Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems.
Today we talk with Laurie Cooke, President and CEO of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) about the coronavirus and its effect on her, on the HBA, and on the advancement and impact of women in the business of healthcare. Cooke is a senior healthcare industry executive and a licensed pharmacist with a Master’s in Software Engineering and a rich background in many facets of healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry. She has been involved as a change agent and leader in HBA since 2006.
David and David: When did you realize the pandemic was about to impact your day-to-day life and work? What immediate actions did you take, and how ready was your organization to adopt these actions?
Laurie: I first had an inkling that we were facing a problem as data and information started to come in about the situation in China and Europe. I remember thinking this could really impact the 2,000+ attendance numbers for our annual Woman of the Year (WOTY) event, scheduled for late April in New York City. But I didn’t alert my team, because I didn’t want to distract them during a very busy January. It took a bit longer before I realized that this wasn’t just an attendance issue for WOTY, though, but increasingly looked like a cancellation issue and much, much more than that.
When I did raise the potential magnitude of the impending situation, not everyone was on the same page with me. My team was incredibly focused on getting their job done and here I come talking about cancelling WOTY. For all of us, it seemed surreal; out of bounds to even consider. Remember, at the time, President Trump was still telling people this was not an issue, and would be under control in a few days. What I wanted us to talk about was the opposite. So we started to look at the data - from sources that can’t really be disputed - and played out the potential scenarios and created options that were tangible, so it became something we could have control over. I think for all of us, we needed to get past the “don’t tell me, don’t tell me” phase of denial. I could have been totally wrong. I wish I was.
However, the HBA was quite fortunate as we have been set up as a virtual organization for more than a decade. This familiar work environment enables us to be nimble and adapt quickly. We initiated our crisis management plan, we executed processes already in place to make decisions with our Board virtually, and we had financial reserves that would last us longer than recommended as a benchmark. This put time on our side in terms of how we reacted and adapted. The floor didn’t suddenly fall out from under our feet.
David and David: How has your role as a leader changed, given the need to operate in the midst of a pandemic?
Laurie: People look to their leader as the visionary. You can very easily get bogged down in managing the day-to-day of a crisis, but this is your time to lead. Even if you don’t know if the direction is the right one, your people need to have confidence that you’ve considered all the angles and they will follow you. Taking too long to make a decision, even the right decision, or wavering on options can be catastrophic.
You have to decide what tools to pull out of your leadership toolkit – skills like conveying assurance, assessing the situation to decide if and when you take action while continuing to gather data, listening to people around you and what they need, and feeding them continuously and transparently with the information you have, even if it isn’t good news. I have been communicating on a regular basis in a variety of ways with staff and customers. I always try to give context, and I am pragmatic and positive. I let the team know that they are going to have to do things differently, take more risks and jump on opportunities. Instead of talking about cancelling or postponing WOTY, we talked about re-imagining it and engaged people who wanted to help in developing what that could look like. People went from feeling victimized to being the victors simply by being part of a solution.
This is a real opportunity for the public to see how important the healthcare industry is and those of us in the industry are reminded that they chose a great career. People are listening to what it takes to develop a vaccine, or why you need to have controls in place when you’re throwing drugs at a sick person so you know which drug actually worked and why, and the huge costs and risks pharmaceutical companies take on to bring a product hopefully all the way to market. This is a time for healthcare industry leaders to shine and I’m incredibly proud.
David and David: Have you found that the pandemic has magnified existing gender inequalities in companies? If so, in what ways?
Laurie: Initially, I was very concerned about this because so many organizational priorities have had to take a back seat to the coronavirus response. I had the opportunity to ask a group of 16 member organizations involved in our Gender Parity Collaborative about what they’re seeing with respect to gender diversity initiatives. They unanimously said that those initiatives have not been deprioritized as a result of the coronavirus, and if anything, more effort is being put into them. It was reassuring that COVID-19 hadn’t set back these organizations and their commitment to continuing to press forward to achieve gender parity.
However I have seen data points regarding diversity that are upsetting: domestic violence against women on the rise, insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) that fit women health care providers, disproportionate numbers of COVID-19 cases for people of color. These are the kinds of disparities that the pandemic has laid bare, and we have to look at these realities and understand what is happening so we can fix this going forward.
David and David: What do you think the residual impacts will be on business, the workplace, people and culture?
Laurie: I see many positives that I hope we can hold on to. We’ve shown that we can have a virtual workforce, which will mean less travel, and less pollution. We’ve needed a huge investment in technology for ages, and now everybody sees that need, both for business and for society (for example, improving bandwidth and access for rural areas). We’re creating new opportunities that will allow people who don’t live in a city to still work for big companies. And I definitely think that people have a new appreciation for crisis management and scenario planning on how to deal with crazy situations!
I also think that videoconferencing and virtual work has created a very interesting dynamic by enabling people to see into each other’s houses, and specifically into the boss’s house. Will that lead to social leveling? Will that have a positive impact on our diversity and inclusion strategies? Will that help us better understand and appreciate differences and help us tackle biases?
David and David: Any specific thoughts about how this might change the world for women in healthcare leadership long-term?
Laurie: Leadership skills that are traditionally viewed as more feminine - like empathy, listening, and nurturing - are really coming to the fore right now. If you look at the countries with the most successful outcomes with COVID-19, they have had women leaders. So I predict that companies will increase the value they place on these skills and since women tend to have these tools in their toolkit, they will be in a stronger competitive position for a new role. Wouldn’t it be great if men want to have women mentors to help them develop these skills?
David and David: Do you have any other advice you can offer? Parting words?
Laurie: Don’t think of your role as managing through change, but rather as leading through change. Lift your head up, look forward, stride out front, and do the things that will ensure people not only follow you willingly, but do so enthusiastically.
Original article posted on Forbes on April 23, 2020
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