As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mari Baxter, COO of Senior Helpers.
Mari Baxter has worked within the franchising industry for 17 years and before that was a private business owner for nearly 15 years. Using her own experiences as a business owner, Baxter recognized she had unique skills and insights that could benefit others who were starting their own businesses. By successfully helping small business owners grow in the past decade, she rose from franchise business coach to chief operating officer for Senior Helpers — the nation’s premier provider of in-home senior care. Baxter was a guiding hand in helping the company expand from 40 franchisees to today over 300 locations throughout the United States, Australia and Canada.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Absolutely. I first started my professional career as an owner of a wine import and wholesale company. It was an exciting industry to be part of, and I had the opportunity to travel and work with vintners in Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Australia and California. But after 14 years, it was time to move on to the next challenge. From there, I began coaching others how to run their own business and that’s how I started my franchise career in 2005 with a leading childcare franchise.
I soon developed a keen interest in connecting with franchisees and enjoying being able to share my personal experiences as a successful business owner with my clients. I found I could easily relate to the challenges and victories they were going through. After several years in childcare franchising, I found my way to Senior Helpers, a relatively new franchisor at the time, which was located in the Baltimore area. I was drawn to the fact that they were a relatively small company but had big growth ambitions. The company engaged me as a franchise business consultant in 2008 and we grew rapidly. Over the years, as Senior Helpers’ network expanded, my responsibilities evolved from director of field operations to vice president of operations, senior vice president to executive vice president and now COO.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think the most interesting and rewarding part of my many roles with Senior Helpers is seeing individual franchisee growth. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with franchise owners who open their doors with zero clients and/or no revenue. Then, a couple years later, they become Rookie of the Year in our company’s annual awards and are on their way to producing top line revenue. Their lives change significantly in just one to two years, and it’s gratifying to see how hard they have worked and how I may have played a small role in their success.
When we present franchisees with an award at a conference recognizing their success, it makes this job so much more meaningful to know that our business model works and, when followed, produces high performers. Knowing our franchisees can confidently sit back and know they made the right decision joining the Senior Helpers family is what keeps me energized in this position.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Fourteen years is a long time and trying to recall the early years is quite difficult, but I would tell every road warrior to make sure you get hard copies of receipts. Years ago, I didn’t’ get a receipt for a rental car and, unfortunately, it was never entered in the system that it was returned. Several months later, a sheriff showed up at my door asking for proof the rental car had been returned! I spent the better part of an hour trying to get the matter cleared up with the sheriff standing behind me. Looking back, it’s a funny incident but, in the moment, I was frantic to show any sort of proof! Lesson learned: always get a printed receipt!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
My father was a very astute businessman. He used to take me to bankruptcy auctions when I was a small girl and taught me how to buy bankrupted businesses, as well as everything I needed to know about the importance of gross profit margins. I understood at a young age that successful businesses are all about the margins. He worked off his instinct and did very well reselling businesses he bought at auctions. At an early age, I was intrigued why businesses failed and other routes owners could have taken for a different outcome.
I have used the skills my father passed down to me throughout my professional career, and I am grateful that he taught me a side of business management that frankly I never learned in college.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
It’s important to get outside so I try to walk several miles every day and I use that time to think about my day, meetings, staff, etc. I try not to allow myself to stress over meetings, no matter who they are with or what’s at stake. I am confident in what I do and my team trusts that any decision I make is backed by data and others’ input. I also am not bashful in asking questions — I don’t pretend to know something I don’t. It’s important to take advantage of the knowledge of people around you. I find it’s always better to ask a question to have complete understanding than be left wondering because you didn’t want to raise a hand.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s important that, as a company, Senior Helpers embraces all cultures and backgrounds when bringing on new franchise owners and company leaders. Each year, we are diversifying our franchise owner base and continually take a critical eye at new avenues we can take to continue diversifying our executive and franchise team.
With a substantial number of our workforce coming from multi-cultural backgrounds, it is important to educate our team that leadership opportunities come to those who work hard and then provide the necessary training and support for people of all backgrounds to fill those positions.
I’m proud that our executive team is one-third female. When I was appointed COO, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people within the company that reached out to me about their excitement about another woman joining the leadership team. Our caregivers and support staff are primarily female, and I’m glad the leadership team is also growing its female footprint. There is a rightfulness to that progression, and it has been noted by those looking at their future in the organization.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Our workforce is very diverse with individuals coming to us from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We hire based on talent and a strong desire to provide passionate care to seniors. To find these committed individuals, we have posted ads in multiple languages to paint the picture of what their contribution could mean to an aging client. Senior Helpers is passionate about recruiting people from all backgrounds, which means our recruiting efforts must go beyond generic ads and embrace inclusivity in our words as well as where and how we advertise.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
While others on a team may help vet situations and share their input on various solutions, the executive is the one making final call. Some decisions are tough and you have to stand by them. The biggest thing I always remember is to stand back quietly when there are successes, and when there are failures or areas of opportunity, you own them and never pass them on to someone else.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think some people want to be an executive for the glory of the title, but they often overlook that we are constantly on call. Senior executives very rarely work a “regular” 8–5 job. For example, in my role as COO, I travel a lot and it is very common for me to be on the phone with our CEO and CFO of our company at 9 p.m. Our day never ends because situations happen at any time in our business, and we have to make sure the entire organization is running smoothly, help put out any “fires”, brainstorm and plan our next goal, etc.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that are not typically faced by their male counterparts?
