Tom Willis in conversation with Jill Wilson
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Jill Wilson is the President and CEO of Otterbein SeniorLife. Jill joined Otterbein in 1997, and has held various positions including chief financial officer, vice president of strategic planning and executive vice president leading up to her promotion to CEO in early 2009. Prior to joining Otterbein, she spent her career as a CPA in ever increasing roles of responsibility with certified public accounting firms.
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Hey Jill Wilson thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. It's so great to see you again. We had a chance to to meet and present together down at the leading age conference down in Atlanta last year which would have been 2021 and just really appreciated your leadership style and your insights. So I'm really excited to have you on the podcast so you can share some of those with the rest of the world.
We can just start with you know you've got a you've got a 13-year plus history with Otterbein. You guys are working in Ohio and Indiana with about 2 300 employees and you've helped grow that organization pretty impressively. So maybe we can start with just your story you know how did how did Jill get to be the CEO and tell us a little bit about your background.
All right well tom and and let me just say first off thanks for having me uh to your podcast I feel very privileged to be able to meet and chat with you and and your membership or your viewership I should say and i did enjoy our time at leading age national talking about uh a favorite topic of mine which is um leadership so thank you for that um how did i how did i what was the question how did i become the CEO is that the question yeah just a little bit about your story whatever you want to share with us okay well.
I cannot tell a lie during the heat of uh during the heat of uh coved working in a senior as a CEO of a senior living organization there there are times when i asked that same question of myself how did i become the CEO um but um where do i begin well um certainly not directly i i didn't start my career out thinking i wanted to be the ceo of a very i think a very innovative very prestigious organization like Otterbein i am started out my career.
well actually i didn't know what i wanted to do if truth be told um and in my quest of trying to figure that out i attended uh five colleges and universities before i got my bachelor's degree not something that people usually go through particularly those who are ceos um but that was my path early on um what i think is which i think is so great one that you're willing to be that honest um with the audience and two for those listening to realize that there's no there's no one way there's no one right way to become a ceo that literally every story i hear is different and it's it's just so cool to hear that uh despite that you know it doesn't really matter it's it's really what do you do with the rest of your life how do you keep working towards something and um and end up sometimes you just end up in the ceo see at least that's how i got there but anyway go ahead with the rest of your story yeah um and so i my dad finally gave me some counsel and he said jilly uh you're good at math you know and if you you become an accountant you know uh you could you could probably make a decent living at it and i thought well okay i'll do that and actually i i was good at math and i so i did finally um get a an accounting degree after attending four universities and colleges a couple community colleges and then a few few four-year schools um but uh so then i became a cpa and and i really started to to get some momentum going and feeling like this was a great direction for me and i worked for you know as a practicing cpa for a couple different cpa firms and found myself at one that specialized in senior living and um you know i had i began begun to formulate a future for myself which would be which would be to become a partner in the cpa firm that i was working at and um you know so so um i uh my firm at the time specialized in in serving senior living organizations like otterbein uh who have retirement communities or nursing homes or whatever it's a big business actually there's so there's a lot of um a lot of business out there serving this this population um and there was a lot of work uh to be done in my my job uh was certainly to do all the traditional accounting things but also i found my my niche to be uh as a consultant um so i would go to my my clients and my job was to help help them become more financially viable so i would you know i'd sit down and and i'd uh i'd show them these really beautiful mathematical analyses that i did you know they all added everything added down and added across and you know benchmarking and you know variances and i'd say look here you know to you know executive directors and administrators look look here look here you um
