Keeping teams motivated when the future is murky: 12 women leading hospitals share their best advice

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There's a valid reason why having "something to look forward to" is psychologically powerful. But when the anticipation of a positive event or milestone is harder to summon, leaders must adjust for the sake of their teams' motivation and wellbeing. 

Anticipating a pleasurable experience releases large amounts of feel-good dopamine in the brain. Personally and professionally, the act of looking forward to something makes a difference for human motivation and attention. In challenging times, who hasn't thought about a positive event in the future to keep going?  

Now those positive events are less certain or may look drastically different. As it's grown harder to make plans, professionally and personally, Becker's Healthcare reached out to female CEOs at hospitals and health systems to learn how they are moving around the roadblock, either for themselves or with their teams. 

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Joan Cusack-McGuirk, President and CEO, Montefiore St Luke's Cornwall (Newburgh, N.Y.)

While these current times have created, in many ways, an upheaval of our professional and personal lives, it's also allowed for time to self-reflect and really stop and take a look at the world around us. So much of the day-to-day routine has always been rushing from work to events and trying to find balance in it all. Healthcare certainly hasn't slowed down amid COVID-19, but it has presented an opportunity to reassess and reevaluate our processes. I firmly believe that even after all we've been through, we are stronger. 

Right now, we're debriefing and talking through what we can do differently if COVID-19 surges again in our community. We are supporting each other emotionally, with open and honest discussions relative to the journey we traveled together, its impact professionally and personally, and the lasting effect that this virus will have on us all. While there may be no vacations to plan or dinners to go to, I now have the opportunity to take a walk on a Saturday afternoon or call family and friends I otherwise didn't always have the time to do. It may not be what we're "used to" looking forward to, but I am incredibly appreciative to have had the ability and time to reflect.

Michelle Fortune, CEO, St Luke's Hospital (Columbus, N.C.)

Embracing the thought that the big is in the little has helped us continue to move forward. Personally, I am learning to celebrate things that before were mundane. I have also learned to use technology like Facetime or Zoom to be able to "set a date" with friends and family to connect. Professionally, leading through change is difficult and sometimes scary, so learning to recognize the signs of anxiety and stress in each other and giving support is so important. We are recognizing good work now more than ever and we are being intentional about checking in on one another and sharing something great about our day. These small wins give us joy.

Jeanie Gentry, CEO, Steele Memorial Medical Center (Salmon, Idaho) 

I have triplets who just graduated from high school. I'm just relieved they all graduated! Now I'm looking forward to more free time to go fly fishing. I check on the people on my team regularly and make sure they have personal recreation and things to look forward to. 

Sylvia Getman, President and CEO, Adirondack Health (Saranac Lake, N.Y.) 

It's well known that healthcare workers tend to focus on others first and take care of themselves last. We recently undertook a concerted effort to encourage paid-time-off utilization. With the pandemic, many of our staff were effectively on call 24/7 for two months, wondering if or when the surge of COVID-19 patients would come. It is impossible for that not to take a mental toll, though everyone deals with it in their own way. In this line of work, consistent decompression is essential to the avoidance of burnout.

Lily Henson, MD, CEO, Piedmont Henry Hospital (Stockbridge, Ga.)

My husband and I are working on opposite coasts. During the height of the pandemic, we didn't see each other for a whole month. Now we are back to traveling each weekend to see each other. I try to think of the day when we can live in the same city. In the meantime, we have a boating vacation planned for July that I'm really looking forward to. And I try to encourage my team to make plans away from work with their families.

Ronda Lehman, President, St. Rita's Mercy Health (Lima, Ohio) 

I believe that these times have called us to be more creative at home and work to appreciate the small gestures and the "little things" we can look forward to. For instance, we started a "Community Caring Friday" at work, where we can dress casually on Fridays with a small donation back to specific organizations in our community. Employees have really enjoyed it. 

Mary Mannix, President and CEO, Augusta Health (Fishersville, Va.)

It's really important to have a calm sense of optimism that together, we can adapt to the uncertainty through a willingness to remain flexible, that together we can be motivated to find a new normal, that together we can embrace opportunities for innovation along with way — as long as we are in it together and as long as we are "all in" — together. That's a lot of "togethers,'' but being together is so powerful. By watching out for each other's professional safety and emotional well-being, openly talking about it — frequently talking about it, and by making ourselves vulnerable, we have and can create a renewed sense of optimism and a renewed calling to our field. This renewed sense of optimism and professional calling, and organizational togetherness, begins to make up for the loss of certainty.

Leslie Marsh, CEO, Lexington (Neb.) Regional Health Center 

Lexington Regional Health Center is located in Dawson County, which was an early hotspot for COVID-19 in rural America. The health center and hospital team rose to the occasion. That shared sacrifice and engagement provided motivation and a needed sense of professional and personal fulfillment. It was unifying, meaningful and rewarding. We took care of our community. 

Connie McCahill, President and CEO, Cameron Memorial Community Hospital (Angola, Ind.)

I say the serenity prayer to myself a lot. Nothing positive comes of feeling sorry for oneself or wishing that things beyond our control were different. I cherish time with family and try to make the best of each day. 

Janice Nevin, MD, President and CEO, ChristianaCare (Wilmington, Del.) 

I am always an optimist and believe our greatest opportunities come from the most challenging times. We need to take all of the pain and learning from the crises of COVID-19 and deep-rooted racism and commit to creating a healthcare delivery system that truly impacts the health of all the people we serve. In an unexpected way, the challenge of COVID19 connected people even more deeply to their purpose. Even for me, as a CEO but also a family physician, I found the purposeful work of ensuring we were caring for our community and for each other to be inspirational and deeply fulfilling. COVID-19 and racism bring us to the heart of our mission — caring for people. 

Susan Turney, MD, CEO, Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic Health System

While in many ways our daily lives seem like they've been put on pause, it's important to remember we must continue to think about tomorrow — even though we may not always know what tomorrow will look like. I try to reinforce this amongst my team. It's been overwhelming at times, as we prepare for the COVID-19 world, but we also never stopped planning and preparing for life with and beyond COVID-19. We serve one of the most rural areas in the U.S., so we must continually look for ways to provide patients the care they need and deserve, regardless of COVID-19. 

Annette Walker, President, City of Hope Orange County (Duarte, Calif.)

You must keep communicating with one another. Our team has two team briefings — or huddles — every week. At the first on Mondays, we review the business to accomplish for the week and check in on projects. The other on Friday afternoon is always a celebration. Sometimes it is for personal celebrations, such as birthdays and graduations. Other times we find reasons to celebrate. We're always sharing favorite pictures, places we have visited, books and stories. This huddle is extremely important for maintaining personal connections and our identity as a community. As for my personal life, I've found that spur-of-the-moment outings and breaks — even small ones — seem to work out best for now. I've learned to grab these opportunities when they come, but still have to admit that I miss the vacation that was canceled.

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