As we all continue to be inundated by news headlines and broadcasting updates on the TV and radio, a large number of individuals have been ‘grounded’ by the outbreak of the Coronavirus. I have been unfortunate enough to be one of those forced to work from home each day. Thinking years ago, I would have loved to have the opportunity to work from my home office. However, my leadership style and motivation has evolved over the past 10 years or so. It has significantly reminded me how my leadership style has changed as I sit indoors for the 3rd consecutive day. The stay at home order for Wisconsin is slated to last at least a month, so I have a long way to go, I suppose.
Over the past 5-6 years of my leadership career, I have ever increasingly found myself in expanded and regional roles where my sole personal contributions are not the determinants of success; it takes the whole team I lead to determine success. Some years ago, I realized if I was going to be successful that I had to effectively lead my team from a distance. Prior to this Covid-19 adventure, I was able to visit one of my hospitals 3-4 times per week and visit with my leaders. That sounds connected, right? Not really. I have roughly 30 leaders in my region; getting to them one time per month is a struggle. Clearly, my style of presence is my style of preference; to the point I feel guilty if I have to take a sick day (knock on wood – no sick days out in a few years now!).
So now what? I find myself in my office at my desk in my home with little more connection to the world than an Internet connection for email, my iPad playing CNN next to me, while all day I respond to emails, assemble reporting requirements and work on emerging projects. However, there are ways to lead from a distance that I have employed with a greater focus. My leadership teams are facing significantly challenging times in healthcare through staffing challenges, supplies and operational volumes.
In order to tackle these daily strains and demands, I initiated a daily conference call to bring my site leaders together to discuss required reporting items, but also a forum to share concerns, opportunities to support one another, as well as insights and learnings from my perspective to share as the outbreak evolves, literally minute to minute. Additionally, when in a leadership position of this, leaders must be completely available and consistently open. Over the course of the lockdown, I have received more calls from members of my leadership team than I typically would. In some cases it is related to Covid-19 while in other cases they’re just connecting to share unrelated insights happening in the field.
What does completely available and consistently open mean? First supporting this, knowing my team needs me at the drop of a hat more than ever for the ‘in case’ situation, including any training that is needed, supplies needed and/or a general question arises. During the current pandemic, I spend several hours per day on calls related to Covid-19, patient care, supplies and incident responses. However, when I’m on those calls, if one of my leaders beeps in, I don’t (at least very rarely) send them to voicemail to get back to them later. Rather, I swap lines and take their needs head-on. Sometimes they know I’m on another call, sometimes they don’t. Neither matters. The important piece is that they know I am there for them no matter what.
And what about consistently open? I often describe to my leaders that ‘we have to be the leaders our staff need us to be’. That means you’re always in the spotlight and you can’t let you’re guard down. Like a previous leader I had said, ‘never let them see you sweat’. That’s powerful. Essentially, when we have the hardest days occurring, we still have to be the leader the situation and our staff demand of us. So, when I say ‘consistently open’, I mean answering the phone at 5am like you’re wide awake, I mean using comfortable nicknames and common cues of communication. Those that report to me know I’m a laid back leader, though accountability is clearly known and understood. Socially, however, I like to keep things pretty loose; there’s enough seriousness in our worlds every day that taking ourselves too seriously is not necessary to be effective leaders. As such, my common response to an incoming call may be, ‘Hey my friend/brother/nickname, how are ya’ today and what can I do for you.’ It’s all about being the leader needed, comfortable, reassuring, open and dependable.
Aside from these components utilized to ultimately maintain a level of culture, I show empathy and share workloads, burdens and needs. At the same time, there are moments when you have to ‘level-set’ the situation. In healthcare, we’re all burning out dealing with normal demands + Covid demands. When the team starts to veer off track, I pull them back together by expressing a shared mission and a shared burden. Any of us can feel isolated and alone, frustrated and on an island, even when we’re all in the same boat. That’s where commonality, presence, open, connection, teamwork and burden sharing come into play. Occasionally, you have to grab someone by the shirt collar and pull them back into the boat while the rest of the team works to build larger paddles and bigger sails to traverse the storm we’re in.