If you cut your nursing staff you know because clearly you're overstaffed here look at this line and you know you're spending way too much on food and this and that and uh you know i give them my my um my um analyses and i'll feel great that i i just told them how to solve all their problems and then i would leave and nothing would change none of their problems were solved nothing would change and they'd continue to um to experience the financial discourse that had brought me there in the first place so i got to thinking about that and i realized um if if i can't help my my clients i might not be able to get to become a partner in the firm um so i need to learn a little bit more about how they the organization's senior living organization that i serve work because they're clearly not listening to me they're clearly not taking my advice and they're not getting better um and i'm so smart you know i think maybe if i i learn more about them i can i can help them better and then i can be a partner in the firm so so i had a client it happened to be otterbein and they were one of my largest clients at the time and an executive director over one of their retirement communities said you know i i think it would be good if you became if you came to us and you did a nine-month internship through the ohio department of health and at the end of that internship you could become a licensed nursing home administrator and i thought oh you know that'd be great i could put lnha behind my cpa and my clients would think i'm smarter and it'd be great i'd be i'd have another credential to become a partner in the firm and so i did that it was a nine month internship i worked nine months full time in in the retirement community i worked uh at night in the um for the accounting uh firm i was a single mother at the time um so but i got to work in all the different departments so i i worked in housekeeping i worked in in laundry i worked in the kitchen i worked in nursing i worked in transportation i you know for nine months and um and while i was there um i started to have these feelings like wow this is this is really something um what what's going on with me i don't understand um and what i i came to realize is that i look really forward to being with the people at work like the the people that work in senior living are um nurturers by nature they're caregivers they um um they they come to work and they give love um and it felt good to to feel like i was part of that and then the people that we serve the the seniors the older folks um they they actually seem to care about me um they they um were so giving of their life experiences they were so interesting and um and i looked forward to seeing them uh every day when i would go into work and i i realized you know not that accountants working with accountants they don't they're not nice people they are nice people but this was different and i i started to feel like this pain in my chest and i think i i kind of the analogy i use is if you think about the grinch right and the grinch's heart like it's small and starts to get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and that's i realized that that was going on my heart was just getting bigger and bigger and bigger and it wasn't like oh i have a heart but it it kind of was and um and at the end of the nine months um uh now granted this was a a retirement community that was losing money um but it and and i was able to use some of my skill set to help um and at the end of the month nine months they were actually making money um and the ceo asked uh said i want you to come and work at otterbein i don't know what your job will be but i want you to come and work and i said okay and and i quit the firm um and i can remember calling mom and dad and i remember uh telling daddy that i was going to work in the in the nursing home and the retirement community and i remember hearing hearing my dad say to my mother julie julie's gonna go work at the home carol julie's working at the home and uh he said no they're not homes they're not homes but he didn't he quite he didn't quite understand why i would give up my my career as a cpa and work in the home but it's worked out it's worked out fabulously and i learned so many so many lessons and i think one of the key things i learned was not just how wonderful senior living is but what i learned is that where i would go in and i would tell people what to do through my mathematical analyses the opposite is true in leadership because what i what i got the chance to do where i knew numbers were off i got the chance to work with those department heads and and at and they told me what they were doing and with a little bit of steering and challenging they provided the answers to the problems in a way that they could be solved right they they had the knowledge they just needed they just needed a structure to be able to share their knowledge in a way that would create the financial viability that the organization needed and that was also um an incredible moment for me as well to know that the truth and the way is predominantly found in the people that are doing the work each and every day um as i said when we started that that retirement community was on track to lose about a million and a half a year and when i might when i ended the internship they were on track to generate a half a million dollar surplus wow and none of the ideas that that changed their course were mine um
so that's they weren't yours but i heard what i heard in that is you you started to lead you know you instead of providing a data set of spreadsheets and whatnot you actually started to engage people and started to animate their hearts and started to lead them and get them to come up with the own solutions and and have the ownership in that right but it wasn't um it wasn't like hey i'm in charge because i wasn't in charge i was an internship i was an intern i wasn't in charge um but it was effective uh it it really was effective and that actually was uh 26 years ago um so i've served this organization for 26 years and i've had lots of different jobs leading up to my position as ceo um and certainly never had intended or even at the end of you know my vision for becoming a cp a partner when i started out at otterbein my vision was never to become the ceo i just became enamored with the work and the mission and um and how i could contribute and and and um that was enough for me honestly until the ceo decided to retire and started to have conversations with me about the possibility which i i denied because the responsibilities of a ceo are enormous um and uh being the steward of uh a a non-profit mission that is incredibly