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ORCA Leadership Series – Lois Cormack

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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.

Conversation with Lois Cormack 

Note: This interview transcript has been edited for length.
ORCA: Tell us how you got into senior living.

Well, it’s been a journey and a bit of a circuitous one. It started in my teenage years when I lived on a farm near Cannington and really wanted to work at the local seniors’ residence for the summer.  As luck would have it, the owner offered me a position as a care aide on the spot and I started the next day (after proudly donning a uniform that the owner lent to me).

From the day I started, I really enjoyed being a part of the team – staff of all ages welcomed me, and went out of their way to teach me the ropes and make me feel comfortable. I enjoyed being with the residents and getting to know their preferences and habits. I saw what a difference team members made, not only to the residents and their families, but also to each other. Right away, I could see that the owner was the one who could make changes and improvements. I was impressed with how she listened and recognized the staff, how she took time for the residents and their families, and fostered a feeling of team work and family. So that is what I set my sights on.  I knew that I wanted to be in a position of leadership and to have that ability to have a positive impact on so many people.

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:  So let’s dig a little bit deeper into this mentor thing. What would you suggest to someone who’d love to have a mentor, but has no idea where to start?

I didn’t realize right away that mentors are everywhere. They show up in your life at the right time, when you have a need, and it’s really just about asking for help and advice from those that you respect and who have expertise in areas that you are lacking.  When I started with Sienna, I knew the business well and quickly knew what needed to be done, but knew very little about capital markets. So I immediately found some knowledgeable mentors, and it was just amazing how many people were willing to give me help and advice. It really is about asking for help and seeking out those with skills to help you develop an area where you need to round out your skills and to advance your career.

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: You have about 12,000 people working in your organization, and about the same number of residents. You’re responsible, in part, for the happiness of about 24,000 people. What’s that like?

It can be daunting, but I think of each of our 85 properties as a unique local business meeting the needs of the community they serve. We have tried to set up the company so that General Managers and Executive Directors are really the leaders of their residence and are provided with the support to respond to and meet the needs of their team members, residents, and families. In that context, my role is to create a great culture and build a great team and a strong operating platform that gives our teams in each residence all the support they need to be successful.

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.

And so we’ve focused extensively on leadership development, employee engagement and culture, which is ultimately how Sienna was named one of Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures by Waterstone Human Capital.

We’ve invested so much time and effort into our culture because it’s a journey that is never over. We hire not just for a culture “fit,” but for a culture “add.” We’re looking for people who are going to add to our culture.

I’m most passionate about seeing young leaders grow and thrive with us. A care aide, recreation assistant or a cook, for instance, who advance their education and go on to become a supervisor, a manager, and then increasing senior levels of leadership. We are constantly investing in programs to enable team members to grow their career with us.

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.

We will need to be innovative to attract talent to the sector with a significant shortage of labour relative to the need. How are we going to get youth and new Canadians interested in this sector? I think the work that ORCA is doing to profile our sector to youth is just fantastic, and we all have to work together to make this an attractive career choice. We also have to think about innovation.

How do we build for the future? How do we use technology to improve the resident experience?

So I think while there’s no one silver bullet, there is a lot of opportunity for the sector.  The future holds much promise.

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.

For sure.

One of the most rewarding things I do is visit the residences, talk to staff, and tour the properties. Those visits significantly influence my decisions, and I think all of our leadership team’s decisions, because they keep us grounded. If you’re not in the residences interacting with team members and residents for a while, you’re likely not really in touch with what is going on.

I believe the only way you can be successful is by listening to and understanding what’s happening at the front line. You must understand how the business is changing every day in order to be progressive and proactive.

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.

ORCA: Any last words of wisdom before we’re done here? Anything I missed that I should have asked you about?

I really commend ORCA for doing this Leadership Series, and I look forward to hearing from other leaders. I think this series is an opportunity to profile senior living as an option for people who are wanting to make a difference, be part of a team, and to have leadership opportunities to advance their careers.

This sector is a very rewarding place where you can make a difference. There is so much energy and enthusiasm, and we all have an opportunity to continue to raise the bar, every day, as we change the conversation to eradicate ageism and improve the image of aging and senior living.

Dynamic. Smart. Energetic. Committed.

Leaders in Ontario’s retirement communities sector are changing the way the world thinks about senior living.

Join ORCA as we speak to the premier leaders in the sector today – about who they are, why they are here and where we are going.

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