‘It’s Our Time to Change the Way America Ages’

Steve Fleming’s comments at the 2018 LeadingAge Annual Meeting, upon becoming the organization’s chair:

Good morning, LeadingAge Colleagues and Friends! Thank you so much for your warm welcome.  

Let me begin by congratulating – and thanking – Kathryn Roberts, who has been an incredible board leader.

Kathryn is certainly leaving her mark on LeadingAge. During her service, she led the search for our new CEO, developed a new strategic plan and put forth a bold, new vision and mission statement.  Since these items are at the top of any Board’s agenda, I ask…What’s left for me to do??  Without a doubt, Kathryn’s leadership has resulted in outstanding outcomes that will propel LeadingAge forward for years to come.

On a personal note, Kathryn has become a dear friend and confidante. I respect and admire her style and intellect, as well as her ability to lead Ecumen, one of the most innovative aging services providers in the country.

Kathryn, speaking for myself and all of us connected to LeadingAge, thank you for your many contributions, outstanding leadership, dedicated service and ongoing commitment to LeadingAge!

I am honored to be elected by my fellow board members to serve as your next chair. These dedicated and engaged board members exemplify the Biblical message of, “To much is given, much is expected.” And they readily accept the call to service.

I am humbled to stand in the shadow of great provider leaders and am grateful for mentors and colleagues who counseled me and taught all of us a better way.

I want to extend my deep appreciation to the board, staff, residents, clients and participants of The Well•Spring Group for affording me the opportunity to serve LeadingAge. The Well•Spring team of professionals, some of whom joined me on the stage earlier, is the most committed and caring group of people that I have ever encountered.

At times like this we remember, with gratitude, our parents who gave us life and nurtured us to be the people we are.  My Mother, who died 20 years ago, would be especially proud today…. At 92, my father still lives in my childhood home back in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. He is, unfortunately, a poster child for the advocacy efforts we collectively pursue.

Dad is spending down what assets he has left for his personal care and will soon enroll in Medicaid. Here’s a man who – with a 10th-grade education –  started his own business and ran it successfully for more than four decades. To watch as his independence fades and his finances dwindle is difficult, but how cruel and unnecessary it must be for this proud man to endure the added anxiety of financial pressures at this stage in life. We must … and we can … do better.

Lastly – I can never thank enough the most important person in my life – my wife, Anne. Everybody needs a cheerleader, and she’s my All-Conference Cheerleader. Anne is my best friend, my most trusted advisor and one of the most patient people I know. We have two beautiful daughters, Brooke and Elizabeth, who bring us great joy.

So here we are at the LeadingAge Annual Meeting. I remember attending my first Annual Meeting some 30 years ago. Back then, the turnout could fit inside a hotel ballroom.  This year we welcome more than 7,000 and require a convention center to house us.

While you are here in this General Session, I hope you will take time to look around and appreciate the vastness of our membership. Note the changing landscape of our field of service.  For those of you under 50, you’ll notice there are several of us over 50.

That means a world of future opportunity for you!

As the leadership torch is set to be passed in many of our organizations, I encourage aspiring leaders to stay engaged in this field and use this Annual Meeting opportunity wisely. Seek out your mentors and learn from them. The annual meeting brings together the best leaders in Aging Services and exposes us to practices we would have never known otherwise. Many innovations start from this Annual Meeting.

Here is where we make life-long friends through common bonds, missions, and experiences. So, if this is your first meeting or your 40th, take advantage of these engagement and education opportunities. And let us all be truly grateful for our time here together.

In addition to being CEO of The Well•Spring Group, for the past 15 years I’ve also had the pleasure – and honor – of officiating Division I college football, including 4 bowl games and 2 conference championship games. Throughout this out-of-control hobby, I saw what separated good teams from great teams, championship teams. What made them great was not just a great defense, but a balanced attack, a solid defense combined with a potent offense.