um important to the the constituent groups that that it serves and all that comes with that seems uh like an overwhelming task um so so initially i was not interested in exploring that um but uh the ceo uh really had a lot of confidence in me and he um he allowed me and supported me in um engaging in educational opportunities outside of our organization so i i went to the wharton school for strategic planning events i went out to los angeles and san francisco for a lot of educational events that really helped but but also you know i'm a numbers person right love the numbers um he supported me and the organization supported me in pursuing a degree in organizational development in organizational development a master's degree in organizational development from bowling green state university and that that program uh i characterize as tree hugging meets business right because organizational development as i was taught is really about the organizational the human processes uh within organizations that drive outcomes and it was filled with psychology majors and then there was me this accountant and they looked at me funny and i looked at them funny
but in the end that truly was uh really a life-changing event that i think eventually led to a major change in my behavior and my outlook on on leadership that enabled me to be open to becoming a ceo and i think um i think
the possibility of becoming a successful ceo let me just say that yeah yeah which is interesting because i haven't really it certainly didn't dawn on me until just now joe but a lot of the ceos that we work with around the world across the country have that similar sort of reticence almost to becoming a ceo you know there's almost uh i know i was the same way i was i was 34 years old and i was like wait a minute i want it but i didn't want it you know there's that reticence to really step up and and become a ceo um so for you it sounds like you had a shift in your mindset you know a shift in oh i can actually i think i can actually do this and i can actually do this successfully so for all the young leaders out there what advice would you have for them who are maybe thinking well i can't i can't be a ceo yeah well i think that well first off if i can anyone can i can find out right now um and i you know i think i think that you have to follow um i think you have to follow your um intuition um you have you have to constantly um be open to growth and if you are constantly open to continually growing your skills and your intellect and your your emotional fortitude um emotional fortitude i would guess is the number one reason people choose not to become a ceo because emotionally they don't believe that they have the capability to manage all of the pieces and the parts that come along with that and once you once you get to the point where you're you're emotionally vested in that possibility then you can become intellectually vested that makes any sense makes a ton of sense to me um and it's i'm an engineer you know i worked for intel and pricewaterhousecoopers in many ways we have a similar story you know i i was all about the numbers um i worked for some big companies did the consulting and oftentimes the consultants come with these brilliant plans but then they fall short on execution because they forget to involve the human beings and they forget the emotional piece of it that that we i believe we humans are primarily emotional beings um and we justify our emotional you know reactions or emotional decisions with with data and logic later after we already made the decision so uh it makes a makes a ton of sense to me and i love that idea of emotional fortitude um that it takes a very intentional uh growth plan for yourself around how am i going to grow as a leader um and get better and better and better because there is no uh there is no perfect leader it's just who's the best leaders i've found are the ones that are just never never stopping they're never stopped growing and getting better yeah and i would i would also say to those folks out there that you you have to control that growth plan right you can't wait around for your boss or for your your you know you or hr department or whatever you have to take the initiative to to establish your own plan and and work it uh to your to the best of your ability ability you know more than anyone what you need um my daddy always used to say you hear my dad i'm my dad uh he used to always say you know you're the first to know you haven't done your job
and so uh that's a little out of context in this um and what i'm saying here except for the fact that i think you are you are the first to know what you need nobody knows you better than yourself so take charge of of your your future by endeavoring in things that will help you grow and challenge you in ways that might be uncomfortable i mean being going through that od program for the first six months uh was like touchy feely oh get me out of here you know but in the end um it served me well and i would say the more discomfort you feel um in your growing and your learning uh the more effective it is for sure yeah that that the growth stone is is by definition outside of the comfort zone and if you want to grow you have to get uncomfortable um it's great the the notion of responsibility really for your own growth and learning because i could not agree more that you know if you want to be a leader you got to take control and responsibility because otherwise you can fall into that category of a martyr or the victim or a whiner and none of those things will get you where you want to go um it may make you you feel good because you got someone else to blame but at the end of the day you got to take ownership for your own life and career path and that that's not any different than becoming a ceo i want to shift just a