Thankfully, I have not encountered challenges in my personal career that are specific to being a woman. I grew up with only brothers and I am now the mother of five sons, so I am accustomed to being around men. I believe women can be stereotyped in a negative way for standing their ground and I have seen that happen on multiple occasions. However, when I stand up for myself or a decision I’ve made, I always make sure my decision or point of view is data driven. Of course, it’s natural for both men and women to lose “battles” but it’s important for everyone to handle themselves professionally.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think the biggest different is the challenge that comes with managing so many different departments is that I am less hands on than I used to be. Now, I feel myself working extra hard to stay in the loop and ask for communication from others. It is a small adjustment and I am fortunate to have a great team to keep me in the loop on any projects I oversee.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
To me, being an executive means you must hire a strong group of managers that you can depend on. Being a strong leader is all about delegation and trust. It’s imperative to let go and let your team do their jobs. As a manager, you should be available to your team for questions and clarification, and return calls and emails quickly so people know that you are engaged. Teams never bode well with micro-managers so understanding your team’s strengths and knowing their areas of expertise can help bring out the best in your team.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
All leaders need to push their teams to thrive and constantly make sure they are challenged. My advice is to manage with an open mind, be solution-driven and when you ask people to do something, trust them to complete it. It’s important to encourage your team to show you what they are capable of doing with your support.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Through my Senior Helpers role, I have become a volunteer for Rock Steady Boxing, which is a boxing program for people with Parkinson’s Disease. It’s been so rewarding to bring their fantastic cause to Senior Helpers franchisees, and in turn, increase Rock Steady Boxing’s membership and national support of this great organization.
I am also an advocate for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), and Senior Helpers is a significant supporter and partner for this organization. It’s been an honor to select several of my team members to be actively involved in the AFA. If my role or influence can open doors for others, I think it is an important cause. I always strive to encourage my team to make commitments outside of the work environment that benefit others!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Inbox organization is key to staying on top of projects and deadlines. Personally, I put emails into folders immediately, which makes it much easier to manage. I didn’t find a system that worked for me until five years into my job. Let’s just say sorting 40,000+ emails was not fun.
- Don’t spill the beans on a new concept or idea before you have completely vetted them for success. It can be easy to verbally launch a program before it’s ready but it’s always better to keep new programs under wrap until you know it will be a homerun!
- If you have to jump through hoops to convince someone to work for you, then they probably are not going to work out. Be very aware during the interview process of just how motivated they are to join your team.
- Don’t be afraid of pushback. In every business environment, there always seems to be one person that wants to fight you every step of the way. The franchise world is no different. There is always a franchisee who is disgruntled or is very vocal about playing by the franchise rules. In these instances, approach them head-on and ask what you can do better, how you can work together and hear them out. Most importantly, though, pick up the phone or visit in person. It’s too easy to rely on email and items and ton can get lost in translation.
- While it’s a small piece of advice, try not to point out how many hours you have worked or how tired you are if you don’t want attention drawn to your (in)ability to handle pressure. Everyone always has a lot on their plate but those who can juggle multiple balls at once get noticed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would highlight that home care for our aging population is not (yet) attainable for a large number of people. It is currently private pay and not reimbursed by insurance or Medicare; there are Medicaid waiver programs available with limited hours of care, but not nearly enough. It is shocking to me that our aging population is left to fend for themselves unless they have significant retirement savings. Home care kept thousands of aging clients in their homes during the pandemic, but it was paid out of pocket, which meant for many, their savings was depleted. I am very proud that we take care of over 18,000 clients in the United States, but that number would easily be double if they had insurance or Medicare to cover it. Unfortunately, thousands of people turn down home care each year until the 11th hour. If Senior Helpers could get in sooner, we could help prevent falls, strokes, feelings of isolation and even depression. I am passionate about this injustice and am determined to help find a plan that will cover home care.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s not about the credentials — it’s about the DNA.” When I hire people, I always go beyond their resume and dig deep into their personality and passion. I can only help someone be successful in their career if they have the desire and passion. Without those traits, I can’t take the most credentialed person and make them want to succeed, learn and implement.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I have two individuals. The first is Karen Lynch, CEO of CVS. She has such a massive presence in the health field and I would love to talk to her about the need to lobby for funded in-home care and believe she would have great clout with her background at Aetna.
The other person is Lt. General Laura Richardson. I am a military mom and try to stay on top of who is at the highest level in the military. I would love to hear how a female General manages in a predominantly male world.