Confessions of a CEO: 3 COVID lessons that changed my outlook on leadership
After more than 30 years in my career, and well before the pandemic, I was unconvinced that a remote or hybrid workforce could really work for us. In fact, many things I thought I knew about culture, collaboration in a workplace setting, relationships with customers, and people’s capacity for change, came crashing down … in the best possible way. Here is what I have learned along the way:
1. Nearly anything can be done in far less time than you think.
In March 2020, COVID-19 cases were drastically increasing, spread projections were moving at alarming rates, and the stakes were high. In a colossal feat of collaboration, technical agility, logistics, communications, and trust, we moved 97% of our 2,500+ employees to remote work within 10 days. Honestly, if we had 100 days to plan a transition to remote work, we might have taken 95 days to do it.
Our 10-day move to a remote work environment broke the box on my thinking of how fast things can and sometimes should be done. Making this big shift got everyone pointed in the same direction, and oddly enough, catching up on details took less effort than it takes to get some initiatives moving. The other nuance here is that we were totally transparent with our team and became comfortable telling people that we did not know all the answers just yet, and were quickly, and thoughtfully, working on solutions. That transparency, along with about 80 communication touchpoints every month, in fact, built more trust and increased our already-high engagement scores.
2. Customers can handle that you are not perfect.
Thinking about our customer experience, we moved from a very tight service operation to our representatives helping customers, providers, and employers from makeshift home office spaces, still maintaining service and privacy standards, yet with the occasional visit from kids and pets. My pre-COVID CEO thinking would have been concerned about what people would think. Instead, we were candid about service being handled from our homes and found that the people we served were so appreciative of the help, especially at a time when many service centers were closed or seriously understaffed.
Being transparent, and a little bit vulnerable, opened a channel that we did not expect. People were patient with the circumstance, after all we were all going through it together, and gracious in letting us know what they needed and what they preferred. We became more connected with each interaction and listened in a deeper way. Our hearts and ears were more open, and our customer scores improved.
3. When the mission is crystal clear, people have great capacity for change.
In January 2021, we received a call from the Arizona Governor’s office to coordinate volunteers for a 24/7 mass vaccination site. Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s health director, said the goal was “shots in arms.” At the time, Arizona was clocking more than 10,000 new cases a day. The stakes were high, the mission was clear, and the mass vaccination site – even with multiple private and public partners, extremely sensitive vaccine handling, and fledgling, fast-changing processes – was delivering shots in arms within seven days.
Leaders are known to move deliberately, sometimes slowly, so teams have time to adjust. Yet, teams who may have previously had a hard time responding quickly to change under normal in-office circumstances, managed to deliver 145,000 volunteer hours, giving a shot about every 10 seconds, 24/7, vaccinating 491,000 people in three months. The many great strategies that do not see the light of day because of lack of mission clarity or resistance to change should take a page from this playbook, as the teams embraced uncertainty, stayed flexible, and got the job done for Arizona.
As business leaders, our beliefs have been challenged. We would do well to keep a learner’s mind as we encounter a future that is forever changed. With a glimpse of what can be done, we may want to go farther and faster. We can help unlock and free up talent so that amazing teams of people can step up to do great things. And when it comes to customers, we can humbly listen with our hearts and confidently ask how we can do better.
Pam Kehaly is CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.