Becoming an Executive Director: How to Take the Next Step in Your Career

An Executive Director at an assisted living community oversees the day-to-day management and operations of the property, but the job is so much more than that.

Key responsibilities of an ED — on paper — may include handling the facility’s budget, overseeing marketing activities, implementing plans to maintain occupancy while achieving financial goals, managing staff and maintaining a community that is conducive to the wellbeing of all residents. But what the job actually looks like on any given day will vary greatly depending on the community and the current needs of staff and residents.

The main areas of focus for an ED are business, associates and residents — and no one area is any more or less important than the others. They invest their time between business processes and interpersonal relationships with staff and residents, and they’re constantly working to improve the day-to-day experience of everyone at their community.

Executive directors do more than fill out paperwork. They will often handle any task that needs completing, no matter how small. This could be cleaning an area of the building, helping to set tables for meals, mentoring associates, meeting with residents, and helping families understand what their loved ones are going through. It’s a job that requires incredible interpersonal skills and an unparalleled level of compassion. An executive director is never “too good” for any task.

If ensuring assisted living residents receive the highest quality of care possible sounds like an ideal career path, we have helpful information and advice and for all aspiring executive directors.

Key Skills for an Executive Director

  • There are a handful of both hard and soft skills a person should be able to demonstrate when seeking an ED role.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Self-awareness, social awareness and relationship management are very important skills for an ED to have because so much of the job requires interacting with both employees and residents in a variety of situations.
  • Organization: Beyond having a clean office, this type of organization results in the ability to strategize and execute elements of a plan while continuously measuring progress.
  • Priority Management: Because an ED will touch so many aspects of running a community, being able to set priorities and manage tasks efficiently is a must.
  • Coaching and Development: Another huge part of being an ED is mentoring associates. Knowledge of adult learning, one-on-one coaching and group learning is helpful.
  • Compassion: Perhaps the most important skill for an ED to have, compassion is absolutely necessary for creating a better life for residents of a senior living community.

Helpful Degrees and Certifications 

  • To be a competitive candidate, these types of certifications and experience would be useful for a hopeful executive director:
  • Certifications or experience in coaching, learning and development
  • A degree in a related field, such as business, finance, nursing or psychology
  • Experience with management, planning, budgeting, marketing and/or quality improvement
  • Most states will also require you to obtain an administrator’s license from that state

 A Typical Career Path

There is no single, correct path to becoming an executive director; any “foot in the door” within a senior living discipline could be the catalyst for an ED position. However, there are a few important milestones to hit in order to be prepared for the responsibilities of an executive-level position.

Seeking an elevated level of responsibilities in prior roles is important no matter the discipline, though having strong experience in sales or clinical roles can be particularly helpful. Demonstrating leadership skills and showing a progression of roles are also important aspects of a strong ED application. But the areas and titles held before seeking an ED role are less important than the experience obtained. EDs can have backgrounds in everything from marketing or sales to clinical or dining.

After obtaining an ED role, many choose to stay within their role for many years and find it rewarding to focus on excelling in their career and mentoring others in the field. However, there are opportunities for EDs to grow their careers further by entering into regional operational roles and beyond.

 Advice from an Executive Director

If becoming an ED feels like the right move, we have some advice for you from someone who knows the job best. James Lee, executive director at Brookdale San Antonio, encourages everyone to do a little soul searching before hitting the “apply” button:

“Before you apply, evaluate — very sincerely and honestly — what it is about the role that is enticing you to pursue it,” Lee says. “If your first response is the title, pay or career track, there are many other roles in other professions that could offer you that. While there’s nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation, if it’s the first thing you think of then being an executive director will wear you down.

“If your first responses are intrinsic in nature, and you’re looking for a sense of reward, an opportunity to coach others and a chance to show love, then the innate challenges of this job will motivate you and bring with it the pay and the title. Having the requisite experience doesn’t mean you’ll be a great ED. You have to have the requisite motivation, which is a call to serve others.”

Being an executive director isn’t about the pay or the nice title. It’s about serving residents to the best of your ability, no matter what the job requires. It isn’t always glamorous, but it is rewarding in a way that will lift you up as you lift up and serve those around you.

Join the Team

Working with Brookdale isn’t just a job — it’s a passion. If you’re interested in enriching the lives of seniors nationwide through a career with Brookdale, browse current openings now!