For too long, we at LeadingAge have been playing defense. Now, it’s time for us to focus on offense. Here are a few thoughts about how to do that.

First, let’s identify the fundamental to our offensive strategy – advocacy. Advocacy is the number one priority of LeadingAge and key to our success and longevity.  As we know all too well, regulatory challenges and funding shortfalls are constants in our provider lives. We must work to develop proactive policies rather than just accepting what’s handed to us. These policies must be clear and concise and the process we use to develop them must be transparent.

As an association, we can – and we will – do better in this regard.

On Sunday, your Board approved a process that creates a transparent mechanism for new policy development.  At times, I, like you, have wondered how LeadingAge arrived at positions on certain matters. Hopefully, if we execute this new process correctly, transparency will be evident.

To be good on offense, teams must practice. The more repetitions, the better the execution.  Advocacy must be a repetitive process. More advocacy initiatives are needed at this and every LeadingAge event, not just the annual PEAK leadership conference in Washington D.C. To that end, I hope you will consider attending a new addition to our meeting this year –  the Advocacy Town Hall – which will be held tomorrow at 10am here in the General Session Hall. I hope to see you there.

Great offenses require talented players, and we certainly have a wonderful and talented staff in the LeadingAge national office, but we have relied on them to play advocacy defense for too long. Here’s how we can help them—and our association— be more offensive in our advocacy efforts:

  • First, let’s reply to surveys when requested. Each provider is a well from which to draw upon. And staff needs to know what’s in the well.
  • Also, respond to calls for action. Periodically, LeadingAge sends out Action Alerts. Look for them and take action.
  • Next, invite your elected officials into your organizations. Challenge them on how they vote and who they serve.
  • Finally, get to know your Representatives and their staff. Call them often. They should know you on a first-name basis.

Fundamentally, advocacy needs to be front and center on all our agendas.

Let’s talk about another fundamental that effects all of us, board governance. In the past couple of years, we made the strategic decision to shrink the size of the LeadingAge board. We are striving to become a leaner, more transparent and, yes, more strategic board.

If asked, I think most experts would agree that fundamental weaknesses found in troubled non-profits often begin with the governance process. LeadingAge must set the example for its members so that they might consider ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their own boards.

Without a doubt, our non-profit, volunteer board members are tremendous assets, as there is a direct correlation between engaged and thriving boards, and financially sound members.

Speaking of assets, there is no better local friend than our state LeadingAge partners. Almost every state has a LeadingAge state affiliate. They are our boots on the ground and number one advocate. My tenure on the Board has exposed me to the fact that, when you’ve seen one state, you’ve seen one state. We are all different, with a wide range of opportunities and challenges. Your LeadingAge state executive knows the ins and outs of what you need for your organizations to thrive. Get to know your state partners. Attend their meetings. Respond to their requests for information. Stronger state relations prove a win-win for everyone.

And, finally, to be offensive-minded we must continue to grow our mission-based membership. Nonprofit responsibility is a differentiator that we must continually emphasize. As Katie has mentioned, you are doing amazing things every day, in normal conditions and in the direst of circumstances but never forgetting the mission of making this country a better place to grow old.

I would not be true to my Appalachian roots if I didn’t share a story with you today.

Early in my career, I had the pleasure of serving Friends Homes, a Quaker community in North Carolina. One day at Friends Homes, I met a resident, Mr. Suttles, in the community’s garden.  Mr. Suttles was typical of many that we serve – widowed, retired from active employment and finding his niche in this life plan community. His niche was gardening.

In my youth, Mom sent us to pick our share of vegetables and berries, but I had never raised my own, so I decided to ask Mr. Suttles for help. That spring, Mr. Suttles served as my teacher, and I his student.

Growing up in the South, green beans were often a staple at Sunday dinner. So, Mr. Suttles and I decided to grow green beans. I set my rows and spaced my seeds apart just like Mr. Suttles taught me, and sure enough my beans sprouted and grew.

