Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been a marathon for health-care workers. In mid-September 2020, the race against the pandemic became more difficult with the first of seven outbreaks being declared at the Foothills Medical Centre (FMC). The leadership team at FMC wanted to ensure their people had the support they needed to manage this additional challenge in an already difficult time.
“We continue to invest in leadership at the site,” says Christine Guss, director, Foothills Medical Centre, Inpatient and Ambulatory Surgical Services. “We really value our people. They are our most important asset. We want to support the frontline leaders, so they can take care of our staff, who take care of our patients and families. This is important always, but especially when the pandemic response has placed such extraordinary and ongoing demands of the people who lead our frontline teams.”
- Photo above: Christine Guss shares how Haskayne Executive Education worked to support frontline leaders at the Foothills Medical Centre. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
The leadership team at FMC reached out to Executive Education at the Haskayne School of Business to create a customized program to support management staff and physician leaders. The focus of the program was to help maintain participants’ mental well-being, to further develop resiliency skills and to learn strategies for dealing with chaos, change and uncertainty.
Approximately 120 managers, leaders, and physicians received the invite. One hundred participants appeared on the Zoom line with only a day’s notice. That first session was on Oct. 7, 2020 and weekly sessions focused on building resilience were delivered for a month.
Baseline of building effective teams
The work with leadership teams at FMC began long before the pandemic. FMC collaborated with Executive Education on a multi-year leadership development program. One component of this program was the Building Effective Teams session delivered by Willow Brocke, a registered social worker and a sessional instructor with the Haskayne School of Business.
Brocke says those who work in hospital systems are often good at ‘Teaming’ as defined by Amy Edmonson, which is different than being on a team. A team is a group of people who work together in a relatively stable structure where you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Teaming is when strangers and interdisciplinary groups come together to solve an urgent problem. Teamwork itself is building relationships over time to strengthen the fibre of an organization.
As Simon Sinek says, a team is essentially a group of people who trust each other, adds Brocke. Therefore, the focus of the course was how to build trust on a daily basis. Keeping that leadership development moving, the FMC Frontline Leadership Development participants maintained triads, three peers who keep connected for feedback and growth.
This common language and focus on trust positioned these frontline leaders well to participate in the supportive sessions in October 2020 that were also delivered by Brocke.
Feed hearts, minds and souls
The first week, FMC participants shared some of their main stressors and the program focused on these.
“I think in this case we emphasized a little more, just trying to feed them — you know, in their hearts and minds and souls — because they've been giving and giving and giving and giving, and they just needed people who said thank you for believing in us,” says Brocke.
Prioritization was the biggest struggle and it was a two-part challenge. It is difficult to prioritize when you are stressed out, so Brocke delivered some tools to the group that they could immediately implement to reduce their own stress. Then, she provided the participants with different ways to sort through priorities, like the Eisenhower matrix.
Guss hopes the participants were able to take away a few nuggets that they could apply in these times of stress and uncertainty, but more important that they know there is a commitment to fostering resilience and continuity in supporting frontline leaders.
“This series was offered to our leadership team in a time of great stress,” says Barbara Jones, manager, Cardiac Surgery Services, Foothills Medical Centre. “The pleasant surprise was that Willow anticipated this and set us up for success and engagement from the very first moment we logged in. This sense of community made me feel less isolated, and normalized some of the feelings I was experiencing.”
Brocke has a few additional tips for leading through adversity:
- Permit vulnerability — This builds a culture of trust and the conditions where people can ask for help.
- Be flexible — Read the needs of your team and make adjustments along the way.
- Create boundaries — These need to be neither too rigid nor too spongy. Use these boundaries to find a way to act that is just for others as well as yourself.
- Be compassionate — When people are upset, at the centre there's often a longing, says Brocke. If you can hear the longing and respond to that, you will be able to shift them to a calmer state.
- Provide meaning –—The top three reasons people are unhappy at work as defined by Patrick Lencioni are: feeling anonymous, feeling like you don’t matter, and feeling like you do not make a difference. Connecting to your meaning and values helps to change toxic stress to something more manageable.
- Be true to your values — Values are an important guidepost to help a leader figure out how to keep balance.