As the pandemic continues, Root cofounder Jim Haudan sits down with two of the healthcare industry’s respected, experienced, and successful leaders – Dr. Rick Lofgren, president and CEO of UC Health, and Charlie Piscitello, chief people officer at Acutus Medical, Inc. – to share their points of view as to how leaders, in any field, can best lead their people during challenging times such as the one we are all living in right now.

You can watch the full discussion here or read on for a few highlights from their conversation.

Jim Haudan: Where do you get information to guide your business decisions during times like this?

Charlie Piscitello: I think in a time of uncertainty, there’s this mythical notion that all of a sudden we don’t know what’s happening. The truth is, we always live in uncertainty. It happens to be dialed up to a greater degree and greater severity at the moment. As far as getting information, we’re getting bombarded from so many different sources, so we have to tune a lot out and focus on the most credible sources. We don’t turn to the daily news, but instead to the CDC and authorities who are talking about how to safely manage people as well as make business decisions. I think fundamentally, this environment creates a scenario where you go to people and sources that you trust even more frequently and even more intensely than you would in a normalized time.

Dr. Rick Lofgren: I play a role in preparing the State of Ohio to respond to the COVID surge and serve on the governor’s advisory group, so I’m very focused on where I get information to manage the actual pandemic itself. There is a lot of information out there and the 24/7 news cycle can create confusion, as people go down different blind paths about some nuances. I rely on data that comes from the Ohio Hospital Association – it gives accurate data in regard to patients, volumes, the ICU, as well as an accurate look at what’s happening in the supply chain in terms of ventilators and the PPE that you’ve all heard about.

When I think about the business element and how this is going to disrupt and change how health systems function and how we’re going to function in the future, I immediately look to reliable national organizations such as the Association of Academic Health System and CEOs who run other academic health systems around the country. They really understand what challenges we are facing. That network of people has been proven to be incredibly valuable. And finally we have an ongoing dialogue with external people like the governor and other elected officials. Learning what they’re seeing and hearing is very helpful too.

Jim Haudan: How do you put people’s safety first with so many unknowns, looking at tomorrow and the day after and the day after? 

Dr. Rick Lofgren: First, we make sure we’re leading with empathy and an understanding that this situation is truly unprecedented. We also have an understanding that all of us have a degree of anxiety that we either express or don’t express.

We make sure to lead with the message that safety and the safety of our patients is job number one – we never deviate from that. We’re reinforcing things we know are going to make a difference in terms of safety guidelines. Protecting our workforce from various infectious diseases is something we’ve done for a long period of time – it’s part of our culture. What we do have to say more and more is that we’re not here to cut corners. We’re not going to put people in situations without adequate amount of protection. Safety is the priority, and it’s the message that we always lead with.

Charlie Piscitello: It’s an interesting and very dynamic question. Rick and I both have the blessing and the challenge of leading organizations involved in health care. As a medical device manufacturer, we are considered an essential business. We shut down early in this pandemic so we could ensure people’s safety, but restarted manufacturing only a couple weeks later in a very controlled, thoughtful way.

I think maintaining safety of people long-term is an important topic and I think it’s going to result in a lot of discussions about redesigning the workplace in a way that continues to maintain people’s health and well-being, while minimizing the risk. While none of us can guarantee people’s total safety, we can put all the practices and protocols in place to ensure that we minimize risk to people – in the case of COVID and other workplace hazards.

Jim Haudan: How do you stay connected with your people and help them stay connected to the business in this environment?

Charlie Piscitello: You have to establish new operating rhythms. There’s a new normal we’re all operating under – it’s no longer management by walking around; it’s management by active connection, by text, Zoom, by phone. I spend an awful lot of time just reaching out to people, just saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” “Who have you connected with today?” is a question I’ve established and encourage our other leaders to establish too. We’re no longer in the same environment with people and it’s important to find out what’s on people’s minds, what they’re thinking, what their emotional frame of reference is.

We have a daily company meeting, and we ask people, “Where are you right now?” We use a change model, a visual that says, are you in fear? Do you feel paralyzed or do you feel an inability to act? Or do you feel like you’re seeking information? Are you in information mode where you need to find the answers to things to be able to move forward, or are you in action mode?

We spend a lot of time talking about the three dimensions: care of self, care and support of others, and then making a difference in our communities. Never has there been a more important time to acknowledge these things and actively facilitate people’s connection to them.

Dr. Rick Lofgren: A crisis is time for the leader to be more visible than ever. Traditionally that’s been by being physically present, but now we have to use new techniques. I believe there are two things the workforce remembers during times like these: “How did you communicate with me?” and “How did you treat me during the process?” And so I think it’s important to communicate frequently, by multiple channels. And it’s important to be very clear about the realities of the current situation, and frankly, acknowledging the uncertainty around it, while offering hope.

