John O’Connor

It’s a rare week when we don’t hear an industry leader talk about long-term care’s severe staffing crisis. 

 These statements tend to address the need to find and keep additional workers. To be sure, both are in relatively short supply. And yes, the challenge is getting worse.

But there’s a different kind of staffing challenge in long-term care that gets far less attention than it deserves. I’m referring, of course, to the sector’s aching need for effective executives. In way too many long-term care organizations, this shortcoming is blatantly obvious. Not in yours, of course. But trust me, the problem does exist.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a bias that has shaped and perhaps warped my thinking on this matter. I happen to be a huge fan of the late Peter Drucker, who arguably knew more about effective executives than any person ever. And as it happens, one of the 39 books he penned just happened to be called “The Effective Executive.” 

While that publication is more than half a century old, it is full of insights and advice that remain highly relevant.

For example, Drucker noted that being effective is not the same as working hard. However, to be frank, any long-term care executive who fails to work hard is probably not long for this field. Nor is effectiveness a matter of being highly intelligent, although that certainly comes in handy. Rather, being effective is about following a set of practices and ways of thinking that fuel real contribution.

For many long-term care leaders, the typical workday consists largely of putting out fires. But to Drucker, such activity is almost beside the point. Instead, leaders need to make a handful of critical decisions that help define the organization and its purpose.

But is well-considered, critical decision-making what we’re typically getting from executives in this field today? I would say that all too often, the answer to that question is a hard no.

So what should effective executives be doing? Well, according to Drucker, it starts with time management. He argues that those who get it done know exactly how their hours and minutes are spent. But more than that, they zealously protect the small sliver of time that is truly theirs.

But that is just a price of admission. Where the rubber hits the road is not a focus on efforts, but results. Drucker maintains that effective executives repeatedly ask themselves this simple question: “What contribution can I make?”

A side benefit of this approach is that it basically forces a leader to focus on the top thing or few things where a big impact can be made. And just as a rising tide lifts all ships, an emphasis on contribution tends to elevate standards for all others.

Time management and an outcomes focus are obviously critical. Drucker noted that effective executives must do three additional things as well:

·      Know where and how to mobilize strength for best effect

·      Set the right priorities

·      Knit all of them together with effective decision-making 

These are not exactly earth-shattering insights. Yet all too often in long-term care, they are given a low priority. Or worse, ignored.

Finding more and better workers is a tough but solvable math problem. But ineffective leadership is in many ways a more fundamental staffing challenge. And it will likely be even more difficult to fix.

 John O’Connor is Editorial Director for McKnight’s.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.