Meet Lois Cormack, President and CEO of Sienna Senior Living. Since her appointment in 2013, Cormack has led the company through significant growth and transformation, successfully repositioning Sienna as one of Canada’s leading seniors living providers.
In 2014 and 2015, Cormack was named one of Canada’s top female entrepreneurs in Profit/Canadian Business’ W100. Under her leadership in 2017, Sienna Senior Living was named among Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures by Waterstone Human Capital.
We sat down with Cormack to discuss mentorship, the importance of a strong team, and the future of senior living.
ORCA: Once you’d made that decision, how did you move forward?
I thought that nursing would be the path that would enable me to advance, just as the owner had. In hindsight, I should have pursued the business stream, but at the time I didn’t have any mentors to advise me otherwise. I very quickly went into administration, pursued a business degree through part-time studies, and then a master’s degree as I worked through increasingly senior roles in senior living and health care, in both the private and public sector.
I was always actively involved in regional, provincial and national associations and committees, working to improve service delivery and policy for seniors at a system level. Through this work, I was contracted as a consultant by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care on a large project to improve access to long-term care in the province of Ontario. Through my consulting practice I did extensive work with senior living providers and later joined forces with a senior living company called Specialty Care. I later became President and over a 10-year period had a key role in significantly growing the company and establishing a strong reputation and brand. I was recruited to my current role over five years ago, and have had the pleasure of leading Sienna through a period of growth, transformation and a successful rebranding as one of Canadas leading senior living providers.
I often wish I had had mentors earlier on who had pointed out that there could have been a more direct path, but in hindsight the one thing I have always been thankful for is gaining a solid understanding and experience in all aspects of operations and leading large teams – really being grounded in the business has been the key to success. It was that first role as a care aide that fuelled my passion for this business.
ORCA: I really like that a lot. Because what you’re saying is that you have to have a little bit of courage, to go out and ask for help.
You do. Most people, regardless of role or position are flattered to mentor and want to help others be successful.
ORCA: That can be a pretty tough thing to do, particularly for people who are already leaders.
It’s even more important for leaders. You don’t know everything, and you never will, so you have to surround yourself with good mentors and people that have different strengths and skills, and listen and ask questions. I think the more advanced in leadership you become, the more important it is to have mentors you can trust. Seek them out often, listen and follow up.
ORCA: When it comes to leading your organization, what are you most passionate about?
The opportunity to lead Sienna is a tremendous privilege. One of our organization’s strategic pillars is the team member experience, and to me it’s the most important because you have to have a great team that loves working with seniors and that wants to be there every day. That’s the only way you’re going to create a great resident experience.
ORCA: What’s your vision for senior living in Canada?
With our aging demographic, there’s a tremendous opportunity for seniors’ living.
First, we’re going to need a full range of solutions. This includes solutions for seniors who are marginalized and living in poverty, as well as affordable housing options for those who don’t have the economic means for a retirement residence.
We need to think about how people age and how this will change over time. And we will need to address a spectrum of needs with options in independent living, assisted living, memory care, home care, and sub-acute options. Private pay long term care for affluent seniors with extensive care needs has got to become more of an option in our retirement living and retirement residences across the country. We need to think about ways to get seniors out of hospitals and to have solutions for all ranges of income, need and preference.
ORCA: What’s the hardest part of what you do?
The hardest part, I think particularly in a public company, is the pressure of reporting every quarter and managing the expectations of so many stakeholders. It’s also difficult to manage the constant negative media that the sector is exposed to.
You’re always making difficult decisions and trade-offs. There are limited resources and you have to choose how they get allocated among infinite priorities. It’s deciding how much capital to invest into any one aspect of your strategy.
You can get advisors, and the executive always weighs in. We try for consensus. But there are some decisions that only the CEO can make, and you have to be committed and have such conviction that you know the Board and everyone else can support the decision moving forward.
ORCA: When you get ready to implement a new initiative within your organization, how do you build consensus and get support?
It’s a process, depending on the initiative. When we created our mission, vision and values, we engaged a consulting team that went across the country and talked to our residents, our employees, and a whole range of stakeholders. It was an iterative process that took over eight months and resulted in a clear direction for the company and what is now the Sienna brand.
Of course, not every change requires that level of consultation, but certainly we engaged throughout the organization when we were establishing a new vision and direction. For most big initiatives, there’s consultation with those that will be impacted or involved in the change, and the senior leadership team has a lot of input. We go through a process via our annual leadership symposium to get some input on priorities for the annual operating plan.
ORCA: There seems to be a theme here that even though you’re the leader, in many senses you’re very much a bottom-up organization. What I hear is that you’re paying a lot of attention to what’s happening on the ground.
ORCA: Is there one team member in your organization who just stands out in your mind – someone who’s made a huge impression on you?
We could never be where we are without a great team that is aligned around our mission and strategy. Lisa Kachur and the team, who lead our retirement division have just done a fantastic job. We’ve tripled the size of that portfolio in eighteen months, and they’re just hitting it out of the park. We have many great leaders in long term care, led by Joanne Dykeman, who manage a very complex business to high standards every day. All of our leaders are focused on the resident and team member experience. I’m very proud of our team–they really are responsible for Sienna’s success.
ORCA: So my last question is this: When you think about leadership, what does it mean to be a leader?
There are a lot of components to leadership. Individual leadership is about bringing out the very best in your team and having a profound positive impact on the growth of others. Acting as a role model, setting an example, fostering teamwork and making a difference to the teams they lead.
There are managers who are good at getting a job done, but who may not be great people leaders. And that’s really an opportunity for our sector to provide the programs and support to help these managers become good people leaders who can then elevate their skills and advance their careers.
In terms of organizational leadership, there are many components and I think that is all about good communication, the alignment around common goals, and diligent execution through clear accountabilities. At the end of the day, leaders have to take full ownership for their area of responsibility and empower their teams to do the same.