Leadership Series 5: Leading in a Turbulent Time

Leaders have an obligation to continually fine-tune their leadership approach in disruptive times to maximize the success and resilience of their teams.

In my last leadership article, I noted that the increasing pace of change in healthcare has increased the need to build more interdependent, highly-adaptive, and high-performing teams. The pandemic has accelerated change and greater turbulence but it has also provided opportunities to improve care and foster highly innovative research. The keys to surviving in challenging times and emerging stronger are adaptability, empathy, and mentorship.

Adaptability. The fundamental quality of a high performance team is adaptability. An effective leader cultivates this quality in each team member. The end goal is to enable those you direct to make their own decisions and maintain their passion for exceptional care in the clinic or for innovative research in the laboratory. In fact, during a complete shutdown of our laboratories during the early days of the pandemic, my own laboratory held strategic meetings by Zoom, wrote several review articles, submitted new grants, and planned new experiments that enabled us to hit the ground running once labs reopened. These reflective exercises led to a highly productive period and generated new insights into the genetic mechanisms of the therapeutic resistance of cancer.

Adaptability increases as leaders communicate an overall vision without being overly prescriptive. In a recent article in Entrepreneur leadership consultant Jerry Connor mentioned the importance of looking ahead rather than back and being able to respond to the increasing pace of change by adopting “fast-cycle experimentation” Rather than predict future scenarios during disruptive times, effective leaders focus their teams on actions that are most appropriate in the short-term, adjusting as results emerge.

Being Empathic. My experience leading high-performance clinical programs or laboratory research teams has taught me that one has to lean into the change rather than roll with it. When COVID-19 first appeared, I had to establish how my team could best perform under the new pressures of remote work and online and intra-team communications. I had to be more empathetic and understand the burdens others were facing as they balanced work and new home responsibilities. This was particularly true for young women physicians and scientists who bore the brunt of these challenges, and in many cases were burning out. Leaders also have an obligation to create opportunities for people of color and people who identify with genders other than male and female, and to understand the extra pressure all these scientists feel to gain equitable recognition for their work. According to McKinsey & Co., companies that exhibit real diversity are 35% more likely to demonstrate high performance. I believe such statistics apply to our clinics and research laboratories too.

Resilience. To be effective during turbulent times, leaders need to inspire confidence and provide bold yet steady vision. But they also must stay close to the day-to-day realities of their team. This means getting into the details of the lab’s research, being continually available for trainees, and identifying issues and alternative strategies as needed. I found that frequent brief one-on-one communications were key to support my team this past year. In these exchanges, it’s important to provide both operational and scientific help as well as strategies to manage stress and to encourage creative responses to change.

The sudden disruptions and ongoing uncertainty wrought by the pandemic have created chronic stress for individuals in both their home and work lives. Fear for the health of their family combined with dramatic work-life changes in both research and in teaching have put people under tremendous strain. Giving people agency during these times to make decisions provides them with more control, which in turn helps them manage anxiety. Team members can become closer and work together better. Turn the traditional top-down model upside down and encourage innovations to come from the team.

Understand your people. Guiding your team members in a time of change is critical for long-term success. Here one needs to understand the physiological reaction to change. In my experience, I have found that approximately 25 percent of individuals readily embrace change and indeed thrive in it, 25% chronically struggle with change and are difficult to coach through change, and the remaining half will tolerate change and adapt positively to it if given steady guidance and support. To foster such positive transformation, one needs to create opportunities for individuals and find tailored solutions to enable them to realize their full potential. Individuals who can adapt to change will do well if leaders invest effort in their mentorship.

For more on this, take a look at my website series on leadership. So much more can be said about being a change agent in a time of change. These articles provide just a glimpse into the being a catalyst for change and maximizing opportunity for all.

By Ron DePinho

Other Articles in the Leadership Series:

Leadership Series 1:
Striving for Excellence in Healthcare Leadership

Leadership Series 2:
Mentoring Matters

Leadership Series 3:
Achieving Success as a Biotech Leader

Leadership Series 4:
Developing and Leading High-Performing Healthcare Teams

Leadership Series 5:
Leading in a Turbulent Time

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