Storyteller-in Chief: Craig Van Valkenburg

Willamette View staff accepting an award as an approved Blue Zones Project Worksite, a designation that promotes health living for staff and residents

The CEO of Willamette View reflects on travel and finding inspiration close to home.

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As an executive for companies that managed hospitals and medical practice groups all over the country, I spent most of 20 years on the road.

Between 1988 and 2008, I left my Lake Oswego home several times a month, early in the week.  When I returned late Thursday or Friday, I had barely enough time to run errands and attend my kids’ soccer games—before leaving town again.

Many of the cities where I traveled to meet with clients are vacation spots: Newport Beach, San Francisco, Seattle, Bend.

But their beauty, and the satisfaction I got from my work, didn’t erase the fact that I was always doing business in somebody else’s town. It wore on me, year after year, to realize I spent more time with my clients than with my Oregon friends.

None of this will sound unusual to many readers. Travel is part of the job in many industries, especially as you rise through the executive ranks. But looking back, I wish I’d known about the surprising rewards of staying in one place.

Here’s an example:  I recently spent an afternoon at Sabin-Schellenberg Professional Technical Center. For years, this remarkable high school has shared a close relationship with Willamette View, the senior living community just south of Portland where I am CEO. Our two campuses are only four miles apart in northern Clackamas County, in the city of Milwaukie.

Over the years, Willamette View has supported dozens of Sabin-Schellenberg students as interns, primarily in our nursing departments. Several of these bright, motivated young people have won scholarships from Willamette View to deepen their educations.

I met with Principal Karen Phillips and her team to talk about bringing more Sabin-Schellenberg students to Willamette View. Some will be new interns; others will be volunteers, fulfilling their school’s annual service requirement—a new opportunity for both of us.

I would never have had that kind of meaningful, productive, local connection with Karen, if I was still getting on a plane every week.

Since becoming CEO of Willamette View in 2009, I’ve built similar bonds in the community around our campus—through the local Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary, and City of Milwaukie events like First Fridays.

I’ve made friends with the high school principal, the fire chief, the police chief and the school district superintendent.

Making such connections are part of the job for many business leaders. Certainly, they’re good for the health of Willamette View. But I’ve been surprised at how good they are for my soul.

A big theme at Willamette View is “Building community together.” A sense of connection to other people, and the community you live in, is important at any age. Finally, I can feel that connection for myself, every day when I go to work: The knowledge that I’m part of a community where I can contribute to the well-being of local people and businesses, rather than working for clients who live hundreds of miles away.

I don’t regret all the trips that allowed me to help clients and visit new places. But if I had to do it over again, I would seek more advice from people I admired and ask for more informational interviews before taking jobs that required lots of travel. I would make sure to get clear about how much (or little) travel I wanted, and how my choices would affect my time with my children and in my hometown.

But what if you’re already years or decades into a career, traveling often but longing for a change that will allow you to be more present in your own life and community?  

There’s a saying attributed to the American naturalist John Burroughs: “Leap and the net will appear.”  It means, if you want to make a change but are uncertain or afraid, just do it—and things will usually work out just fine.

While that’s easier said than done, a little planning helped me. Save some money, use your network of personal and professional contacts, and spend your plentiful travel time on researching your options.

I set a deadline for my decision, which gave structure to my planning and reduced the stress I felt about needing to make a change.

Then, I put all those hours I was spending in airports and hotel rooms to good use. I spent the time figuring out how to get home—and how to stay there and stay connected to my community.

Craig Van Valkenburg is the CEO of Willamette View