Children's Hospital Association: Preserving Organizational Culture During a Crisis
By Paul Kempinski
In March 2020, I had been president and CEO of Children’s Mercy Kansas City for 16 months. The new executive leadership team was in place, and we had examined, rewritten and committed to our vision, mission and values. We had just polished a five-year strategic plan and announced a goal of achieving top-decile performance in our True North pillars of quality, safety and patient experience. Planning was complete, and we were excited to begin implementation.
One day after our board approved the strategic plan, COVID-19 hit. Overnight, we sent 2,300 employees home to work. Over the next few weeks, our surgical and outpatient volumes dropped more than 70%. Our emergency department and urgent care volumes decreased 57% and 67%, respectively. Admissions slid 32%. We were losing $1 million a day, every day, for three months.
Determining what measures to take to address the shift in operations and to stem the financial bleeding was difficult but deciding how to approach the challenge was not. An organization under duress could have simply paused its vision, rationalizing that those goals become secondary during a crisis. But our mission, vision and values do not work that way.
We decided to pull them closer, to allow them to guide our decision-making. Any organization that is preparing to confront a crisis but leaves its vision, values or mission behind is entering the battlefield unarmed. Values are not weights that hold organizations back during a crisis; they are the compass that points the way forward.
As the pandemic wore on, we emphasized to our team that social distancing should not mean leadership isolation. The opposite was required. More than ever, our employees needed to see their leaders leading and know that we cared.
To make sure our messages in response to the pandemic were understood, we held virtual town halls for employees and community pediatricians. We started a series of virtual roundtables with business and civic leaders because it was important for them to understand the pandemic’s devastating effect on the region’s only pediatric health system.
We started a biweekly telecast for employees called “CEO Live Connect,” which continues today. I discuss the latest hot topics, such as the escalating mental health crisis with the corresponding rise in assaults on our staff. I use this 15-minute conversation to connect our actions to our mission by telling a “Connect to Purpose” story.
Keeping our focus on patients and families became harder as the months wore on and the pandemic took its toll on the well-being of health care workers. In alignment with our values of kindness, team and inclusion, we searched for new ways to support our staff. These included senior leader well-being rounds, virtual guided daily meditations and team well-being assessments. Those efforts have been so successful that they have evolved into business-as-usual.
Ours is a relationship-based business that relies on people. Our people must be inspired by a culture that engages them in meaningful and purposeful work and enables them to realize their full potential. At Children’s Mercy, we describe that in a simple phrase: “Mission forward, people focused.”
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