Profile: Terri Cunliffe

Terri Cunliffe CEO, Covenant Retirement Communities
Terri Cunliffe CEO, Covenant Retirement Communities

A few weeks after becoming the first female chief executive at Covenant Retirement Communities in June, Terri Cunliffe found herself chatting with a fellow passenger on a flight back from corporate headquarters. When he learned Cunliffe had spent the past 28 years at the company — nearly her entire working life — the man was surprised. 

After all, that kind of longevity and loyalty in the corporate world is rare these days.

“If the conversation keeps going after I tell someone what I do for a living, that's one thing. The long-term care business isn't exactly glamorous, you know,” the 57-year-old CEO of the nation's fifth largest not-for-profit senior services provider quips. “Long ago, I had to decide whether to stay put and try to make a real difference, or work in a variety of organizations trying to prove myself.”

Calm confidence and self-effacing humor form the first impressions most people get upon meeting the woman who took her first healthcare job back in 1980 as a receptionist at a Minneapolis nursing home. But what truly defines her is her faith. 

“I believe that my entre into senior living was a calling and I think every position I've had, including this one, has been God-directed,” Cunliffe says. 

That faith would be tested not long after assuming her first lead role at Covenant Village of Florida, a job to which a former pastor had introduced her several years earlier while vacationing in the Sunshine State.

The death of her mother in 1992, as it turns out, would be one of her greatest personal challenges. “That was very difficult for me,” she recalls. But that grueling experience not only cemented her calling in life, but also showed her how to do her job. “I finally found myself able to connect and understand what loss means to adult children,” she says.

Thirteen years later, Cunliffe became Covenant's first-ever senior vice president of health and wellness. It was a role that would lead to her proudest moments. Among them were her conceiving LifeConnect®, a comprehensive program and software suite designed to quickly integrate residents with a host of multi-dimensional wellness programs.

After assuming the role of COO in 2010, Cunliffe initiated a partnership with the Disney Institute to develop a novel customer service and hospitality platform and integrated SAIDO Learning®, a non-pharmacological way to help improve the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. 

Cunliffe says she never aspired to be CEO of anything. She views it as simply another point along a rich and rewarding career timeline. “I have simply used the gifts and talents God has given me, coupled with my love for senior adults,” she says.

As she finds herself switching between her apartment near CRC's Skokie, IL, headquarters and her home in Boca Raton, FL, she balances her passion for music (she studied piano in college and hums hymns a lot at work) and her love of golf (her husband Dave is a PGA professional). 

She devours business and leadership books (“Start with Why” and “The Advantage” are favorites), as well as salmon and sushi whenever she gets the chance.

All the while, she stays grounded with her trademark sense of humor. Asked if the top job at Covenant will be her swan song, she retorts, “I don't see the end yet. I have a close pack of good friends who've told me if I don't see when it's time to leave, they'll point the way. They've written my advanced directive for work.”