The Antidote: Leading in the Healthcare Sector

By Donna Kennedy-Glans

As a leader, how do you hold compassion for the people around you and at the same time build the capacities and momentum required to move your organization beyond business as usual? Nowhere is this strain felt more acutely than inside the healthcare sector where frontline workers and decision-makers have been under siege for the last two years fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in working environments supercharged by uncertainty and divisive politics.  

The weary are exiting in droves—retiring early, changing careers, and taking extended stress leaves. Institutional knowledge built up over decades is walking out the door and those remaining are being called up to fill the gaps. It can be overwhelming. How can leaders of healthcare enterprises create the conditions for these new leaders to succeed? Clinging to the status quo and hoping for the best is causing harm to many organizations.

To understand how successful leaders build the organizational capacity required to adapt to a changing ecosystem, it’s essential to understand the most relevant challenges your healthcare enterprise is facing, then deploy strategies that connect the dots between external threats and foundational organizational values and capacities.

Understand your healthcare organization’s most pressing challenges

The following list of challenges reflects conversations I’ve had with healthcare leaders over the last two years. What are the greatest challenges your leadership team currently faces? Identifying your priorities is the first step.

  • We are a “caring” organization; that’s our lifeblood. And yet everyone is so exhausted and our teams are so understaffed,  it feels like we have lost that sense of compassion. We’re barely surviving. 
  • The uncertainty is killing us. What will the pandemic look like, three months from now, six months from now? Long COVID? No one really knows. How do we plan for that?
  • Younger leaders have to step up but there is little time to mentor or train these people. As a veteran leader, I feel responsible when they fail. 
  • Relationships in our sector have become toxic; how can I disrupt that negativity and bring more positivity to my team? 
  • Information overload! There is so much information spewing out of so many organizations and groups, it’s difficult to make sense of it all.
  • To access resources, we’re subject to agendas set by politicians. We don’t like to take partisan stands but sometimes we have no choice. 
  • We’re feeling pressure to work faster and faster—to catch up on the long lists of surgeries and treatments that were pushed to the side during the pandemic.
  • Everyone is afraid of making a mistake. “Limit our liability” is the mantra. But you can’t prescribe a step-by-step formula to fix every problem. 

Deploy strategies that can work for your organization

Once you’ve defined the challenges you need to address, you can begin to design and implement strategies to bolster your organization’s confidence, effectiveness and resiliency. 

Step #1: Make sure your organization’s foundational values remain paramount. The core values of your organization need to guide your response to the most pressing issues you face. As a healthcare professional body, clinic, research facility, hospital—or however your organization fits into the overall healthcare system—it’s very likely that your enterprise principles include a firm commitment to health “care”. You will of course have other core values that guide your priorities but pay attention to how you imbed “caring” into all that you do. How do you reconcile efficiency expectations and at the same time remain compassionate? How do you prioritize not just the “what” but the “how” of your work, including delivering services with humility and empathy? And in all this, you need to find ways to ensure that leaders are cared for too. When a workforce is so exhausted and depleted that they stop believing that their leaders care, relationships, trust and values can feel meaningless. 

Step #2: Be explicit about how your healthcare organization walks its talk. Monitoring and measuring quantitative targets (for example, the number of treatments, the costs of services) is an imperative; likewise, your organization needs to explore effective ways to assess and report on qualitative measures (for example, the quality of care, organizational culture). What does “success” look like, for your organization, given the competing demands on your resources and people? How do your key stakeholders understand these priorities; for example, are government funders, patients, employees and partners comfortable with your organization’s strategic goal-setting, and how do you know when they trust and endorse your organization’s reported outcomes? 

Step #3: Assess whether your internal systems and processes are designed to meet your organization’s current challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has afforded every leader the rare opportunity to re-evaluate what parts of the enterprise need to be rebuilt and what parts are better left behind. Are there processes in your healthcare enterprise that no longer serve your organization, thus freeing up resources and time to do essential work? And are there internal systems that would benefit from a refresh? For example, if your enterprise collaborates with others beyond the boundaries of the traditional healthcare sector to address urgent issues—the opioid crisis, as one example—would your organization’s approach to engagement with external stakeholders benefit from some fresh thinking? 

Step #4: Take a close look at your healthcare enterprise’s leadership team and make sure you have the skills needed to lead your organization through these uncertain times. Foundational leadership skills—the ability to assess risk, make decisions, and execute to plan—are essential but often insufficient leadership attributes in such a disruptive environment. If your healthcare enterprise is motivated to innovate new ideas and approaches outside your comfort zone, your leadership team may need a skills boost. Higher-order leadership skills could include the ability to catalyze: to purposefully disrupt the status quo and provoke fresh momentum or a new direction, even when the outcome is not clear. And if partnering across sectors becomes an imperative—to deliver services and products to more people with greater efficiency and resiliency—perhaps your organization requires leaders who truly understand how to collaborate, without compromising your organization’s values and purpose.

Some healthcare leaders hunker down, sustain business as usual, and hope the status quo will be enough for their organization  to survive the storm. The healthcare enterprise that will not only survive, but thrive, in these uncertain times keeps a close eye on the challenges  in the zeitgeist, but doesn’t get distracted from the essential work of building their organization’s internal capacity to succeed in a very different future.

Donna Kennedy-Glans is a former executive and politician, and author of the new book Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual. https://teachingthedinosaur.com/