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Michael’s lessons for leaders: Hurricane recovery helped empower frontline staff and prepare for a pandemic

Insight Article - June 17, 2021

Leadership Development

Disaster Planning

Policies & Procedures

Oscar Moreno III MBA, CMPE

In October 2018, Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, bombarded the Florida Panhandle with winds as high as 160 miles per hour and waves reaching upwards of 14 feet.1 The destruction was devastating. The practice I was soon to take over was not spared. Winds tore off a section of the roof of one building, creating substantial damage to all the suites and rendering the office unusable. Many other residential and commercial buildings suffered the same fate.

The widespread destruction created a bidding war for contractors, supplies and habitable space. Many of the city’s residents had to temporarily relocate to other parts of the country, leaving the city with an insufficient labor force.

The staff felt a sense of urgency to provide care for patients but were not given the power to act. They were bogged down by a constant barrage of patient complaints about our shortcomings brought on by the storm and burdened by the repairs that had to be done on their homes.

My goal went beyond helping the practice to recover from the devastation of a hurricane — it was to help it thrive through future disasters. At the time, we had no idea that we would have to endure a pandemic a little more than a year later.

Despite the hurricane and the pandemic, the practice has experienced tremendous growth, and an increase in patient satisfaction scores and employee engagement.

4 steps a leader can take to prepare for the unknown

A leader’s foremost responsibility is to make the company’s mission a reality. To do so, a leader must empower frontline workers to act independently as an advocate for patients and the practice. Each member of your team should have clear expectations of their roles. Your responsibility as a leader is to combine the many talents and personalities of your organization into one fluid team. This is oftentimes referred to as agile or adaptive leadership and is the foundation for sustained success.

1. Define yourself as a leader

Consider the goals you have set for your organization. If you could choose your own boss, what defining characteristics would help you succeed, and what would hinder your progress? If you are like most people, you would prefer a boss with high emotional intelligence; someone who understands your role and values your ability to contribute. He or she gives you the foundation that you need to be successful and then steps back and lets you get to work — a resource, an advocate and a confidant rather than a micromanager.

Which qualities make you a good leader? Which don’t? How do you need to adapt to fit your role and lead your team to success? Your ability to shape yourself as a leader directly affects the culture and the future success of your team. 

Servant leadership was a key to success for recovery after Hurricane Michael. By being a resource to the staff, I helped employees gain confidence in their roles and become independent. We developed into a team of solutions, instead of a team of problems. Our ability to be problem-solvers proved to be helpful during future events such as COVID-19.

2. Create a purpose

We all need to earn a living, but a paycheck is not enough to drive us. Conversely, creating a system of tangible rewards can lead to a dissatisfied workforce who will only work to be rewarded.2

Internally motivating your staff is a constant and difficult task, albeit extremely important. It is the defining difference between a manager and a leader.

Successful leaders share their vision, goals and strategic plan with the entire team. Everyone should understand where they fit within the big picture, know their value to the organization, and feel urgency in making the vision a reality.3 You motivate your team through involvement and by celebrating your combined achievements.4 Provide your team with the resources they need to be successful.

Hurricane Michael forced the practice to spread staff and providers out across three unaffected locations. It was a tight and uncomfortable fit. Multiple providers regularly shared an exam room. One employee worked from the IT closet with her laptop on a TV tray, another worked from a rolling table in the hallway. To handle the incoming call volume for our six providers, we had three operating phones available in the attic of one office; those employees shared a plastic folding table for a desk. The team felt displaced and that the progress they made was quickly replaced by more work.

The first task was to create a feeling of belonging by developing a welcoming environment. We ordered tables and cubicle walls and installed additional phone lines. We built temporary workstations and changed the environment from one of displacement to one that provided a work area for everyone.

The second task was to promote a feeling of accomplishment. I sent brief weekly newsletters highlighting individuals and their accomplishments. I recognized new ideas and wrote about upcoming initiatives. Once a month there would be a special “metrics” edition in which patient satisfaction scores, volume and other statistics were published. It was easy to recognize our measured progress.

We also assigned small groups of employees to committees, which served as resources for certain topics, including patient satisfaction and schedule layout. Each committee was tasked with reporting to the office during our monthly metrics meeting, ensuring that these individuals were acknowledged. The committees allowed me to focus my energy on high-level matters during the pandemic.

3. Document workflow

One of your many roles as a leader is to create expectations. You most likely spend a great deal of time creating workflows, which often are prompted by questions from staff. Document your workflow in a simple, pre-determined format that includes the date and the name of the contributing employee. Place the workflows and commonly used forms where everyone can access them, such as a digital binder.

Your evolving binder will serve many purposes, including written expectations of how to perform a specific task, a valuable reference for repeated tasks. You can refer staff back to the binder and eventually get to the point where your team can help you document new workflows.

Multiple locations were affected by Hurricane Michael’s destruction and drastically reduced our labor force, creating a period of high turnover. Our newly created binder facilitated communication across locations and became a manual for new hires. Your binder can become a testament to your progress and will slowly prepare your team to act instead of react during high-stress situations.

4. Read

“Leaders are readers,” says Amer Kaissi, PhD, professor of healthcare administration, Trinity University, San Antonio. Focus on business topics you are passionate about, or if you don’t have a passion, start reading and you will soon find one. Read books and articles related to your trade or listen to audiobooks and podcasts during your daily commute. You will soon discover a plethora of fantastic ideas that you can implement in your leadership style and in your practice. Research ways to improve your organization. Find best practices and learn from others’ trials and errors so you don’t reinvent the wheel. Be sure to attend conferences, too.5

What were your thoughts as you read this article and others in this magazine? Did anything catch your attention? Write down your thoughts in the margins, highlight ideas you would like to implement, and look up the sources the author used. Share what you’ve learned with your staff and leaders. By doing so, you will demonstrate humility and build an agile team.

Developing an effective leadership style and empowering your frontline workers is a daunting task, but it yields results. There’s no better time to start than today: If you become 1% better every day during the course of a year, you will have improved 37.78% by the end of that year.6

Notes:

  1. Beven JL, Berg R, and Hagen A. “National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Michael.” National Hurricane Center.
  2. Pink DH. DRIVE: The surprising truth about what motivates us. 2009. New York: Riverhead Books.
  3. Jennings J. Hit the Ground Running: A Manual for New Leaders. 2009. New York: Penguin Group.
  4. Pink.
  5. Tracy B. No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline. 2010. New York: Vanguard Press.
  6. Clear J. Atomic Habits. 2018. New York: Penguin Random House.
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About the Author

Oscar Moreno III
Oscar Moreno III MBA, CMPE
Director of Physician's Service HCA Healthcare Orlando, Fla.
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