A Conversation with Katie Smith Sloan

How LeadingAge's CEO is fighting ageism and building support for Pay for Success

Katie Smith Sloan, CEO, LeadingAge
Interviewed by Eric Letsinger, Founder and CEO of Quantified Ventures

Katie Smith Sloan serves as the President and CEO of LeadingAge, a position she has held since January 2016, following 14 years of various leadership positions within the organization. She is also the Executive Director of the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. As a previous member of AARP's senior leadership team, she implemented groundbreaking social marketing initiatives to support seniors with health and wellness, economic security, and consumer protection issues.

When I met Katie for this interview, she was wrapping up a complex call with some of her members and Congressional leaders. As she hangs up and turns her attention to this interview, her ability to shift gears so quickly and decisively, as if both meetings carried equal weight, struck me as a likely reason that Katie has been so successful in her life. She’s ready to go, so we jump right in…

E: Before we get into your current role, which is chock full of leadership and innovation high-wire acts, let’s back up. I’d like to understand a bit about your previous life chapters. What led you here?

I started out on Capitol Hill, which is where I thought I would work for the long haul, and I loved it. I worked for the Chair of the Aging Subcommittee, which exposed me to hearing after hearing from a parade of seniors sharing their life experiences. I was struck by, not only the degree of their challenges and frustrations, but their strength and hopefulness. What they were asking for was so reasonable. Quite frankly, from there I became consumed with the needs of seniors. It’s easier today to talk about aging as we’re all starting to understand that we are not at all prepared to deal with this complex issue. Back then, there was not a supportive field or open dialogue about the specific needs of our aging population. I went to AARP to do social marketing to try to change behavior, focusing on consumer protection, fraud protection, and wellness. I learned a ton and quickly had an opportunity to take what we were learning in the field to influence policy, which was a recurring interest for me. I found my thing and I’m still doing that now. I am routinely struck by how we ask our legislators to make such huge, impactful decisions when they are so often disconnected from the real lives of seniors and our members. When they hear from seniors, who speak from the heart and get to the point quickly, it’s rarely about money. It’s about people who find themselves tangled up in well-intended regulations with unintended consequences. In general, the common theme of our ‘asks’ to legislators is that our members want to be held accountable to outcomes - not process. This is where LeadingAge wants to go…towards outcomes.

E: Your career reflects a significant number of firsts, innovations, and industry shaping initiatives. What drives you to color outside the lines?

I’ve never felt like my job was to protect the status quo and I’ve never shied away from change. I’ve always looked for a better mousetrap, and our field is so ready for disruptive change. The aging demographics, the healthcare, the housing, the services - we all know it doesn’t work as well as it must. It may work for the insurance providers, but not for the humans served. So, for me, it has always been about chasing and delivering change - sometimes baby steps and sometimes giant leaps forward. The bigger the better.

E: Were there professors, mentors, or peers who shaped your ‘change agenda’ along the way?

My college professors had a big impact on me. They were so generous with their time and ideas; always willing to share what they knew or thought. From them, I learned the value of being open with my time and ideas. Bill Novelli (former CEO, AARP) made an enormous impact on me. He was all about change and he knew how to make it happen. I learned a lot from my colleagues along the way. Ellie Hollander (CEO, Meals on Wheels America) stands at the top of that list from our time together at AARP. These people helped me become more comfortable with championing a disruptive agenda.

E: Being a public change agent delivering first-of-a-kinds can bring both accolades from some and harsh criticism from others. Does one of these drive you?

I’m not afraid…thank goodness. I approach most initiatives thinking: ‘this is an experiment,’ and knowing that some, or even most, won’t work out. I’m pretty good at sensing where we need to go, and I’m pretty comfortable when I find that no one really knows how to get there. So launching multiple initiatives that ‘might’ get us there is an approach I like to take. Bringing people along on that journey is the hard part. I do recognize that not everyone is as enthusiastic about change as I am. When I applied for this position, I told the Board about my change vision, half expecting them to be turned off by it. To the contrary, they’ve supported me every day since I’ve been here in more ways than I could have predicted. I approach most initiatives thinking: ‘this is an experiment’

E: Your vision statement, “An America freed from ageism,” is pretty in your face. Where did that come from and how has it gone over?

That new vision statement took a ton of pot shots when we rolled it out, but fighting ageism must be at the root of everything we do. To get that process started, I brought in a culture change expert, Dan Forrester (CEO, Thruue), to help us. He and his team helped us think long and hard about our mission and strategy. He never let us settle for anything less than big and bold. The Board loved the result and leaned in to help us execute in new ways, becoming clear that they were ready to sink their teeth into something new and different. Getting our members, staff, and partners comfortable with moving towards disruptive change without knowing which path will get us there is complex, challenging, and rewarding. It requires a lot of trust, empathy, communication, and willingness to try. It also requires us to expect much of our learnings to come from failures and disappointments: the plight of the change and innovation agenda. I am empathetic to the burdens of change in this field, but it’s going to happen and I want us all together on that train.

E: What are some of the barriers to change within your industry?

In the aging field, we desperately need to evolve towards a culture of innovation. We need to stop defending what is, protecting what we’ve built, and hoarding our deep knowledge over newer disruptors to the field. Like those professors who impacted me at an early age, we need to be generous with our time and knowledge to engage with the silo-less innovation community to try, fail, learn…try, fail, learn…try, fail, learn. As an industry, we are beginning to attempt to be more agile, collaborative, and inclusive. We’re trying to get better at asking ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’.

E: What do you say to those young, future public leaders out there who might be considering staying on the sidelines rather than jumping into public service as an arena to innovate and contribute?

Get in here with us - we need you! This work is hard, and it’s critical that we make big progress in the years ahead. We may tell you we have all the answers, but don’t listen to us. We may make it hard for you to get involved. Please persevere. We know we need you, we just may not know how to best engage you, so please help us do so.

E: What’s next for Katie Sloan and LeadingAge?

I’m really optimistic about the Senior Housing Pay for Success path we’re working on with your team at Quantified Ventures. We’re looking forward to cracking that code with you as a means of scaling the work of our members. Again, I’m not totally sure what all the steps will be, but we’ve started the change journey, which is always the hardest part.

Click here for the PDF version of this conversation.

Eric Letsinger