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Reimagining health-care leadership for a post-pandemic world

May 17, 2021

While the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the heroic leadership of frontline health-care workers, little has been said about the impact the crisis has had, and will continue to have, on leadership moving forward. Yet times of unprecedented disruption and transformation expose why leader character matters more than ever.

For the inaugural session of the new LeaderShift webinar series, called Healthcare Under Siege, four health-care leaders shared how they relied on their strength of character to navigate one of the world’s most challenging crises. The conversation was led by Jon Hantho, MBA ’89, President & CEO, CBI Health, and presented by Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. Panellists included Georgina Black, Managing Partner, Government & Public Services, Deloitte Canada; Heather Chalmers, President and CEO GE Canada; Melissa Farrell, President, St Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton; and Dr. Verna Yiu, President and CEO, Alberta Health Services.

Here are some of their insights on the types of leaders they saw, the lessons they learned, and what it means for the future of health care in Canada.

Watch the video of the presentation (above). 

Pioneering amid a crisis

In times of challenge, our judgment, decision-making, and the actions that we take are more distinctly displayed and coalesce to reveal our leadership style. As she worked across the country, Georgina Black, Managing Partner of Government & Public Services at Deloitte Canada, said she saw three distinct types of leaders emerge.

There were traditionalists who controlled information, didn’t embrace the science, and Black said ultimately heightened people’s fear and panic. There were integrators – the majority group – that shared information across cross-functional teams, collaborated, and focused on a common goal, but worked solely within their ecosystems. And there were pioneers who worked to solve the immediate crisis and what might lie ahead. Black said the pioneers were distinguished by five particular features: being prepared, adaptable, collaborative, trustworthy, and authentic. Among other things, they accelerated their digital technology programs, responded to gaps in equity and access, and focused on diverse and vulnerable populations.

“These were the leaders who not only work to solve the immediate crisis, but they also took the longer-term view. They really seized this moment to accelerate change and to move into the future,” she said. “They put themselves last, they cared for their staff, and they also tried to focus on a brighter future.”

Black said pioneer leaders outperformed their peers during the crisis.         

A great deal of leadership development stems from learning from difficult experiences, as the health-care workers at Alberta Health Services (AHS) can attest. Dr. Verna Yiu, President and CEO of AHS, said that Alberta’s crises of the recent past – such as the Fort McMurray and Slave Lake Fires, and the southern Alberta floods – elevated their emergency management system’s ability to adapt and respond, and created a preparedness within the AHS that propelled the organization’s pandemic response.

“With each of these natural disasters, we had hundreds of learnings each time,” she said. “It has helped us to build our organizational resiliency, which is really our ability to anticipate, prepare, respond, and to adapt to changes and sudden disruptions.”    

Lessons learned

Reflection is a key ingredient in a leader’s personal development, and the panellists revealed some hard-won leadership lessons. These included the importance of scaling quickly, innovating, and embracing opportunities, as well as focusing on self-care.

Heather Chalmers, President and CEO of GE Canada, discussed the power of reframing to improve organizational resilience. She related how GE Canada circulated stories about the improved processes and efficiencies that were forged during the pandemic to instill a sense of pride.

“As a leader or as an organization, you can face a crisis and you can retract and look inwards and get very defensive, or you can be as Georgina [Black] called it, that pioneer,” she said. “You can get in and embrace it and look for opportunities that can provide meaningful growth for the short term and the long term.”

Black highlighted the importance of self-care. She recalled how she hit a “slippery slope” when she abandoned her longstanding practice of exercise, meditating, and journaling because there was so much work to do, and had to resume those habits to be a good leader.

“I had to hit the reset button so that I could refill my cup and be great for my family, my clients, my team, and so forth … Self-care is not a luxury,” she said.

Courage and accountability

Courage and accountability are critical to organizational success and health-care leaders have had to display both in the last 14 months. Whether it was to rally the troops or convey information, the panellists cited how creating trust and transparency was central to the crisis response.

Melissa Farrell, President of St Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said it was essential to acknowledge that health-care workers are compromising their own safety to care for others and the personal toll that comes with it. Her organization had frequent town halls to answer questions and provide support.

“For me, the values of transparency and being open and actually rallying this group of essential workers became more important than saying the perfect thing or doing the perfect thing. It became more important to be open and have them see that we're the kind of leadership team that will listen to them and make adjustments based on what we hear from them,” she said.

Yiu told how frequent and honest communications, delivering both the cold hard facts and the heart-breaking personal stories, were key to gaining the public’s trust. One of AHS’s most impactful tweets showed a photo of an ICU physician giving bad news to the family of someone who had died of COVID-19.

“Part of trust – to be able to really establish it – is to link honesty and transparency with it. You can’t have one without the other,” she said. “It’s really important that when we share information, we do it in a timely fashion, we do it respectfully, and we put the data out there so people can hear what the truth is.”

Looking ahead to the future

In addition to exposing some deficiencies in health care, the pandemic revealed opportunities to improve the system. Some examples include increasing health-care workers and resources, broadening health literacy and technology, and focusing on the economic value of health care instead of the cost.

But to do so involves continuing the momentum of character-based leadership in the face of post-pandemic challenges. We must continue to tap into those character dimensions – like courage, accountability, and integrity – that helped health-care leaders and workers meet the extreme challenges they faced so we can better prepare the system for future events. And more so, to remain humble, so that new learnings are constantly gleaned and we can adapt, respond, and iterate for the benefit and well-being of all Canadians.

“Health care post-COVID can not be the same as health care in COVID. Too many people have passed away and there have been too many disasters in the pandemic and we can't let that go to vain. We really do need to seize the moment and make sure that we maintain the momentum,” said Yiu.

Chalmers said a silver lining of the pandemic is that it showed us what is possible.

“COVID – while everyone is tired – it shows us that when we want to change, we can do it and we can do it with real momentum. So how do we hardwire that in somehow?” she said.

Other advice for emerging health-care leaders

Be bold

“Be bold. Be curious. And when you’re told that’s not possible, ask why 25 times.”

– Georgina Black

Embrace AI and analytics

“[It’s important to] understand AI and digital analytics. There’s a certain competency requirement … You have to be comfortable with that because it’s going to be integral to how health care is delivered both from a technology and system level.”

– Heather Chalmers

Stay with it

“People who are in health care, they’re in it because of the meaningfulness of it … If you stick with it, you can make a material impact on people's real lives and real experiences. So it just is very valuable and it's worth putting in the time”

– Melissa Farrell

Build a strong foundation and stretch yourself

“Make sure you have a strong foundation and leadership awareness. If I had to list a fatal flaw for upcoming leaders, it’s that self-awareness piece … Stretch yourself and never underestimate what you are capable of doing.”

– Dr. Verna Yiu