A View From the Top: Joel Theisen of Lifespark

February 26, 2024

The interview below is part of a McGuireWoods series featuring interviews with C-suite leadership of private equity-backed portfolio companies. To recommend a leader for a future interview, email Holly Buckley at [email protected] or Tim Fry at [email protected].

Joel Theisen, BSN, RN, is chief executive officer and founder of Lifespark, a complete senior health company with services often categorized as primary care, community healthcare, skilled home health and hospice, among others. Lifespark provides these senior services with a mission to spark lives, connecting seniors to whole-person senior services that help them age magnificently.

Q: Tell us more about Lifespark. What does living a sparked life mean, and how do you help seniors live sparked lives?

Joel Theisen: This simple question defines our mission and is very important to me. Lifespark is based on the belief that while quality medical care is essential to aging magnificently, it isn’t enough by itself. As people age, health outcomes improve when we connect them to magnificence, choice, guidance and independence. That’s living a sparked life — one with curiosity, fun, meaning or what most refer to as purpose, whatever that may be to the individual.

The problem is the sick-care system is not built to foster people’s spark. It keeps people on what we call the roller coaster of healthcare crisis — fragmented, siloed and reactive care that focuses on chronic illness, diagnosis and medications without central coordination by someone with a broad perspective of a senior’s whole life. It diminishes people’s spark when we focus on the medical and not who they are or what engages them.

Our approach to complete senior health is all-encompassing, meaning we focus on all aspects of well-being, not just physical health. We build trusted relationships and address social drivers of health such as isolation, family dynamics, loneliness and transportation because they do more to change health.

We help thousands of seniors maintain or rediscover their spark by providing a single point of contact for their everyday health needs. This pairs them with a life manager (LM), a healthcare professional, to help with appointments, care coordination, communication with all providers involved and regular check-ins. Most importantly, the LM focuses on developing a “Life Plan” that puts to paper the health and life goals and ensuring the senior achieves them. Additionally, we provide access to an in-home team of physicians and advance practice providers with medical expertise who can provide geriatric primary care and medical consults, re-center health around the person and bridge the full spectrum of senior health services in a single, home-based experience. By helping seniors and their families navigate their health options with confidence, we create the room for people to seek their spark.

When we sit down with our seniors and discover what’s important and what gives their life meaning, their eyes change, demeanor lightens and joy exudes. That’s the spark. It’s about changing the dialogue: How do you want to live the rest of your life and what can we as providers do to make sure that happens? It shifts sickness to health, and seniors become empowered in their journey.

Q: How does your background in nursing inform your perspective at Lifespark and your overall passion for the industry?

JT: Early in my career as an intensive-care unit and home-care nurse, I saw the reality of what seniors faced in a broken, fragmented system. I felt the pull of my inner entrepreneurial nurse calling. To serve my patients fully, I first had to change their experience. I spent the next 30-plus years developing and successfully implementing a complete senior health model with an intuitive tech platform to prove efficacy; driving the quadruple aim of improving health, improving experience for seniors and workforce, and lowering cost; and being accountable for global risk. The result: People age magnificently, and that fuels my passion for changing the age-old story.

In nursing school, we were enamored by Florence Nightingale’s mark on reforming healthcare, yet the definition of a nurse is narrowly described as someone trained to care for the sick, especially in a hospital. I couldn’t accept that nursing within a sick-care system was all there was, so I created something different. Lifespark is a manifestation of that vision.

My didactic education challenged my thinking, bridged hands-on skills with a philosophical perspective that is not acute-focused but human-centered, and gained the respect of others. Being a nurse has made me a better leader. I have advanced the definition of nursing beyond the hospital to one that builds trust and empathy and sparks lives. At the same time, I’ve advanced a complete senior health model that achieves the quadruple aim and provides a benchmark for advancing health policy, and brokered tri-partisanship among nonprofit, for-profit and academic institutions breaking through historical adoption issues.

This shifts an age-old narrative that normal aging means a revolving door of fragmented, reactionary care that inhibits a purpose-filled life to something that’s desirable to all, especially nurses and other professionals giving them the opportunity to practice and make a significant difference the way they’ve always wanted.

Q: What is your growth mindset for Lifespark? What has your strategy been and why?

JT: My strategy has always been about the people. In healthcare especially, we can’t grow our business at high speeds if our people don’t believe in our mission. We can’t hire world-class talent if people don’t feel inspired by the work we are doing to provide a complete senior health experience.

You often hear in business that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” but as I mature in my leadership, I no longer believe this is accurate. Culture doesn’t eat anything. It is our strategy. To me, it is all about aligning people to your mission and values — not one mind but a collective of people all working to achieve the same vision. If you can’t build a culture with that level of alignment and ability to execute on your vision, you’re done. Culture is our promise to those we serve, hire, partner with and exist for in our communities.

