mace: (11:00)
So much was learned during the pandemic, in terms of the relationships with staff, among leaders and things, how much of that is going to carry over or has it already carried over into who Brookdale is and what Brookdale is today?

Cindy Baier: (11:12)
I think a lot of it has carried over and will continue to the future. If you think about facing the pandemic, I think that we are stronger as individuals and we are a stronger team than we were before because when you face adversity and you successfully overcome obstacles, it gives you a confidence and a trust in your team that you didn’t have before. And if you just think about the sheer number of challenges that we successfully overcame, I think that we believe that almost anything is possible. And we have the confidence from our success to build on.

Beth Mace: (11:53)
Right. So that makes me want to talk a little bit about crisis management, right? This was certainly the pandemic an example of crisis management to the highest degree. And it wasn’t, as you mentioned, just one crisis, it was a one crisis after the next, after the next. Starting with the uncertainty on whether the virus again was airborne or surface born; access to PPE, access to tests, the path of contagion, staffing shortages, resident illnesses. The list goes on; move in restrictions, family visitation, socialization, vaccine distribution, falling occupancy rates, rising expenses. I mean, honestly, any single one of those would’ve been a crisis of huge magnitude yet. They were relentless one after the next. So how did you manage this crisis after crisis and uncertainty after uncertainty as a leader?

Cindy Baier: (12:42)
Well, I have to say that you get by with a little help from your friends. At the beginning of the pandemic at Brookdale, we were very lucky because a former board member, Jim Seward, saw the events evolving in China before really anybody else in the United States was paying attention to them. And so that knowledge and that conversation between Jim and I gave me the chance to analyze the risk of what was happening in China. What could it mean for Brookdale? And so we were able to take fast and focused action to help protect our residents. During the pandemic, we established a clear command center that gave us a central point for clear decisions and consistent communications. And again, I think that having clear priorities is critically important during a crisis. And so for us, our north star was the health and wellbeing of our residents and associates.

Cindy Baier: (13:38)
We are very grateful that we have an incredibly strong clinical leadership and that really was important during the pandemic. And so we relied on our clinicians to create and build upon our strong infection control protocols and our operations team to execute them. We’ve got more than 40 years of experience in infection prevention. So being able to build on that is really helpful. And then when we learned about the ability of the vaccines to help stop COVID-19, we were able to mobilize very quickly to sort of get three rounds of vaccine clinics at every one of our communities. And that really helped protect our residents. So what I would say is be a learning organization mobilize quickly have clear priorities and then ensure that everybody knows what the objective is. And they align around the objective. When you’re clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, you can overcome a series of events that individually may seem insurmountable.

Beth Mace: (14:45)
So communications, as we mentioned earlier is really key to this. So what kind of communications both internally and externally, did you undertake to create better outcomes?

Cindy Baier: (14:55)
Yeah. Through the pandemic, we created videos, blogs, emails, you name it. We shared information regularly, both internally and externally within our communities. And we were really trying to inform not only associates, our residents, our families, but really trying to help as many as people as we possibly could in real time. And so we had a constant cadence of communication. We learned that by sharing our knowledge, we became thought leaders that engendered trust. It encouraged alignment in the organization. It helped calm residents and families because they knew that we were paying attention. And we were sharing the knowledge that we had. It gave our associates great confidence. And I think that communication is always important, but it’s never more important than in a crisis because if people don’t have the information, they’re going to make it up or they’re going to fill in the blanks. And so have a constant stream of communication that is open it’s honest. And for us, it always comes from the heart

Beth Mace: (16:04)
In transparency is so key, right? During COVID-19, there was so much unknown about what was going on. And I think it was really important that you explained to staff and to associates as well as to residents in their family, what we knew at the time, right? You didn’t hold back on anything. You were pretty honest, which I think really helped create trust that you were being straight through the whole time.

Cindy Baier: (16:28)
I do agree. And a lot of our communication came as a result of questions that we would get from residents or questions from associates, as well as seeing what was happening in the macroeconomic environment. So I think looking for where is there uncertainty, how can we remove that uncertainty, how can we communicate the knowledge that we have and how can we sort of debunk some of the misinformation that’s really out there.

Beth Mace: (17:00)
Okay. So let’s get a little personal for a moment. So how did you personally manage the stress of the pandemic? Cause it didn’t go away. It was with you 24/7 for months and months. So how did you maintain your cool?

Cindy Baier: (17:14)
Well, I’m really lucky to be surrounded by an incredible team at Brookdale. And my husband has been just incredibly supportive, but I think the heart of this is I’m a farm girl from central Illinois. And, you know, when I came to Brookdale, I really found my true purpose in life, as well as an extended family. And I really knew that some of the challenges that I had faced earlier in my life really led me to this moment. And so what I would say is managing stress is easier when you are involved in preparation and action, those are essential because you’re trying to solve the problem and you focus on what you can do, what you can control, how much you can make be better. But I do think growing up in a farm really helped because you just do what has to be done.

Beth Mace: (18:07)
That’s good to know. I mean, I think that’s probably true of a lot of life, right? People often say, how did you manage through any experience and you step up because you have to, right?

Cindy Baier: (18:19)

Beth Mace: (18:20)
You don’t have much choice. Just wanted to step up. How about any other key takeaways that we haven’t talked about yet or highlights from the book that we haven’t talked about that you may want to share?

