The COVID Pandemic: Crisis Leadership


The COVID Pandemic: Crisis Leadership

Dr. Paul Uliasz, President and Clinical Director

The Unprecedented Impact of Information Overload

The past few months have put us all to the test during this “unprecedented time” of the COVID-19 pandemic. In truth it was not an “unprecedented time.” Dental offices managed through SARS and H1N1. Every year we institute additional infection control measures during flu season. We have always adapted in the past. This time our reaction to the situation was very different.

What was “unprecedented” is that in today’s world we are bombarded with information 24/7 from endless news sources, social media, emails, and other sources. Especially during the first two months, there was an endless flow of news reports, health organization predictions, government reactions, and mandates. On top of that we had personal opinions being shared in person and online. The challenge for leaders was to sift through all of that and somehow decide on the best course of action for their practices, patients, and teams.

Leading in a Time of Uncertainty

For me the top priority in making decisions was to make sure the people I am responsible for were safe. Team member feelings about the crisis were all over the spectrum. Some were very scared and wanted to stay at home. Some acted like nothing had changed. To make the team feel safe, I had to be calm and stay positive.

I had to lead by example making decisions based on the facts and not getting caught up in the panic. I cannot remember a time when I had to make so many

decisions day after day or change my decisions so frequently. The situation was very fluid. The uncertainty caused us to revise our operations on what seemed like a daily basis. I had to try to anticipate all possible outcomes and constantly adjust my predictions as new information became available.

At the same time, I had to reassure my team we were going to come through this crisis. I let them know I was going to look out for them and help them get through this in any way I could. Before making decisions that were going to affect everyone, I tried to get a grasp on how everyone really felt. I asked. I listened. I showed them their opinion matters to me. Still I found that many were not able to be completely honest because they were afraid to disappoint me. I understood that and I still felt I got a pretty accurate sense of how people felt.

The Importance of Communication in Times of Crisis

I knew from the beginning that I had to stay in constant communication with my teams and our patients. Daily reassurance and direction were essential. Before we closed our practices, I visited each office frequently. The face to face interaction helped me get a sense of how people were really feeling. It showed them they were not on their own dealing with all the new challenges.

Because we prioritize communication in our normal business operations, we had private social networks for each office already in place. I kept in touch with the teams on those networks, posting information and updates frequently. I created weekly videos to update everyone about the latest developments and our plans and posted them on our social networks. One message that I repeated over and over was that I was 100% sure we were going to come back strong from this crisis.

Regular communication was so important during the weeks when the offices were closed. I wanted the team to know that we were going to come through this together. I received a lot of positive feedback about this approach from the team. I believe it helped us stay connected and come back from the crisis with enthusiasm and hope. That positive attitude has spread from our team to our patients.

Fortunately, we had good patient communication systems in place prior to the crisis. Updates and changes were shared with patients in emails, newsletters, on our website, and on social media. We kept our patients informed and let them know we were there for them. The crisis gave us a chance to show our patients how much we care about them.

Our communications focused not only on how the crisis affected their dental care. We also shared reliable information sources and resources for coping with the boredom of being stuck at home. We maintained communication during the shutdown, not just when we had an announcement to make. When we were ready to re-open, we were pleasantly surprised at the number of phone calls we received from patients who were eager to resume treatment or get caught up on preventive care.

Making the Hard Decisions

In the early weeks of the crisis, we stayed open, first for business as usual then for emergencies only because we did not want to abandon our patients. As the state shelter in place order approached, I faced the hardest decision of my life. Should we keep the offices open? What if we close them too soon? What is going to happen to our teams if we close? There were so many things to consider and the situation was very unpredictable.

In the end, the decision came down to doing the right things. Doing what is best for the health and safety for our teams and our patients rather than keeping production going. It came down to placing people over profit. Even so I waited until the last possible minute and it was painful to make the decision.

The most horrible thing was telling everyone that I had to furlough them. I would never have imagined I would have to do this. I am grateful that I have such an amazing team. Everyone understood why it had to be done.

Leading Us Back from the Shutdown

This situation showed me how in times of challenge, the true leaders in the organization step up and help. We were pleasantly surprised by some of the team members we would not have expected it from stepping up and being present to help us weather the crisis. We are fortunate to have many strong leaders in our organization. Because of them, we have come back faster than we thought was possible.

Throughout the shutdown, our leaders consistently conveyed their belief that we were going to come back strong. When it was time to re-open, we committed to a “Day One” mentality. By this I mean we approached the re-opening as if we were starting a new practice. We took nothing for granted and worked extra hard to provide the best dental experience to our patients. Our teams threw themselves into helping their practices come back strong. In Month One of our comeback, all practices had pre-pandemic schedules and production.

“Exceeding expectations” is one of our core values. We usually mean exceeding patient expectations. This time we exceed our own expectations (and they are pretty high). This accomplishment comes down to the commitment of our teams, careful planning, and the great leadership of our team members.