Q: How have your work and your goals changed since partnering with private equity investors?

JT: Private equity (PE) can be key to gaining the capital and expertise to support the innovation you need to rapidly grow your business. For me, PE investors’ interest is validation that I have built something worth investing in. I’ve been purposeful in aligning with investors who keep the integrity and vision of our company intact. They have become investors but also mentors and advisers and are helping to shape our future with humanity.

Through our investment work, my goals haven’t significantly changed, but this work has given me the opportunity to be bolder, to innovate and to accelerate, along with providing increased discipline and accountability.

It has been critical to align with people committed to working together on the same team, and we’ve been able to accomplish this. Our investors have proactively brought to the table expertise and resources we were not connected to or aware of.

We can’t do this alone, and it will take a collective mindset to shift the experience and make our vision a reality.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve received about running a business successfully, and how did you implement that into your work?

JT: The best advice I ever received was to “slow down and get clear.” As an entrepreneur, slowing down is something that is a bit foreign to me. My entire life has been at a fast speed, and building companies at scale in a volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous world does not outwardly promote “slowing down.”

The other best advice I received is to surround yourself with a “ship of incredible talent” or great people — investors, leaders, advisers, employees, partners, whomever that might be. You want people you can trust to tell you the truth and who are doing meaningful things in the world. I have a list of people I can confide in and go to often to lean into and learn from. That’s where “slow down and get clear” came from, and this guides me in everything I do.

We move so fast in this industry, and in life quite frankly, but it’s critical to slow down, reflect, and take a few minutes every day to make sure you know what’s important and that it’s guiding you properly. Is your “why” still the same? Do you feel good about the work you are doing? Are the right people on the bus? Then you need to ground yourself in your true self — not what others want from you but what needs to be done to stay the course and persevere. I do this simple activity every day, and it has shaped the kind of leader I am.

As I think about Lifespark and where we are headed strategically with our mission and model, our work must be done in the world. Helping to shift the age-old story, break down the sick-care system and rise above what’s always been done in healthcare to what should be done is bold, provocative and desirable.

When we slow down and get clear and surround ourselves with a ship of talent, we find clarity and confidence that our mission is on track to become reality.

Q: You’ve talked before about failing forward. Can you tell us more about that, and how you maintain a mentality of learning from failure?

JT: I’m a prolific “failer” who has a lot of fail-forwards, and I’m grateful for that because how else do you learn? If you’re not willing to put yourself out there and take big risks, you’ll never find your path.

We still hate to say we “fail” at Lifespark. No one likes the idea of failing. But as I get older, I feel much better about it. Failure is a steppingstone to success. Great innovation has been born from failure.

To me, those who fail are the “test pilots” and not zombies. Zombies move through the sick-care system without questioning its brokenness. They see people revolving through a fragmented, siloed and reactive system, and in their gut, they know, there has to be a better way. They are molded in their thinking that “this is how it’s always been done,” moving through the motions collecting a paycheck. Essentially, they lose their “why” and aren’t willing to take chances.

Test pilots, on the other hand, push the boundaries. They know their why, they have a vision and they are passionate about executing it. We see this in our people every day at Lifespark who are not afraid to ask questions, test theories and let nothing get in the way of helping people live with a spark and age magnificently.

The reality is that we don’t always do it right. But it’s also a very important and critical part of the process. Failing forward helps us slow down and get clear because it forces us to pause. The gift of failing comes when you slow down and practice mindfulness without the chaos that comes with innovation. You intentionally take the time to understand the big picture and reflect on matters like what went wrong, what worked and where are areas of improvement. This simple exercise brings clarity, alignment and the ability to reset with a renewed purpose. You use the failure to move forward in the right way.

The testing mentality of not being afraid to fail and learn is the biggest driver toward transformational success, and it challenges me to seek the spark professionally and personally.

joel theisen
About Joel Theisen

Joel Theisen, BSN, RN, is chief executive officer and founder of Lifespark, a complete senior health company with a mission to spark lives, connecting seniors to whole-person senior services that help them age magnificently. Under his leadership, Lifespark has seen year-over-year double-digit growth, closing 2022 with a revenue of over $55 million and it is on track to close over $75 million in 2023. The company has more than 2,800 employees.

Theisen has more than 30 years of experience in the healthcare industry with specific expertise in home- and community-based eldercare. Known as a business innovator, he has earned numerous accolades, including being named a finalist for “Leaders in Health Care” by Minnesota Business Magazine and honored as an Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year Award” finalist for the Upper Midwest in 2021, 2018, 2017 and 2011.

Prior to Lifespark, Theisen served as CEO for AdvoLife, a venture-backed company in San Jose, California. He trained as a critical-care nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and graduated from Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin, with a BSN.