Leading in challenging times

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It is no secret that we are living in challenging times. We regularly hear about business sectors and organizations facing serious issues and, certainly, health care is not exempt. Regardless of the type of health-care organization, all of us are faced with increasing demands for service, revenue streams that are not keeping pace with expenses and increased public scrutiny.

For many of us, these are uncharted waters. While it is tempting to suggest we are victims of external forces beyond our control, this is a passive approach which will not serve our organizations, our clients and our staff. Daniel Muzyka, in a column in the Globe and Mail on November 24th 2008, stated that “For leaders, a crisis can be a terrible thing to waste.” I agree, and believe that while these are challenging times, they are also times of great opportunity.

This is a time to revisit and refocus on our mission, vision and values. Our temptation in difficult times is to be focused on the problems – however, this is a time for keeping our eye on the big picture. What is our purpose and who is it we serve? What do we do well, and how can we do more of it? This is a time to get out of businesses that detract from our core vision and mission, or do not support our organizational values.

This is a time to build a high performing leadership team. As Collins in Good to Great argues, one of our first responsibilities as leaders is to “get the right people on the bus.” As tough as it sounds, cutbacks are an opportunity to ensure that our management teams consists of individuals who have the necessary knowledge and skill to navigate these difficult waters. It isn’t sufficient, however, to just stop with the right individuals – it is then essential that we create the conditions and environments that unleash the talent distributed among our teams. This includes allowing healthy conflict and debate, managing emotions and focusing on strengths.

Several wise and strategic thinkers on our Board of Directors often remind us to ‘think of the long game.’ Managing our challenges in health care is not something that will be accomplished in a day; nor can we be shortsighted and just worry about the immediate future. It’s my job as the CEO to strike the right balance between the short and the long term goals.The phrase ‘short term pain for long term gain’ rings true very often.

In tough times, we must focus on our personal leadership skills. During difficult times staff are anxious and fearful and this requires us to be visionary and focus on the positive. However, we must also be honest and realistic –and this can be a difficult balance to find. It comes down to personal credibility – doing what we say we will do, taking accountability for difficult decisions and leading by example. This is a time to communicate, communicate and then communicate some more. While communication is always important, it is vitally so in challenging times. People want to know where the organization is going, what impact it will have on them and what you know or don’t know about the future. Timely, accurate information empowers people and allows them to be ambassadors of the organization.

I recall in the past working with a group of dedicated nurses who were facing tremendous role and process changes. I sought an analogy to help us work through the situation. I selected the example of a fish, a piece of wood and a stream. Fish swim while accommodating the push and pull of the current. They struggle and they prevail. Wood carelessly tossed into the same stream suffers the wrath of the current. The wood is forced to follow the flow of the current and never controls its own destiny.

I believe, even more today, that we all need to struggle with purpose as we encounter and embrace challenges. We are able to do this by keeping our eyes on the big picture, keeping our sense of humour and by enjoying the satisfaction that comes with plotting your own destiny.