​When Mark Parkinson steps down as president and chief executive officer of the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) in January 2025, he’ll be capping off a distinguished career in both public service and health care. The former Governor of Kansas has led AHCA/NCAL for almost 14 years, during which time he was named a Top Lobbyist by The Hill for a decade straight. Before entering politics, he and his wife Stacy owned and operated long-term care facilities in Kansas and Missouri. As president and CEO, he led AHCA/NCAL through record growth, transforming it into the largest trade association in long-term care.

Fittingly, Parkinson began his career in the same place he returned to decades later when he joined AHCA/NCAL: in Washington, D.C. As a legislative assistant for former Congressman Bill Green, he gained a vital understanding of how Capitol Hill functions. Most crucially, he learned that it’s Congressional staffers who keep the place running, influencing what information gets through to legislators and, therefore, which laws get passed.

“That job proved to be invaluable for me when I came to AHCA,” Parkinson reflected. “All of those lessons have been really helpful as we’ve navigated legislative issues up on the Hill for the last almost 14 years.”

While Congress has certainly changed a great deal since he started out, Parkinson said that those fundamental workplace dynamics have stayed the same. “The Hill is very similar now to what it was 40 years ago,” he said. “It’s obviously much more partisan; there used to be more collaboration. But how offices are structured and how decisions are made—those things haven’t changed.”

Why Mission Matters

Parkinson’s work at AHCA/NCAL has been defined by a tireless focus on the organization’s mission. “I have a strong belief that in order for an organization to achieve its maximum level of effectiveness, it has to be driven by a mission,” he said. “A mission that’s so compelling that people are willing to make virtually any sacrifice to achieve it.”

Working together with his leadership team and the broader AHCA/NCAL membership, he defined that mission early in his tenure: “Improving Lives by Delivering Solutions for Quality Care.” To put principle into practice, he led the creation of a quality department, whose staff works closely with providers on their own standards of practice and with federal officials on oversight matters.

“Our mission compelled us to create a quality division, headed by a world-class leader in David Gifford and another world-class leader in Holly Harmon,” Parkinson said. “It’s one of the parts of AHCA that has the greatest number of people working in it, because we’re so dedicated to that mission of providing quality care.”

In the years since, AHCA/NCAL’s simple but powerful mission has propelled the organization through times of crisis and times of calm. It was with this mission in mind that Parkinson unified a splintered industry, bringing the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care under the AHCA/NCAL umbrella in 2013. He guided the organization’s 14,000+ members through the unprecedented turmoil of the last few years, working in tandem with the federal government to protect millions of residents.

“Because the members made that investment in our mission statement and in quality, when the pandemic occurred, we had a foundation of credibility with CMS and with CDC to really help them figure out how providers should navigate the pandemic,” he said. “We weren’t just calling them and encouraging them to do things—they were calling us to find out how things could be done.”

The Importance of Metric-Based Goals

Parkinson’s leadership has also been defined by an emphasis on metrics. Indeed, he sees mission and metrics as two signs of the same coin, each reliant on the other. “Most not-for-profit organizations have mission statements, but many of them do not hold themselves accountable to the metrics that you have to succeed,” he said. “When I say that we are driven by metrics, what I mean by that is that we don’t aspire to adjectives like being good or great—we aspire to specific policy outcomes or to numbers.”

He draws on Dr. Donald Berwick, former CMS administrator, who said that “some is not a number and soon is not a time.” Under Parkinson’s leadership, AHCA/NCAL has pursued concrete objectives within delineated timeframes. “We’re all about creating objective metric-based goals that leave no question about whether we have achieved success or not,” he explained, “and then working together to achieve those goals and holding ourselves accountable if we don’t.”

Leadership and Legacy

Looking back over the last 14 years, Parkinson reflected that his time at AHCA/NCAL sharpened the leadership philosophy he developed earlier in his career. “In the operation that Stacy and I had, we were mission-driven, but we weren’t nearly as purposeful in articulating the mission as we are at AHCA/NCAL,” he said. “And we were driven by metrics, but not nearly to the degree that we are at AHCA/NCAL. The last 14 years have really given me a chance to clarify my leadership approach and bring those two concepts together.”

Asked what he hopes to be his legacy, Parkinson demurred, preferring to focus on the industry’s perseverance through a volatile era. “Demographically, these have not been good times,” he said. “People are getting older, but they haven’t been getting into the 80-85 age group, which is the group of people that live in our buildings. On top of that, we’ve been subjected to attacks from a whole bunch of different directions. What I’ve tried to achieve, and I started thinking about this very purposefully about 10 years ago, is to help get the sector through a very difficult demographic time and get it set up for success in the future.”

“Notwithstanding a few challenges that we have going on right now, I think we’ve achieved that,” he continued. “Despite multiple attacks on us and the horrible circumstances of the pandemic, AHCA/NCAL has been a big part of guiding the sector through all those challenges. Now that we’re essentially through them, I think the sector is well positioned to succeed in the future. And that is enough satisfaction for me. Any thought of a legacy, I think, is overstating the impact that I’ve had. But I’m very satisfied that we’ve been able to keep such an important sector with so many fantastic operators going during these difficult times.”

“The Best Team I’ve Ever Worked With”

Looking to the future, Parkinson is most excited to spend more time with his children and grandchildren—all the while looking back fondly at his time with AHCA/NCAL. “The selfless leadership of thousands of providers across the country is astonishing and humbling,” he said. “To get to know so many people that would do anything to provide great care to their residents has been amazing. And being able to work with an incredible team at AHCA/NCAL has motivated me to do my best work.”

“We had such a great team, the best team I’ve ever worked with, that inspired me to try to be the best I can possibly be every single day,” he concluded. “It’s been a really great 14 years.”

Steve Manning is a freelance writer from New York City.