little bit here because where the time is flying by and we're literally hopefully sort of at the peak of omicron this this variant of covid um here in the midwest it's late january of 2022. obviously you're running um homes and and whatnot they're helping the elderly um hugely challenging the fact that you're even joining me today is a bit of a miracle and so thank you for your time because i know you got a thousand things on your plate how are you doing it joe how how are you mustering sort of the energy and the courage and the the positivity and enthusiasm and optimism all those things and it's such a challenging time like this yeah well it is challenging and it certainly has been challenging for everyone everywhere in any in any place right um yes absolutely in senior living particularly in the very beginning when nursing homes got hit hard and as part of our organization we have um we have 17 nursing homes uh so um it certainly has been uh the challenge of of of my life professionally but i think you do you you do it um you do it like you do anything else you you put your mind to work um and let me just share just one one story because again i work in a field that teaches me every single day about life um and very early on uh when um covet hit we we had horrible task of having to isolate our residents who live in the nursing home in their rooms for a certain period of time um and we had a chaplain who um would go to the doors of our residence and he shared a story with us and he would you know knock on the door and look in all messed up and everything and he would and he said are you okay are are you doing all right um now remember the people that we serve um they're older they're in their late 80s they're in their 90s they might be 100 years old they've lived their lives and and predominantly what he would say is they would say this is nothing you should have been around for world war ii this is nothing you know i this is no you know and it struck me as uh real wisdom that um that i was serving people who have been through a lot worse than this and and um the wisdom in the nugget of that this is nothing uh certainly provided a basis for us to to get to work right and and and and it's simple i mean honestly it might be overly simplistic but the reality is what we needed to do was to develop a operating system a new operating system that would would combat um omicron would combat the variant would combat covet and so we framed it in our organization as the otterbein offensive and we launched uh we launched an operating model across all of our organization that was designed off of our first-hand experiences in uh in the community our community that got that got hit initially so they were able to share their real-time knowledge their real-time learnings their real-time experiences in battling covid in a way that allowed us to take their knowledge and turn it into an operating system that we call the otterbein offensive to combat um uh cobit across our entire organization and i couldn't be more proud of the work that uh our team uh has done uh and i would say the the folks on the front line and i'm not on the front line they're the real heroes the ones on the front line who who were able to bravely have those first-hand experiences and share them with us in a way that created knowledge was uh without without a doubt the true ingredient to um i would say our success i hate to use the word success and cover together our success in developing a very effective offensive that has saved lives and limited the spread across otterbein such a powerful powerful story and the takeaway being get to work you know um that's a great reminder for all of us that you know the things we complain about really in the the stack of complaints isn't all that significant um when you look at the the course of human history it reminds me of my grandma she used to choose to say when someone was complaining she'd say just shake yourself you know uh just just shake yourself and get back to work that's right stop complaining you know it's if it's not your she would say if it's not your arse it's your elbow you know if you're not complaining about your about something you know you're complaining about something else so stop complaining and get to work that's right well you had a wonderful grandmother obviously she was uh she was amazing yeah she was amazing she was she came from coal miners well we came from scotland in ireland then to pennsylvania coal miners and then she was a teacher one of the first women in her family to ever be go to college and at night she would do women's hair i mean she was she was the ultimate grinder you know working 12 14 16 hours a day and never complained just just kept showing up and getting to work which i think is a lesson we could all use right about now stop our bellyaching that's right that's right and i'm sure she was uh she was also fulfilled by her work absolutely and felt it meaningful and and that she was making a difference to the people that she served yeah you had mentioned before we started the podcast this idea of emotionally preparing ourselves and that's what i think i hear in all this is you gotta you gotta just emotionally prepare you've got to be ready for the next phase and the next phase and not not sugarcoat it you know this may not be the last variant of of covid um so let's not sugarcoat it let's be real about it but what can we do to emotionally prepare so as a leader with you know 2 300 employees spread out across a couple states how do you do that how do you help your people how do you help that many people sort of get emotionally settled and prepared for the future yeah well i mean it's it certainly is a challenging task but i think in the end um there is an enormous amount of resiliency in us as human beings um and if you uh if you recognize the fact that whatever you're doing wherever you're doing it um however you're doing it is important work um is making a difference and um is uh meaningful uh then people will people will um do do whatever they have to do right
