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12 tips for leading a team through crisis management

Published on 4/8/2020

With a worldwide pandemic underway, everywhere you look, leaders are stepping up to take on the privilege and challenge of leading teams through this global crisis.

One month ago, the contagious nature of the novel COVID-19 virus created a burning platform requiring immediate action to ensure Cerner was prepared to maintain business continuity to serve our clients and protect the safety and health of Cerner associates. With the growing recognition that the virulence and speed of the outbreak could overwhelm the health system we are a key part of, we established the COVID-19 Taskforce to help guide our associate response, establish an ongoing review of associate and client impacts of the Coronavirus outbreak, and enact business resilience plans. 

Keeping associates safe was our primary mission and the key to serving clients, therefore I asked Dr. David Nill, Cerner’s Chief Medical Officer to co-lead the taskforce with me and we assembled representatives from across the company. Leaders from Cerner clinics, Support Services, HR, Legal, SSE, Properties, Security, Finance, the Transformation Office, our global offices and Marketing joined the taskforce without hesitation.

In a matter of weeks, we’ve made enormous recommendations and decisions for our business in partnership with the Executive Committee. From a remote work strategy across the globe to severe travel restrictions, this team has worked literally around-the-clock to prioritize the health and safety of our associates, our clients, their patients and our communities. Many of us had never worked together before, but along the way, we’ve developed close-knit relationships and bonded over our common purpose. And, we’ve all learned a few lessons about forming a team in times of crisis.

As I reflect on the last month, the success of our team boils down to 12 key takeaways.

  1. Alignment on mission. For our team, protecting the health of our associates was the priority for all, and kept us going on long days and through obstacles. Identifying the mission and keeping it central to all our work enabled us to move quickly, engage others and avoid analysis paralysis. 
  2. Look ahead for downstream risks and opportunities. The speed of this challenge required us to make decisions quickly in a haze of uncertainty. Having the ability to look ahead while responding to the windshield was crucial to forecast the future impact of our decisions.
  3. Choose the right team members that bring together diverse perspectives. We included representatives from across different business units to ensure we had the expertise needed to make timely assessments and rapid decisions. Team member attributes needed to work this crisis included determination, the courage and willingness to take intelligent risks, persistence in the face of difficulties or objections, and the resilience to learn quickly and move forward regardless of setback or adversity. And, there’s no room for ego in a crisis. Humor was (and remains) a key success factor! When you work long hours, a little humor goes a long way.
  4. Contact those with critical skills. A diversity of expertise and personality types helped us quickly arrive at the solid decisions. For example, we needed Bill Graff and his organization as a key partner so we could support a virtual workforce. Being agile in this approach worked too. As the situation evolved, we expanded our team to include more voices to be sure we were inclusive of different operational leaders, effectively communicating and accelerating our ability to make decisions.
  5. Use data. Emotions run high when people are scared. We kept returning to facts to help us make the right choices. We found sources of truth and consistent data and remained open to changing direction on the fly when the data and trends dictated it.
  6. Listen to feedback. While empirical data was crucial for making decisions, we also realized the scope, speed and potential damage of the outbreak was difficult to comprehend. We were marinating in events, but others were still two or three weeks behind us in understanding the threat, which meant we needed to acknowledge the gap, inform and be willing to listen to feedback from others, balancing their perspective with data to make the best decisions.
  7. Add structure. It may seem counterintuitive, but structure can help organize chaos. Regular meetings, reporting, tracking on milestones and even basics like consistent note taking and file saving helps to clear obstacles when moving quickly. For our team, this meant daily meetings of our taskforce alongside twice-daily communications meetings, and daily updates for Cerner’s Executive Committee.
  8. Stay accessible. With the speed of response needed in this crisis, having access to channels like Microsoft Teams and chat abilities enabled us to continue moving efforts forward between meetings, quickly communicate and land decisions when needed.
  9. Deliver on your promises. This takeaway goes in many directions. From promises to our associates—like consistent communications delivered at a certain time—to promises to your team members, consistent follow-through has been key to building relationships and trust with the team and our stakeholders.
  10. Overcommunicate. Communicating frequently, with transparency, authenticity and predictability to all stakeholders helped the organization align around protecting associates and serving clients.
  11. Adapt quickly. Often, we made the right decisions—but not always. Acknowledging our mistakes quickly, adjusting and moving on has served the taskforce well.
  12. Recognize others. Last, and perhaps the most important observation, leading the team in the face of this crisis gave me a first-hand view to the inspiring ways our colleagues have risen to the occasion. It reminded me to take the time to recognize your partners. Whether verbally, via email, a simple thank you note or recognition to their leaders—make the time to show your appreciation.

This crisis isn’t over and there is a lot more to do. But Cerner’s response has shown the character, commitment and extraordinary capabilities of the associates we all work with every day. It’s a privilege to lead Cerner’s COVID-19 taskforce and I am grateful to all our team members, leaders and associates for the opportunity to serve alongside you.