MGMA 2020: Four keys to effective leadership in a crisis

October 19, 2020
Jeffrey Bendix

Two experts outlined the following techniques for effective leadership during a crisis.

Every health care organization faces crises at one time or another, but the ones who weather them best have a clear sense of mission, a strong leadership team in place, and communicate regularly with staff, patients, and the community throughout the crisis.

That was the message from Aimee Greeter, senior vice president at the health care consulting firm The Coker Group, and Alan Vierling, MSN, president of Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich., during a virtual session on effective leadership during a crisis. The session took place on the first day of the Medical Group Management Association’s 2020 medical practice excellence conference.

Greeter stressed the need for preparation, even though leaders may not know what sort of crisis they will face. But having a strong team, appropriate protocols and templated communications always in place are keys to being ready for any situation that may occur. “I would say that while leadership in a crisis is important, equally if not more important is being a leader in those preparatory actions,” she said. 

 “Having experienced crises of almost every nature during my 40 years in this business, I can tell you that the same standards apply almost all the time,” Vierling added. “And handling a crisis is not that difficult as long as you are intentional and pragmatic in your planning.”

Greeter and Vierling outlined the following techniques for effective leadership during a crisis:

  • Establish a singular vision: It’s important to establish an organizational goal at the start of the crisis, one that’s consistent with the organization’s larger mission. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, Vierling said, Sparrow decided its goal was to ensure that none of its caregivers died. “That’s been our guiding motivation throughout COVID-19,” he said, with the result that only .4% of its employees have been impacted by the disease.
  • Decide once, act once: In the midst of a crisis, Vierling said, leaders generally have to act quickly, and often with little information to go on. Still, “what you don’t want to do in a crisis is waver. Once you’ve made a decision, stick with it and follow it through. Give your staff the opportunity to make decisions, then trust them to do the right thing and get out of their way.
  • Provide daily communication: Vierling cited the example of Sparrow’s response to the start of the COVID pandemic, when the hospital issued daily memos to staff, and supplemented it with seven-day-a week “COVID calls” for several months. “That communication. “That daily communication is essential and provides a sense of being connected,” he said, adding that it also contributed to a greater degree of employee engagement that has remained.
  • Remain visible: “Sometime in a crisis the first thing you feel like doing is going into your office and plan, but that’s not what you need to be doing,” Vierling said. Instead, leaders need to publicly explain the nature of the problem or crisis, what’s known about it and how the organization plans to address it.

Equally important he said, is developing strong relationships with the people in your organization. “You need to know your staff, your providers, your contacts at the hospital system, so in a crisis you can be that voice of authenticity as you deliver your message. But you can’t do that from your office.” 

Stay tuned to Medical Economics for more coverage of MGMA 2020.

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