Leadership lessons can be learned anywhere, and for Mark Vanderbeck, who runs a nonprofit chain of residences for the elderly, the school can be as close as the facility's dining room. "I've always said, `if you use it right, your interaction with residents is like going to grad school every day,' said Vanderbeck, chief executive of ACTS Retirement-Life Communities, headquartered in West Point, Montgomery County.
Vanderbeck, who built a career in senior housing, just became chief executive of ACTS, which develops, owns and operates 23 continuing care facilities (from independent living to skilled nursing care) in eight states, serving 8,500 residents. "I can think back to people I've had relationships with -- chancellors of university systems, titans of business," Vanderbeck told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer.
It was early in his career when one of his residents gave Vanderbeck a graduate lesson in management that affected his style he rose in management ranks. Vanderbeck runs 23 facilities now, but in those days, he led just one, for a different company, in Sarasota, Florida. Here's what happened:
"We had an issue with the contracts," Vanderbeck said. "There was an early contract which was still in force that made life, especially in the 1980s, almost impossible. Any increases in a given year of the resident's fees were limited to 5 percent of the original monthly fee. So it's not just 5 percent of the current fee, but of the original fee. So here we are sitting in the late 80s with inflation of 16 to 18 percent. Over time this community was going to be in dire straits, even though anybody walking by would see this beautiful community and not see the financial problems."
As it happened, Vanderbeck said, the head of the residents' financial committee was the former chancellor of the New York State University system. "I went to him and he understood very well what the problem was," Vanderbeck recalled.
"We had several conversations and you know, ultimately, he said, `Mark you can't keep this as something that's a management problem. This is ultimately a resident problem.'
"At that time in my life, there was a tendency to keep certain things [quiet] -- you wouldn't necessarily fully communicate certain kinds of issues. He encouraged me very strongly to come up with a plan. It was called the Trustees Plan and it gave people the opportunity to pay at market levels and it was communicated that this was needed."
Besides teaching him to look for advice from residents, the incident also impressed upon him the importance of open communications. "The fancy word today is transparent, and that's a lesson I got 20 years ago," Vanderbeck said. "It has certainly been what my style has been from a management standpoint."