Changemakers: Vassar Byrd, CEO, The Kendal Corporation

Changemakers: Vassar Byrd, CEO, The Kendal Corporation

Changemaker in corporate social responsibility and finance

Vassar Byrd is the CEO at The Kendal Corporation. Byrd joined Kendal in early 2024, after having previously served as CEO at Rose Villa. Byrd said she consistently aims to find new ways to serve residents in all that the organization does.

In this Changemakers interview, Byrd examines how important diversity is to the senior living industry, how she calculates risk with feedback, and how Kendal’s Quaker values play a large role in creating quality care.

How do you believe you may have changed as a leader since starting in the senior living industry?

I learned that I can’t control very much, and how to be okay with that. I think that learning to trust deeply, trust other people is a big deal.

It’s all about listening to the group, especially residents. If you’ve got an outlier who’s got a personal point of view and they’re screaming crazy, the group will know it, and they will enforce the norm of the group with the other residents. It is not for me to get in the middle of that. It has been really helpful to learn how to trust residents and certainly trust my direct reports to do scary things. 

Do you see yourself as a changemaker? Are you always excited about driving change?

Yes, I definitely see myself as a Changemaker. I feel like you can either drive change or be slammed to the ground by it. I would rather be in the flow than be crushed by the flow. I think that being stale and not changing is about the worst punishment I can imagine.

What are some of the ways that you think the senior living industry needs to change in the next five years?

I think we need a greater diversity of options. Less brick and mortar focus, more inventive ways to create community.

That’s something that I hope that we can do at Kendal. You reach more kinds of people. You get to be part of different kinds of cultures or backgrounds or histories. You’re not only doing your own thing. If you have a greater richness of community and more satisfied residents and staff, then you will have more variety and depth in your partnerships. 

With the cost of construction and interest rates and everything else, doing it the same way is just not an option. It’s impossible.

As you look across the industry, do you think things are changing quickly enough to keep up with this new pace?

No. Certainly, there are some areas that are moving faster than others, but I’m continually disappointed by the focus on super-expensive real estate and amenities rather than lifestyle and emotional connection, because emotional connection is what the next generation wants.

Think about a time you implemented a change and things didn’t go according to plan, how did you pivot and what did you learn as a leader?

There are so many failures. That’s part of not being afraid of change. The beauty of being a single-site is that, at that scale, you can afford to try new things and fail. The most important thing is to never fall in love with your own opinion. You’ve got to look for contrary voices. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t take yourself too seriously or your organization too seriously because we’re all just practicing all the time.

I was trying to think of a specific example that would be interesting, and I would say I failed over and over and over figuring out how to make our operations team work well at its highest level at Rose Villa in particular. I’d get parts of it to work, and then the rest wouldn’t.

You have got to keep your eyes open to say, “Okay, that was not successful. Let’s try it this way.” It’s never going to be perfect, but you can get as close as possible.

When you’re thinking about timing and trying to implement some of these operational changes, how do you go about that and make sure that there’s a lot of buy-in from team members?

Most true change comes from trying things out. I like to test a change in one part of the organization and then get feedback. You’re not going big, you start small, and you build that feedback, so you take time to assess whether it’s really working so that you’re not ahead of yourself, and you can course-correct before you’ve committed too many resources or made a fool of yourself publicly. Not that that can’t happen, but if you’re testing, testing, testing, it kind of builds in that safety margin.

That’s what I’ve always done, is trying to make sure that I’ve got the right people to help me try something new. Then make sure that you follow back around. You don’t just launch it, and then don’t pay attention. You’ve got to follow back around and ask how it went, and for everybody, not just the guys that designed it.

Changemakers tend to be risk-takers. Do you agree with that statement? And how do you describe your own appetite for risk?

I think people really misunderstand risk. Doing nothing is as risky as doing something. Doing nothing is a choice. For me, that’s a foundational principle. When you take into account that everything else around you is changing all the time, then doing nothing is even more risky than not changing. Why would you stand still if everything around you is changing?

I will say that I have a great appetite for perspective, and that’s the perspective that makes the risk not scary.

What do you believe is the single greatest driver of change in today’s senior living operating environment?

All my money is on the residents. We’ve got new seniors, they have different demographics, they have different life experiences. It’s been written about too much, but baby boomers are used to changing the world as they move through it, and this is no different.

Can you talk about how you see the need for DEI in the industry, and what are some of the things you’re doing to drive change in that regard?

From the Kendal perspective, certainly as a Quaker organization our practice is to invite the stranger to the table. That means that we want to understand each person. We want to hear from their perspective, that their perspective is a gift. The corollary to that is to hold your own opinion lightly. I would love for people to practice that more. For our organization currently, it’s about how do we actively gather all the opinions of everyone in the room, it is a practice that is valuable. You get better at doing it the more you practice it. I think that’s how true diversity starts to show up.

Practically speaking, you have to look in different places for team members. You have to ask different kinds of questions. Ask for different kinds of qualifications, substitute experience for formal schooling. Sometimes you really have to think through where are people coming from. If you’re always in this one lane, you’re getting the same people all the time. What are the actual changes you need to make? Certainly, in the hiring process to get more diverse applicants.

We have to create a place where people feel safe, seen and valued. That’s not an initiative from corporate, that is everyone doing that work all the time.

In what ways is Kendal is changing for the current times to be able to meet the demand?

I would say that we are really focusing on how we can partner with different kinds of organizations. I would love to find other interest groups, other affinity groups, other areas where we can make a difference, to do something with that organization that neither one of us could do by ourselves.

Partnership is really key to diversifying who we are, diversifying the kinds of services that we offer, and the types of housing that we offer. Certainly, our Kendal at Home Affiliate is a huge part of the future. I’m super interested in growing that.

Use a movie, book, or TV show title to describe the year ahead for the senior living industry in 2024.

“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.

Written in the 1930s, this is a pretty crazy forward cast into genetic engineering and a whole bunch of ideas that are eerily similar to what we currently refer to as AI. It’s descriptive of 2024 in that we are looking into how technology can help us or simply mine us for “big data.” Do we control tech or does it control us?

Technology and med-tech are a huge focus for senior living. This is an area that has enormous potential to integrate systems, automate routine work flow, increase efficiency – at the same time that it can represent a big suck on resources with no truly meaningful payoff in the lives of the people we serve, trading increased margin for human interaction.

Choose one artist, scientist, thinker, entrepreneur or other person, living or dead, to help change the senior living industry for the better. In only a few words, who are you choosing and why?

Yoda. Innovative thinker, beyond class, race and gender. Not an apparent psychopath. Able to speak plainly, see every problem, issue and person through fresh eyes, never taking anything for granted, and able to inspire and motivate people to do amazing things. Can turn something “obvious” on its head to find a new path forward. This is what the senior living field needs. “You must unlearn what you have learned.” And, of course, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

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