The 12 traits of great nursing home administrators ... and school principals

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Tim Mullaney
Tim Mullaney

Social media often is credited with providing a stream of up-to-the-minute news, the latest developments breaking over Twitter or Facebook, and spreading virally in no time flat. But I've found that old stories also sometimes get a second life thanks to social media. Such is the case with a New York Times column from 2011that my friend Cory posted to Facebook this weekend. The column is about what makes a great school principal, but it could just as easily be talking about what makes a great long-term care administrator.

Of the 12 traits that columnist Michael Winerip identified, a number of them pretty clearly could translate from the school setting to the nursing home. For instance, the list leads off with “A good principal has been a teacher.” The corollary might be, “A good administrator has come up through the ranks of the facility staff.”

Now, I don't mean to say that it's impossible to be a great administrator if you didn't start as a certified nursing assistant — and Winerip didn't say that all great principals once were teachers. But he argued, “It's hard for principals to win over teachers if they haven't been one.” I'm sure this idea helps explain the effectiveness of great administrators like Kay Peruski, who began her long-term care career as a receptionist.

And just as a great principal has to be able to connect with teachers, he or she has to be able to connect with students. This is another of Winerip's principles (pun intended). A good principal, he wrote, should be like P.S. 126's Jacqui Getz. Walking through the cafeteria one morning, he saw Getz speak with one student about a book, chat with another about hula hoops, and bring a box of cereal to a student who was asleep, urging him to eat.

This reminded me of LeadingAge Chairman David Gehm's speech at the association's 2013 convention in Dallas. When he started as an administrator in 1990, he told the audience, he began each day by walking around the facility. He thought this visibility was a way of showing good leadership, until a resident waved him over and said, “I don't know what you do around here, but you sure look like a jackass doing it.” The point, of course, is that a great administrator actually connects with residents rather than just being a presence in the hallways.

Some of Winerip's other “great principal” traits easily could apply to nursing home administrators and are pretty obvious: leading by example, setting his or her own high standards, having a to-do list “several feet long.” 

Other items on Winerip's list don't translate so neatly to long-term care. For instance, “a good principal has her own style.” Getz, he wrote, derives some stature by wearing high heels, and students know she is coming around a corner thanks to her clicking heels and clinking bracelets. A nursing home administrator might not want to adopt such a glamorous style, especially if she's directing staff to wear sensible shoes and keep their arms bare, per the latest healthcare worker attire guidance. But it might benefit some administrators to think more strategically about a style that is practical but conveys the image they want to project.

And then there's this: “A good principal takes money out of her pocket for the school.”

Winerip described how Getz used her own money to buy IKEA bookcases for her office and stocked them with hundreds of her own books, making them available for teachers and students to borrow. This made her office a destination for something more casual than a disciplinary dressing down or a formal meeting.

This made sense, but I thought, why should principals have to put their hard-earned money back into their jobs? For more context, I reached out to my friend Robert Lazers. A former Chicago Public Schools principal himself, he currently works with many school administrators nationwide as a partnership manager for educational software company eSpark.

Lazers acknowledged that some school administrators would argue against spending their own money for the school, but he said that exceptional principals certainly do dip into their own bank accounts for work-related purchases.

“Administrators going the extra mile, including using their own money to make the office student-friendly and comfortable, proves to the staff that the administrator is determined to make the school a community where students, parents and teachers know that their administrator cares,” he said.

Exceptional teachers also spend their own money, he added. In an ideal world, the school system would reimburse for all these expenses, he said — but this obviously is not a perfect world when it comes to how public dollars are allocated for education. Long-term care administrators who see their margins shrink with each cut to Medicare and Medicaid can attest to the imperfection of the long-term care payment system.

Still, I could see that refusing to spend your own money could be a healthy limit to set for yourself, if you're an administrator. Long-term care professionals risk putting too much of themselves in the job, cautioned Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., in a “The World According to Dr. El” blog for McKnight's. That blog post elicited 23 reader comments — some criticizing Dr. El. While I agree with her points about setting healthy boundaries, the comments show the deep, abiding sense of vocation that many long-term care professionals have. I imagine that many administrators see charging some items to their credit card as one of the easier sacrifices they make for their job.

Finally, this observation stood out to me: “A good principal knows teachers are only part of what makes a school run.” Winerip's point is that the school is part of the larger community, and the principal should be a liaison.

Jacqui Getz, for example, immediately accepted an invitation to attend a tenants' association meeting at the housing project across the street from her school. A great nursing home administrator might seek similar ways to work constructively with the facility's neighbors. When a nursing home administrator is at odds with community partners, even a new sign can be a source of conflict.

Local schools are one obvious starting point for building community relations — and not only to bring the choir in for Christmas concerts. Nursing home administrators might benefit by seeing school principals as comrades-in-arms and professional sounding boards. Anxiety sometimes wakes up Jacqui Getz at 3 a.m., Winerip reported. I'm sure some of her demons also haunt long-term care administrators at night. Strategizing or just commiserating with a local principal might be one way to keep these demons at bay.

Tim Mullaney is Senior Staff Writer at McKnight's. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.