Cindy Baier: (18:30)
You know, I think that really the pandemic has highlighted that the people want control. And so there is an improved need for flexibility and being nimble. And I think that’s something that we have really tried to answer the call for. And within certain communities we’ve talked about telehealth that increases flexibility. I think that we will continue using that. I think that at our corporate offices, we’ve learned to be much more flexible and nimble. And so we have some of our corporate associates who are remote and will stay remote that seems to work very well. We have many of our corporate associates who work in a hybrid schedule and by giving people that flexibility, I think it’s really good for the culture and for the organization where it makes sense, but there’s also huge benefits to being together as a team. But I think probably the most important thing that we learned is you have to focus on what matters most and you have to eliminate what’s not important. Regardless of the position in a company that you’re in, there are always more demands on your time than there are hours or minutes in the day. And so you have to be very intentional about what matters and what doesn’t. And by focusing with a laser-like clarity on what matters most, you’ll be much more likely to be successful.

Beth Mace: (19:54)
So is that hard to do? If you have many demands on you and you say, well, I’m prioritizing a, B and C and not so much the other

Cindy Baier: (20:02)
It can be hard to do, but I think that you’ve got to make time for the most important things that you have to do regardless of what else is important. And so, you know, whether it’s blocking your calendar, whether it is connecting with the people who are most central to that, I think that that is helpful. I think during the pandemic, we had regular updates with the people at the center of the organization so that we could know if we needed to pivot and take the company in a different direction because of what was happening in the world. But it takes a lot of discipline not to get distracted by the mass of information that is available and the requests for time. So it can be distracting, but there are huge benefits from staying focused and that’s personal and professional.

Beth Mace: (21:00)
No, I totally agree. The ability to say no to some things. And that’s hard for a lot of women actually, cause they’re pulled in a lot of directions. A lot of your staff are women and to be able to make priorities and say, I’m doing this and I’m not doing that. It’s hard.

Cindy Baier: (21:15)
I have a saying at Brookdale that “no” is my favorite word and I can say in many different languages. It’s a little bit of a tongue in cheek joke, but what it’s really meant to mean is that if you aren’t conscious and intentional about what you are going to do, then you won’t be in control of your destiny. You will be sort of getting pulled into a direction that you don’t want to go. So if you’re clear about where you want to go, how you want to get there, then it’s perfectly okay to say no. Now I will say that in our communities, we do have a focus on saying yes. And the tension between that is making sure that we are saying yes to our residents, that we are trying to make sure that we are supporting them in the way that they want to be supported. That if they’ve got a favorite meal, we are trying to prepare it for them in our dining rooms. If they’ve got a favorite activity that we are trying to bring that into their lives, but you can have the tension between saying yes to your residents and saying no to activities that don’t add value to either the company, your residents, or your own personal life. And they can peacefully coexist. It’s a little bit like ying and yang.

Beth Mace: (22:36)
Yeah, for sure. That’s really good to hear actually. I think our listeners will like that advice as well. So if I’m not mistaken, this is your first published book. What were the most challenging parts of writing a book?

Cindy Baier: (22:49)
You know, it is my first published book and I think the hardest part for me was having to get personal about the book and to share information and stories about myself. I am a pretty good negotiator and I tried to negotiate the model of the book, but Forbes was pretty clear. A book is supposed to be a third personal, a third leadership and a third business. And so for me, the third personal was the hardest part. Being an introvert sharing so much of my personal story was something that I can easily say that I would prefer not to do.

Beth Mace: (23:25)
What are you doing with the proceeds in the sales of the book?

Cindy Baier: (23:30)
All net proceeds from the book will go to our associate compassion fund. And I’m incredibly proud of that because our associate compassion fund provides financial assistance to eligible Brookdale associates who are having a financial challenge through a catastrophe or personal event that is really no fault of their own. Because this really is the story of our incredible associates, our everyday heroes, it’s only fitting that the proceeds from the book should go back to support them when they need it most.

Beth Mace: (24:02)
That’s fantastic. That’s really great. So as we’re wrapping up, any other thoughts or comments you want to make about the book, about the process, about lessons learned?

Cindy Baier: (24:12)
Yeah. What I would say is, you know, the most challenging times create the strongest leaders. I like to say that heat and pressure turn ordinary carbon into diamonds. We’re really taking what we learned from the pandemic to drive a strong recovery. We saw that in 2021, and we’re intending to build on that even more in 2022. The work that our industry does is critically important. We are not a discretionary purchase. We provide support to individuals who need help with the challenges of aging. So we are going to take absolutely everything we learned the passion that we came from the pandemic with to drive us into the future.

Beth Mace: (24:58)
That’s fantastic. Cindy as always, I learned so much from our conversations. Thank you. I’m so excited about the book and I hope all our listeners will read it. Let me ask one last question. How do you get the book? Where can I go out and buy it?

Cindy Baier: (25:14)
Absolutely. you can get it at Amazon, at Target, at Barnes & Noble. If you just do a search under “Heroes Work Here” or under my name, Lucinda Baier, it’s easy to find and you can get it in all sorts of different ways. You can have an ebook. If that’s your preference, there’s an audio book. If you want to listen to it on your drive to work, and there’s a hard copy if you prefer having the feel of a book in your hand.

Beth Mace: (25:40)
Right. That’s fantastic. So thank you very much again. And I’m sure I’ll see you soon.

Cindy Baier: (25:45)
See you soon. Bye now.

Beth Mace: (25:46)

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