Now the green bean that we tend to like in North Carolina is called “a half runner.’ It gets its name for the plant’s desire to run – or better yet, climb. In that first year, I noticed my plants had produced beans, but the plants had run all over the ground and intertwined with each other, essentially slowing down the growth of all the plants, thus cutting my crop short.

I asked Mr. Suttles about it, and he said he was waiting until I figured it out my own. But since I asked, he said I needed a trellis. So, the next year I planted my beans and this time mounted a simple string trellis above the rows. Wow, what a difference. Because the plants now had a structure to grab ahold and climb on to, I had a bumper crop that kept producing late into the season.

Folks, LeadingAge is our trellis for growth. By joining together, this association provides us a platform, a platform that if we use correctly we’ll help us run less … and climb more,  collectively … we’ll reach our full-service potential.

So, I ask – no, I urge you – to engage, to climb! Now is our time as providers to say we have had enough of senseless regulations and mindless funding policies. The proverbial adage goes, “If not us, then who?” If we raise our collective voices, I know we can be successful in changing attitudes and policies on aging.

We are a fortunate group of professionals. We have the opportunity to provide services to the largest population of older adults in our nation’s history.  Together, let us join this board and this Staff in not only serving an ever-growing population of older adults, but also in tackling the pressing issues of our time. Together, let’s make a difference in the lives of those we serve while changing the face of aging in America.

You may wonder whatever would compel a person to want to officiate football and take the seeming abuse from coaches, players and fans when things don’t go their way. When asked, officials, almost to a person, will tell you the real reason they do it is for the love of the game. They have a passion to not merely sit in the stands and spectate, but to be involved in the action.

Now, we are all playing out our own services to older adults on fields back home, but where are we on the state and national field?  Are we sitting in the stands cheering or cursing, or are we on the sidelines waiting to be called in?

Either way, colleagues, this is your career, your mission, your passion. It’s time we collectively step off the sidelines and onto the national playing field. More than ever before in our nation’s history, it’s Game Day, and it’s our time to change the way America ages.

Thank you for your confidence in me as your chair. I look forward to serving you.

Defense Is Great, But Without a Strong Offense We Won’t Reach the Goal Line in Addressing Long-Term Care Needs
August 4, 2017
Aging Is Still Not in Vogue. Why?
February 8, 2018
Should Pharmaceutical Prices Be Left to the Marketplace?
June 4, 2018
  • Reply
    Ted Goins
    October 30, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    Glad to have heard this in person from Steve. Such passion and leadership!

    • Reply
      November 2, 2017 at 10:05 am

      Ted – Thank you for your support and friendship. Means the world to me. BBQ soon!

  • Reply
    Jason Cronk
    October 30, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    Nice job, Steve! Congratulations. Our association is in good hands with leading the way. All the best, Jason.

    • Reply
      November 2, 2017 at 10:07 am

      Thank you Jason. I hope all is well with you and hope to get out for a visit!

  • Reply
    Kevin McLeod
    October 30, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    Steve…outstanding! Sorry I could not be there to celebrate with you. My youngest got married Saturday and I just got back home from Ohio. Keep hitting the home runs! Kevin McLeod

    • Reply
      November 2, 2017 at 10:10 am

      Kevin – Congratulations! We missed you this year, but hope all went well with the wedding, and that Dad is recovering from both the cost and the loss…my day is coming I know! Thank you again for the kind comments and ongoing friendship.

  • Reply
    October 31, 2017 at 6:23 am

    Congratulations Steve. I’m so proud of your work in Greensboro and with LeadingAge. I appreciated reading your remarks and hearing your vision for such an important association. All the best!

    • Reply
      November 2, 2017 at 10:11 am

      Thank you Pam. I so appreciate your friendship and support over these years.

  • Reply
    Dave Hinson
    November 3, 2017 at 10:31 am

    Steve – Can’t think of anyone better suited to lead the fight at this point in history. Congratulations! Leading Age is in the best hands.

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