One of the things we’ve done, and you’ve actually been part of this, Jim, is our transformation and implementation of tiered huddling. In our organization, we start with huddles at the front line all the way up to the executive team. We’ve talked about how we’re fortunate to have this practice in place because it’s allowed a connection from the front lines all the way up to the top and in both directions. Also, like Charlie, I’m doing a lot of phone calls to leaders in the organization. The first question I ask is, “How are you doing?” And then, “How’s the morale of your team? How are they doing?” And then finally, “What are they experiencing?”

Jim Haudan: What erodes and what builds trust during times of high fear and anxiety like we are experiencing right now?

Charlie Piscitello: Trust is built by consistency of action, by authenticity, by sincerity, by the willingness to not just say what we know, but admit what we don’t know. I believe that whether or not your people trust you as a leader is going to be fundamental to the experiences that they have.

I was with our production operation last week, where people are working to make products for people and physician customers, and someone asked, “Are we safe?”

I responded, “You’re as safe as we can make you in this environment and here’s all of the reasons we know that. But here’s what we don’t know. We don’t know everything about this disease, and we don’t know everything about how it spreads. But we know we can maintain protocols that keep you as safe as possible, and here are all the protocols that we have in place.”

I think authenticity builds trust. In fact, I got numerous calls and emails from people after that meeting thanking me for being honest. I think that’s what people look for in times of crisis, and it’s what they look for in general in leadership.

Dr. Rick Lofgren: I think the most important thing is to be genuine and open and honest. To be empathetic, calm, confident, and realistic. If you don’t know, simply say you don’t know. Don’t give false hope. It’s also important to lead with an understanding of where your workforce and your colleagues are, and to acknowledge that we’re all anxious. Additionally, I think one of the ways in which you build trust is the ability to show respect to everybody in the organization and explain the “why” behind all decisions.

Jim Haudan: What’s the one thing a leader shouldn’t do because it’ll erode trust and create an environment that’s worse than it already might be in terms of fear and anxiety? 

Charlie Piscitello: I think leaders need enough personal awareness and presence about their own feelings and emotions so that those don’t become the way they lead. I think it’s super, super important that you check your own biases and emotions and don’t let those be the message to people. I have seen leaders in this crisis allow themselves to let their own fear and anxiety guide their decisions, and I think that’s very dangerous.

Jim Haudan: What is the gift in the current pandemic? 

Charlie Piscitello: I believe there are a number of gifts in the current scenario that are afforded to us.

  • One is the gift of connection. And I don’t just mean transactional connection through technology. I think the sense of connection and relational connection is a great gift that we’re given in times of crisis, and we’re forced to actually examine that. Never before have leaders and organizations had to focus so intently on the mission, the purpose, the meaning of what we do. In our case, our purpose is very clear. We help save people’s lives.
  • The second gift is presence. We are being forced to be more present, to listen to ourselves, to listen to others and have empathy. You can’t really, truly connect without those things.
  • The third gift is innovation. The amount of innovation that’s happening as we speak in this moment is greater than it’s ever been in human history.
  • The final gift I think is we’ve learned about our own willingness to change. This crisis has caused us to have to adapt significantly as individuals, as organizations, as a society and not just in the short-term, but the long-term as well. I think our ability to adapt is a great gift.

Dr. Rick Lofgren: I would say the power of collaboration – as an organization and as a community. For example, when the pandemic hit, all of the competitive health systems got together and said over the next several months, we’re no longer competitors. We’re collaborators with a common enemy and shared goal.

I would say the same thing is true inside our organization as well. We mobilized a COVID-19 response team that required all the dimensions of our organization to come together. And it allowed us to move mountains quickly and to be remarkably nimble. Academic health systems have never been known to be nimble – I think we’ve demonstrated the value of that.

I also think our use of technology is a gift and think our industry will be permanently changed – think about how useful Telehealth is, for example. I’ve started having a 15-minute live broadcast with all 11,000 associates three times a week, in which I provide brief updates and hold a Q&A.

Jim Haudan: What’s your advice to help leaders lead well in today’s environment?

Dr. Rick Lofgren: I think the first thing I would say is to be present, both personally and emotionally. And to remember that great leaders don’t have great answers, great leaders actually ask great questions. I also think empathy – understanding how the various elements of your organization are experiencing the changes – is very important. Leaders must have unwavering honesty and authenticity. Say what you know. And at all times, lean on your organization’s purpose and values.

Charlie Piscitello: I think it starts with leading with your ears and your eyes – not your mouth. I think you’ve got to listen and observe. One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is assuming they know what’s in people’s mind and hearts. It’s also important to connect people back to your organization’s purpose, to connect people to what you do. It’s really important to continuously reinforce that. We continuously talk about that each and every day – the value structure that leads and guides us.


June 17, 2020


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