Stay nimble and surround yourself with talent: The pandemic lessons that stuck with CEOs 3 years later

It's been three years since COVID-19 crept across the U.S., with the World Health Organization declaring the virus outbreak a pandemic in March 2020. Though the early days of the pandemic are over, hospital and health system CEOs told Becker's there are certain lessons that will stay with them in 2023 and beyond. 

While some lessons revolve around leading teams, others include agility, speed and innovation.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Max Buetow. President and CEO of CoxHealth (Springfield, Mo.): It is amazing how much you can do — and how quickly you can do it — when you are all motivated by a common goal, and that goal is worthy of the effort.

Leslie Davis. President and CEO of UPMC (Pittsburgh): UPMC — and what we stand for — has never been more relevant. The pandemic drove home the lesson that our unique model of care delivery is more important than ever. As an academic medical center that includes a system of community hospitals and a provider-based insurance company, we were able to provide extraordinary clinical care and groundbreaking research when our communities needed it the most. 

From rapidly providing vaccines to those we serve across Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland to standing up a system that administered life-saving monoclonal antibodies, UPMC's people demonstrated what nimble innovators can do in the face of an unprecedented challenge.  And throughout the pandemic, our researchers continuously collected data and ran and contributed to international clinical trials with the University of Pittsburgh so that we could provide near-real time guidance on the best care for every patient.

We've used this difficult period to clear away the hurdles and bureaucracy that can impede great care and to reinvent overly complex processes, like how we discharge patients or how we hire employees. As a result, I firmly believe that UPMC is an even stronger and better organization because of what we have all been through together.

Ngozi Ezike, MD. President and CEO of Sinai Chicago: The importance of showing your humanity and compassion as a leader. You owe it to yourself and your teams to bring your whole, true, authentic self to your role. Leading the Illinois Department of Public Health through the pandemic was an honor and a privilege, as well as an unprecedented challenge. There is great responsibility that comes when so many are looking to you for direction and hope. I learned in that circumstance that the only way to lead effectively was to be me in whole. As a physician who had taken the oath to "do no harm." As a woman of faith who is called upon to love and to serve. And as a mother, whose instincts are to be caring and loving. I learned to connect with people who give me strength, and to rely upon those who could provide support and assistance. I found support and strength in a network of family, friends and colleagues. I've learned to lean into the dedication, talent and expertise of my team. Effective delegation is a learned skill, and critical for successful leaders. I learned that I don't need to do everything myself — to get out of the way and let my team put their talents to the tasks at hand. 

Bill Gassen. President and CEO of Sanford Health (Sioux Falls, S.D.): As I reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, I will be forever grateful to our dedicated caregivers who met every challenge, often at great personal sacrifice and sometimes in the face of loss within their own families and communities, while continuing to help us carry out our mission every day.

It was the tremendous efforts of our entire Sanford family who allowed us to set the highest standard of care for COVID-19 response in rural America, deliver the vaccine to hundreds of thousands of people across our vast geographic footprint, and advance research to bring new treatments — and hope — to our patients. 

Even as we faced record patient volumes, unprecedented workforce challenges and enduring mental health concerns, our clinicians and caregivers demonstrated the ability, the courage and the resolve to provide high-quality care for all who rely on us.

Rod Hochman, MD. President and CEO of Providence (Renton, Wash.): We can be much more agile and innovative than we think. Our ability to rapidly convert to a digital care platform with telemedicine was extraordinary. And in a flash, we converted to Teams and Zoom to stay connected in lieu of in person meetings. Agility combined with innovation is very powerful.

Michael Mayo. President and CEO of Baptist Health (Jacksonville, Fla.): Information about COVID-19 was evolving rapidly. We were learning about it while living it and information shifted quickly. Being transparent about the uncertainty to our team members and our community was important. Honesty about changing information allowed us to establish a deeper level of credibility and trust.

Additionally, the importance of investing in and caring for our workforce. In healthcare, people are always first — those we care for and those who provide the care. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the importance of people being a top priority. We invested significantly in our team members spiritually, emotionally and physically to help provide endurance and support during the pandemic. Going forward, the focus on caring for our workforce will continue so the people that work here can continue to thrive in an evolving health care environment.

Bob Page. President and CEO of The University of Kansas Health System (Kansas City, Kan.): The financial challenges that impacted health systems and hospitals during the pandemic caused many to lay off employees. Part of our formula for success has been to hire the very best people and support them in the right way. We didn't lay off or furlough our people during the pandemic and communicated with them two months into the pandemic we wouldn't have any layoffs or furloughs. We knew we would need our people to get through such a tough time, and we were right. Together, our team of employees successfully got us through the challenges of COVID-19. What we knew was reinforced-our people are the key to our success.

Mark Wallace. President and CEO of Texas Children's Hospital (Houston): The one lesson that I learned from the pandemic includes three things that every high-performing hospital must exhibit: speed, talent and a sound balance sheet.

Texas Children's performed exceptionally well during and beyond the pandemic because we moved with speed, continued to recruit and retain world-class talent and focused on maintaining a strong balance sheet. When an organization endures any type of crisis — especially one with the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic — it is imperative that you make these three things your highest priority.

On Jan. 20, 2020, Texas Children's began screening for COVID-19 at each of our 100+ locations. We were also one of the first pediatric hospitals in the US to develop our own high-quality testing capabilities in March 2020. In the midst of the pandemic, we moved quickly to take care of our employees as they endured the most difficult season of their careers by investing $124 million through our Tomorrow, Together initiative, an organization wide merit, retention and bonus program. In a crisis, you must be nimble and ready to make quick, effective and innovative decisions on behalf of your organization in order to successfully get to the other side.

Texas Children's was immediately well-positioned to cope with the pandemic because of talented experts like Dr. Peter Hotez, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, Dr. James Versalovic and Dr. Julie Boom who kept me and our leadership team informed about COVID-19 long before it made its first appearance in the US. We trusted our talented faculty and knew we had to be prepared for the challenges ahead. Dr. Hotez and Dr. Bottazzi, and our world-renowned Center for Vaccine Development team, later created CORBEVAX, a low-cost, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Today, our vaccine has been administered to more than 100 million children in India and Indonesia. 

One of the first things that our leadership team did at the outset of the pandemic was to take a thorough assessment of our cash and liquidity positions on our balance sheet, and in our investment portfolio to ensure that we had enough liquidity to cover any short-term losses due to COVID-19. Because of this preemptive planning, we were ready and prepared to deal with the suspension of elective surgeries and the inevitable downturn in admissions and surgical cases. Since then, Texas Children’s has come roaring back and we have had record hospital activity and surgery levels.

Speed, talent, and a sturdy balance sheet — those are key things any organization must have to manage through a crisis. We learned that in the pandemic, and in today's economic environment, an organization must continue to remain nimble, have talented people and a strong balance sheet to mitigate risk and vulnerability.

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