Guest Columns

What I've learned as a young CEO

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Julie Thorson
Julie Thorson

When I became the President and CEO of a not-for-profit CCRC two years ago at the age of 38, one of my early thoughts was: I had better start wearing lipstick! I know, it seems silly out of all the challenges I would face, but lipstick felt like something I could manage. I knew early on overcoming the challenges of being a young woman in a highly male dominated profession was going to be interesting. Now there are many women in the long-term care industry, but to become the CEO, I definitely thought: Whoa, what have I gotten myself into?

How's the saying go? Fake it ‘til you make it? Within the first few months I realized just lipstick was only going to get me so far. I had to be willing to do the hard work and make the hard decisions and stand behind those decisions. Courage and being authentic was going to be much more important than outward appearances.

My path to becoming the CEO was an interesting one, staring with the idea that I loved seniors. When I had my first child 15 years ago, I struggled with the age-old question of all mothers: Should I stay home, go to work or work part-time? (If anyone tells you this wasn't a struggle at some point, they are lying.) I thought I would try part-time. Within a few months, I realized I needed to work full-time in order to be a better mom, and I became a social service designee in the local nursing home. Within days, I realized this was for me; I was helping people and I loved old people. Plus, I valued what influence I was having on my daughter. I wanted to be able to show her working made me a better mom. I realized I could both love my children and love my work. I got over the guilt and learned how to balance my time. Plus, the extra income didn't hurt.

That was in 1999, which in many ways marks my start to becoming the CEO. I realized Friendship Haven, the super place I call my second home today, was the place where my love for old people and my desire to become a head coach could mesh well together. Did I mention I'm a coach's daughter? I always wanted to inspire and motivate people the way my dad had motivated football players for over 30 years. Explaining that I'm a coach's daughter is key because it always explains why I'm extremely competitive, highly self-critical and annoyingly motivating.

After social services, I became an activity director, admissions coordinators, sales counselor, marketing director, foundation director and then I left Friendship Haven. That's right. In 2007, I said good-bye, knowing someday I would return. My career had been spent in the not-for-profit world and I knew in order to be an effective CEO someday I would need to gain a better understanding of the for-profit world. I took a position with a wound healing and hyperbaric company that had a contract with our local hospital. I continued to learn more about business and also about leadership. I experienced a different leadership style that later I would emulate.

In 2009, I returned to Friendship Haven. I went back to school and eventually become the administrator. I needed to get my hands dirty, which is what I did. In two short years, I took the fast track in seeing things from a different perspective. Leadership and all that it meant was going to be my focus. On January 6, 2011, my world changed and I became the President/CEO of Friendship Haven. It had been my personal goal to be the leader of Friendship Haven someday, and my competitive spirit had hoped it would be before I was 40. There are occasionally moments when I think I should have been careful what I wished for, as being young and working with the greatest generation does present its own set of challenges. I am reminded of my age often, whether it's when meeting peers, working with residents or even introducing myself to families. I have to earn respect quickly and, in some ways, have to convince them I deserve to be here. I'm sure that feeling will vanish over time and I continue to learn every day.

I'm sharing my story and background because I want to encourage long-term care leaders of today to welcome younger leaders, mentor us, support us, share with us the challenges of the industry, and also explain the reasons why we should stick with it. The pressures are great, but I believe the rewards are greater.

The piece of advice I cherish and would pass along to other young women in long-term care: Don't worry about the lipstick. Be true to who you are. Being genuine is what got me here and staying genuine is hopefully what will keep me here.

Julie Thorson is the president and CEO of Friendship Haven in Fort Dodge, IA.




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Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.