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What The COVID-19 Crisis Teaches Us About Resilient Leadership

July 2020
Kathleen Lehman Hajek
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At the frontline, healthcare workers need leaders who keep them safe, motivated, and informed

Healthcare workers are at the frontline of battling the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. To win this fight they need the best leadership they can get: to protect them, motivate them, and support them in their struggle to serve the public. But leaders are severely challenged, as shown in a U.S. Gallup poll of healthcare workers in March and April this year that unearthed a high level of dissatisfaction with leaders’ response to the crisis. Only 36% revealed they are confident about staying safe under their organization’s health policy, and 78% said they believe COVID-19 will have a negative impact on their workplace.

Leaders of healthcare organizations are at the crucial juncture of ensuring workers – and patients – are taken care of despite unprecedented clinical and resource restraints. By cultivating resiliency, they can make sure their employees are kept safe, encouraged, and informed without compromising the level of healthcare offered.

Teresa Titus-Howard is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Coordinating Center, a leading nonprofit organization in the U.S. state of Maryland focused on the delivery of person-centered and community-based services for some of the state’s most vulnerable populations, including children and adults with complex healthcare needs and disabilities. She was recently placed by Stanton Chase in her current position and, by exercising resiliency, is one of the people responsible for leading the charge in frontline care during the pandemic. Working collaboratively with health systems, community organizations, caregivers, and patients, The Center quickly pivoted its operations to meet the needs of its 300-plus staff and 10,000 clients, more than half of whom are immunocompromised.

Stanton Chase has been working with healthcare organizations like The Coordinating Center to support current leaders and conduct searches for new ones throughout the crisis. Based on our experience, here are five ways that leaders can become resilient and lead successfully through this crisis.

Communicate Authentically

When a crisis hits, it’s necessary to come clean with your employees about the state of the organization in formulating the way forward. This isn’t the time to exaggerate or dwell; a resilient leader needs her entire staff to be up to speed on exactly what the organization is dealing with and to trust that people can handle the truth. Hiding any issues will only make them worse, and employees need to be reassured that even in such times of uncertainly they can rely on their leaders to give them the most up-to-date and honest information about how to tackle the physical, logistic, and financial challenges of the crisis.

“Doing it calmly was key,” Titus-Howard said. “We wanted to be responsive but not reactive. I quickly transitioned my weekly updates to daily communication, sending out e-mails to all employees, all of which prioritized the health and safety of all employees and their families. For families with young children, this meant allowing employees to flex their time so they could take care of their family and support our clients’ needs at the same time.”

Walk the Talk

As leaders open up honest lines of communication with their employees and make suggestions of how to continue business in an unprecedented environment, it is crucial that they lead by example. For Titus-Howard, this meant working from home herself and holding conferences via Zoom to foster safe working practices. She knew that innovating and setting up her employees to succeed – safely – from home would be crucial to the overall success of the organization’s response.

Leading by example for a resilient leader also means being willing to take risks, and to encourage employees to think outside the box when it comes to navigating the new terms of operating business – especially one as client-facing and in demand as a healthcare facility – during a pandemic.

Act Decisively

A quick response time is of the utmost importance when there are rapid developments such as a spike in the number of coronavirus cases. With two of the first three confirmed cases in Maryland occurring at clinics that The Coordinating Center actively works with, Titus-Howard quickly paused in-person visits with clients and followed CDC guidelines to put policies and procedures in place that would protect employees and patients.

Focusing on these priorities allowed Titus-Howard and her team to ensure both patients and employees were being cared for. “Luckily, about two-thirds of our staff is remote, but we still had 50 people in the office to take care of,” Titus-Howard noted. “We had to transition our office-based employees to teleworking and immediately purchased printers for them so they would be able to do their jobs from home and stay productive.”

Welcome Feedback

Part of a leader’s potential resiliency lies in her ability to receive feedback – even criticism – about the risks and decisions she has taken in response to the crisis. If something is not working, the whole organization should be encouraged to think of solutions and to feel able to share their thoughts and ideas, and a resilient leader must put aside personal pride and learn from her mistakes in prioritizing the welfare of both the organization and her employees.

Trusting yourself, as a leader, can be incredibly challenging, and supporting a leader who is making rapid, large-scale decisions will encourage a better response.

Build Relationships

This type of resiliency and growth always comes with a learning curve, and the best way to weather the turbulence is to build and foster strong relationships within your organization. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned in all this is you have to take care of your people,” Titus-Howard said. “[Several] months in and we still have to deal with stress and Zoom fatigue, so we encourage people to take a day off and step away from work when they can. When their anxiety or stress gets reduced, they can do their job well.”

Many of the challenges Titus-Howard faced were similar to those of her employees – especially the ones working from home. Using the challenge to build camaraderie and relationships will benefit teams in the long run.

“Our first priority was taking care of our employees,” she added. “Clients are important, but our employees make the care we provide to our clients possible. We wanted to provide them with a sense of security and wellbeing.”

Finding Resilient Leaders

By advocating for and supporting their employees and clients, Titus-Howard and her organization can better ensure their communities have access to treatments, interventions, and vaccines when they become available. As pharmaceutical companies, research institutions, and healthcare providers race to get a vaccine out, having resilient leaders at all levels who can keep their employees safe while meeting their metrics for success is of crucial importance.

Healthcare leaders need to be resilient in order to handle the strain on valuable resources, safety, and mental health for themselves, their patients, and their staff. While the world awaits a vaccine, resiliency is a day-to-day process for these patient-facing leaders as they handle an unprecedented health crisis. With the right approach, frontline leaders are poised to make their most impactful change ever – so long as they are supported, capable, and resilient.

But The Coordinating Center can’t do it alone. While a vaccine will dramatically reduce the strain on the healthcare system, and on leaders like Titus-Howard, they need our support through the crisis and beyond. Finding and developing resilient healthcare leaders is not an exact science; however, Stanton Chase offers leadership assessments and onboarding programs that train and support new leaders like Titus-Howard to be strong in the face of a crisis.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Stanton Chase can assist with finding resilient leaders, or if you have questions about best practices, please reach out to Kathleen Hajek at k.hajek@stantonchase.com.

As part of our recent leadership series, “Conversations Leading the Way Forward,” Stanton Chase convened a Zoom call with a diverse group of leaders from public health, life sciences, biotechnology, and healthcare providers for a discussion on the current state of the pandemic and the development and distribution of a potential vaccine. Participants on the call included leaders from GlaxoSmithKline, Virion Therapeutics, U.S. Ecology, Purdue University, and The Coordinating Center. It was a discussion around the future of vaccines, the challenges ahead, and hope in those who are leading the way.

About the Author:

Kathleen Hajek is a Managing Director for the Stanton Chase offices in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh. She is also the North American Practice Leader for Life Sciences and Healthcare.

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