they'll rise to the occasion as long as they feel like um it's important it's meaningful it makes a difference so you know constantly recognizing uh that fact creating an environment that celebrates that even in the worst of times um is what makes what makes that uh possible if you will um [Music] so i you know so i i would say that i don't have one sort of strategy if you will other than making sure that that you have an environment that we have an environment that um creates a sense of importance of contributions of meaningful work for everyone uh everyone in the organization at otterbein we call we don't we call ourselves partners we don't call ourselves employees we call ourselves um i don't know whatever else people call themselves we call ourselves partners and caring because there's no one job that's more or less important than another um and so again it's it's really about uh you know being sure that there is an environment where those contributions are recognized and felt um and shared and celebrated that's that's why people come to work you know we can we can shout out you know business achievements and financial gains and all of those things but that doesn't that doesn't get it that that really doesn't get it for most people it gets it for some but not not for most jill jill wilson of 26 years ago would have laughed at you yes
i know yeah i said what's all this fufu you're talking about all this leadership stuff and giving people meaningful work and connecting having them see their purpose and that it's valuable and it's it's of service to other people and you know blah blah blah what's all that stuff i know it i know it but there is so much power in that oh yeah it's the ultimate power yeah that's where the power is it's the ultimate power you strike me too as someone that brings a lot of just natural uh genuine enthusiasm and i don't mean like uh cheerleading sort of um maybe not genuine i mean a genuine sort of enthusiasm for what you do and you just show up to get to work every day um and i just learned uh that enthusiasm has a root of sort of the god-given power within all of us you know that it's really uh unfolding uh because of that now that's that uh may or may not land for some people listening but whatever it is there's some spirit there's some energy inside of us um that brings about that that enthusiasm to show up and go to work every day i'm curious for you what how do you find that um day-to-day in such a challenging time
well that's that's certainly a good question i guess um
i haven't thought much about it enthusiasm but i but i i would say that um that i think that um you know um
knowing knowing that when you come to work you're surrounded by people who are capable of so much um and who do so much and to achieve so much um and you're you're in an environment that that frees them to be the people that they want they can become the leaders that they can become um uh is is a great charge every single day i mean that that certainly is where i get um excited is to see people um growing and achieving and learning um and you know recognizing the fact that um there there is always more to be done um and and that it is being done and you're continuing to be part of something that is constantly growing moving um and uh you know it's hard hard not to be enthusiastic about it um and again you know for me i am blessed to have a a a team of leaders who are philosophically aligned with that um and so that that transcends uh i think across the entire organization um so and we like to have a lot of fun too we like to laugh and engage in jokes and talk about football don't forget to have fun that's right even even when it feels like the world is challenging or crumbling let's try to find a way to have fun well as it always does jill our chat's time to fly by um so maybe i'll wrap up with just a a recommendation from you for a book what would you recommend to the audience to check out um you know you mentioned that to me right before the podcast and i thought oh i have to have to think about that because i haven't i haven't read a good book in a long time but you know i i've read a lot of professional journals and i think any any professional book that you read has you can take nuggets away from it so i i have to say that you also have to give your mind um some some rest from from work um and that is a great way to uh regenerate yourself so the series that i i liked a lot was the lady with the dragon tattoo the trilogy um i highly recommend that um it was done exquisitely uh in a way that got got my mind uh uh my imagination working overtime so just a good read uh entertaining um and a nice break from from being a ceo yeah which i love i love jill most most time we get more of a academic read or a business book you know and i love that just whether it's lady with the dragon tattoo or it's something else you know that's completely fictional and fantasy just to give yourself a break give your brain a break which our brains do need you know we need that time to be to clean out you know all the the sticky plaques that built up so i love that recommendation that's great well thank you jill this has been great it's been great to spend a little time with you again and look forward to to talking again soon well tom it was great spending time with you and thank you for all you're doing out there uh to help create great leaders we need we need a lot of them and for those who are listening you can do it uh there's no no doubt about it uh the world needs great leaders so thanks tom for your work thank you thank you [Music]