People are always looking to leaders for something. Whether it’s advice on what decision to make or a solution to a problem they’re unable to solve, people need leaders. This is true throughout all of life, but there are times when the need for effective leadership is most apparent. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those times, especially in the healthcare industry.
In the following Q&A, HHS President of Environmental Services Scott Alexander discusses his approach to leadership, the challenges he’s facing due to COVID-19, and how he’s leading his team through this crisis.
What is your general approach to leadership?
I’ve always believed one of the most important characteristics of a good leader is the ability to remain calm in the face of adversity. Being a good leader doesn’t mean that everything is perfect all the time. That’s simply a pie-in-the-sky view of leadership. Good leaders are those who successfully lead their teams when things aren’t perfect. And that requires an ability to stay calm and collected in the face of adversity.
I’m often presented with problems that have passed through several layers of executives. By the time it reaches my desk, people are usually nervous because they haven’t been able to solve whatever the issue is. The best thing I can do is respond in such a way that instills confidence in them that together we’re going to solve whatever it is we’re dealing with.
What are some other characteristics of good leadership?
The first thing that comes to mind is being an effective communicator. In regards to developing others, you need to be able to both celebrate their strengths and be direct about their opportunities for improvement. People should always know where they stand within the organization and have comfort knowing that the leader has a vested interest in helping them improve. When you combine effective communication with an even keeled delivery, you build trust.
Trust is a major component of good leadership. People need to trust that when you’re providing direction, making a decision, or encouraging them to make a decision, that it is more than likely going to lead to a successful outcome. Simply put, if there is no trust, there is no leadership.
One final point on leadership I would like to share is the importance of having a personal interest in the success of your team members. Leaders should genuinely care about the people they lead and they shouldn’t be jealous of their success. Instead, they should celebrate it. It should be the goal of a leader to find the maximum elevation of everyone’s career. If one can be successful in this endeavor, the individual wins, but more importantly the team wins.
How has COVID-19 changed your role on a daily basis from a leadership perspective?
I’ve been in executive leadership for 20 years, and for my entire career, significant opportunities for improvement usually come to me on a weekly or monthly basis. Now, all of these leadership qualities are being demanded of me minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day. Every 24 hours is different from the previous 24 hours, and each week looks completely different from the last.
What does it look like to lead a large group of people in the midst of COVID-19?
I have six people who directly report to me and 35 others who indirectly report to me. I meet with that group of 41 executives every day, Monday through Friday, for about 30-45 minutes. These meetings are where we get daily updates and keep tabs on what the most pressing needs are from an operational standpoint. Every day presents a new set of challenges, so these meetings are critical to ensuring we have a unified game plan from the top down.
What’s the message you want to convey to our team members who are on the frontlines day in and day out?
Quite frankly, my message is to seize the day. I know it’s a scary time right now and there are a lot of reasons to be anxious and even afraid, but there’s never been a better time, in all my years in this business, to display our worth to our customers. Be the rock on which our patients and nursing staff can rely. If we’re doing our jobs at a high level, nurses can be confident that they are performing their jobs in a clean environment and patients can focus on their healing without worrying about the cleanliness of their environment.
What’s been the biggest challenge in getting that message communicated to each and every team member?
The biggest challenge is the complexity of the environment we’re in. Before COVID-19, executives frequently visited facilities, which allowed us to directly communicate with both our team members and our customers. Now we’re having to do a lot of that communication remotely.
We’re constantly adapting to the current environment so that we can still provide that same level of leadership in a non-direct fashion. This requires a heavy emphasis on two key elements of leadership previously discussed: communication and trust. It’s imperative that there is clear and concise communication, and that executives trust front line operators to exercise good judgment and execute the agreed upon directives.
What do team members need from their directors right now?
They need their directors to have confidence in their training and lead from the front. If a team member is afraid to enter a room, the best way to show them that it’s okay is to do it yourself. Once you show them you’re not afraid, it will help them overcome their own fears.
COVID-19 has highlighted how essential and valuable our housekeepers are. How have you been instilling that sense of purpose and value in your teams?
I truly want to show how grateful I am to them and appreciative of the work they’re doing. I’ve been receiving hundreds of notes from the field about specific individuals who are doing heroic deeds. So one of the things I’ve been doing is making about 60 personal phone calls every week to these team members. I’m using these calls to encourage them, get feedback from them, give them space to discuss some of their own anxiety and fears, and lastly, to make sure they know they’re saving lives and that they’re heroes in my book.
Do you have any helpful tips for how teams can stay on course throughout this pandemic?
I want people to know it’s okay to laugh even in difficult times like these. If the only thing we’re experiencing is stress, anxiety, and fear, our bodies become accustomed to that and begin to work in an anxious cycle. So I just want to encourage everyone to stop and take a second to notice the sky, the trees, the flowers, a child’s laugh, or whatever brings joy to them personally.
The world is still a wonderful place and it is good for the mind and body to periodically laugh with our family, friends, and coworkers. Laughter is a proven antidote for stress and should not be forgotten as a mechanism for coping within the COVID-19 environment.