Embrace the Fog to Find the Best Ideas: An Interview with Kathryn Roberts

What do a major zoo, a state run sports commission, and a senior housing and services organization have in common? Answer: a bold leader. The same bold leader.

What do a Republican governor, a Democratic governor, and an Independent governor have in common? (In this day and age, that almost sounds like the start of a bad joke!) Answer: They each appointed that same bold leader to significant administrative posts.

Kathryn Roberts is that person. She is now, and has been since 2003, the CEO and President of Ecumen  (http://www.ecumen.org/), one of the most innovative senior care organizations around. She has also turned around the Minnesota Zoo fortunes and run the state sports commission during some tumultuous years. Her list of other accomplishments is long and equally varied.

I had wanted to talk to Kathryn both for this bold leader series and also, selfishly, personally, as I told her, because I have two loved ones in senior care facilities. I am interested in learning as much as I can about the industry and where it’s going, because as a family caregiver, many options today seem rather grim.

Kathryn was generous in sharing on both perspectives, and after about five minutes, it was clear why she is so successful.

She doesn’t mince words. When talking about the industry she’s now in, she says, “It’s wrong. It’s indecent. It’s unethical.” And it leaves her (probably like many of us with elders we care about) with many questions. Here are just a few of hers:

  • “How, as a society, did we get here?”
  • “Why have we chosen to isolate our seniors? Putting them in dorms on freeway ramps [because the land is cheaper, she explains]. I never wanted to be in a dorm as a college student. I surely don’t want to be in my senior years! Do YOU?”
  • “What can we learn from other countries that have a much more caring and integrated approach to senior care?”

Kathryn’s focus in a sentence is, “We need to create age-friendly communities,” where all ages come together, live together and enjoy each other.

Direct, yes, but very kind in approach. She’s thoughtful and open. Throughout the conversation, she returns to the theme of teams. She talks warmly about her team and how much she depends on them to balance out her thinking, make her sometimes crazy ideas better, and turn loosely formed ideas into innovations that can be brought to life. Her Ecumen team is very proud of the reputation they’ve built for finding creative answers, constantly thinking about how to do things differently, better.

Kathryn says, “I think it is why grey is my favorite color! It’s still a little foggy out the window but starting to clear.” Those, she says, are the most interesting times. And she offers the example of how often solving senior care needs turns into real estate discussions. Kathryn says she is often asking, “Bring me some ideas that are not bricks and mortar dependent!”

She also mentions something many others I’ve interviewed have brought up: Bold leaders do create stress in an organization, and it takes practice to know both how much you can push and when you need to back off. And when to know and insist, “Yes, we can do one more thing.”

Since she’s successfully led so many different kinds of organizations, I was curious about when and how she knows it’s time to move on and do something else. Her response was great: “When I’m making up activities to keep me occupied, I know it’s time for a change.” That said, Kathryn is not done at Ecumen. They have some big, bold, exciting ideas in development.

As a boomer closer to my “senior” years than my “youthful” years, I left Kathryn’s office thankful that there are leaders like her who are not settling for the care that is the standard today and are working on ideas to make all care better.

I’ve thought about Kathryn’s “grey fog out the window starting to clear” analogy a number of times since we spoke. I am thinking about who I turn to and how I process my way to clarity.

When you have one of those inspirational but “foggy” ideas, what do you do to to bring clarity to them and make them better?

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.