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Opportunities Through A Crisis

危机

When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.

John F. Kennedy

I’ve said it numerous times over the past couple months… this is a very odd time. 

The sun still rises and sets every day, and I still go through the daily rituals of my life. But the Coronavirus crisis has suddenly made my daily rituals very different, just as it has for millions of people and businesses around the world. So, what “danger” are we dealing with? Overnight people are wearing masks, staying six feet away from others and limiting social interactions. Businesses are changing how they provide services. Companies are completely changing their operations to provide supplies for the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. People are being furloughed or asked to work reduced hours. Yet life still goes on. So, the question is - as leaders how do we push through this difficult time? How do we lead through crises, find “opportunities” and come out stronger on the other side?


Nashville, where I live, is home to several large healthcare companies. All have recently had a call to action to help the tornado victims (yes, on top of COVID-19, tornadoes recently ripped through middle Tennessee leaving many homeless and in need of the basics to survive) and now the call to action to manage through the COVID-19 crisis. This is danger squared! Leaders at these companies are tirelessly trying to figure out how to get the hospitals the support needed including appropriate staff to care for patients and adequate supplies while also determining how to keep the systems afloat financially. 

How do healthcare leaders cope with all of this and what lessons can all leaders learn through these challenges? I’ve asked several people throughout the healthcare industry the top three things that are keeping them up at night and what advice they have for other leaders. These themes have been consistent. 


  • Worrying about frontline staff having the equipment and resources to stay safe

  • Stressing over revenue loss due to the cancellation of elective procedures 

  • Planning to manage the mental well-being of colleagues on the front lines and those that are being asked to take reduced pay 

The headlines this week include nurses threatening to sue over lack of preparedness, executives' salaries reduced, non-essential staff being furloughed, and so on. Based on everything I have heard, read and know from experience there are three “opportunities” leaders should focus on every day. These opportunities will help companies be prepared for a crisis and keep management strong through unforeseen crises:

1) Reflect on what’s working AND what’s NOT working EVERY DAY. Keep track of what is working and what is not. Jot it down in the moment (tip: use your notes app on your phone). Make sure to include feedback from the people that are actually doing the work.  Do not make the mistake of assuming you know what is being done at all levels. Periodically look at your notes and identify the systems and process that are not working (In general, leaders should do this every few weeks. If you are currently in a crisis do this once the crisis has passed.) Leadership Accelerator Tip: When reviewing your notes select items you’ve negatively listed more than one or two times. Determine the root causes for the system issues and put improved solutions in place. Also, look at what did work. Pinpointing innovative work arounds serve two purposes.  First, if a workaround was needed, it is a signal that a system was broken in the first place (this may require more studying). Second, the “workaround” could potentially be an ideal practice for the future - a real opportunity!


2) Remember the unsung heroes.  Unsung heroes are often the backbone of a company. They are the "essential employees” who keep daily operations viable. During the COVID pandemic, I’ve seen a great deal of well-deserved kudos for nurses, doctors and scientists, but I haven’t seen much about the registrars, respiratory therapists, environmental services staff, the food and nutrition staff, transporters, lab and radiology personnel, case management, engineering and security, quality, administrative assistants, supply chain…the list goes on.  

Leadership Accelerator Tip: Make sure you take some time to give the unsung heroes the kudos they greatly deserve. As Richard Branson stated, “My philosophy has always been, if you can put staff first, your customer second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better, and you’re happy.” 

3) Be nimble and just. This phrase really focuses on both leadership flexibility and strong communication skills. Know that everyone is doing the best they can. I have said this consistently in the improvement work I have done over the years, no one comes to work with the intention to cause harm. When something goes wrong pay attention to intent and potential systems failures. If it was a system issue that caused the error, add it to your list of opportunities. This is not always easy to do. Leadership Accelerator Tip: When the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause leaders — out of fear of taking the wrong steps and unnecessarily making people anxious — to delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer... leaders need to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, recognizing that mistakes are inevitable and correcting course — not assigning blame — is the way to deal with them when they occur” (Michaela J. Kerrissey and Amy C. Edmondson 2020, What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic, HBR.org).


This is definitely an odd time. The positive, opportunity, in all this (yes, there is a positive to be found in this situation) is that communities are pulling together and the desire to help is stronger than ever. There has been a global call to action and it is nice to see how people are working together to manage through the crisis. There are so many lessons to be learned. I don’t believe this is the new norm, but I do know that it will be different when the crisis has passed. We have an obligation as leaders to learn from this and make things better.  What opportunity are you creating today?


Need help thinking through health care systems improvement and change or general leadership development and coaching advice?   Contact info@edgehillcg.com.


by Sharon Hickman

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