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How we lead determines who will follow

Everyone in an executive position knows what it feels like when a problem arises and all eyes turn to you for direction.

This is a moment of truth for any leader – whether you’re the CEO of a large corporation or a mid-level manager – because how you respond will leave a lasting impression on your team. It can make or break your career.

Dr. Roxanna Gapstur, president and CEO of WellSpan Health, found herself in that position in January with the arrival of the novel coronavirus. As CEO she’s in charge of more than 20,000 employees, including 2,700 doctors, in a health system that includes eight hospitals across six counties. And now a highly contagious virus had washed ashore, threatening millions and potentially causing an avalanche of the ailing that could overrun the nation’s health systems.

That’s a lot to put on anyone’s plate. So, when Central Penn Business Journal/Lehigh Valley Business healthcare reporter Ioannis Pashakis and I sat down to chat with Dr. Gapstur via Zoom about WellSpan’s response to the crisis, I was curious to know how she prepared the company for what lay ahead.

It’s hard to imagine a worst scenario for any health care leader to face, but Gapstur, who only joined WellSpan in January 2019, leaned on her experiences as a nurse treating AIDS patients during the epidemic in the 1980s, and the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014-2016.

Like COVID-19, little was known about either disease at the time, she said. And the takeaway from that experience, for her, was the importance on learning as much as possible about the threat. When it comes to facts, she said, “Gather as many as you can.”

Gapstur started paying attention to news of the virus coming out of China in December.

“I think, as a nurse and health care exec for as long as I have been, anytime I hear of emerging infections anywhere around the work, it perks my ears up a little bit,” she said.

Perhaps with a sense of deja vu, she told her executive teams in January to start plotting a COVID-19 strategy for the health system. By February, a command center was in place to shore up the supply chains that kept the system running.

WellSpan reached out to neighboring companies for help with logistics and supplies. And became one of the first to set up outdoor testing sites. So far, they’ve tested more than 20,000 people in the region.

“Early in March we identified that this will be something that will impact our community,” she said. “We thought right away that testing was a priority for us.”

As human beings we learn from every situation survived, every puzzle solved and failure endured, and, hopefully, use those experiences to guide us to higher ground. Those lessons, some of them agonizing, become the capital we spend in hard times.

In the good times, we make tweaks, study our processes and try to anticipate what’s coming next.

“Part of how I lead is, I … like to get as much information as I can,” Gapstur said. “I’m also kind of a steady Eddy around stuff like this, so I like to plan and think through things. Starting early allows that time to be thoughtful and careful; it allows time to communicate with my board and senior leadership team.”

No one anticipated where we would be today, but a decision by WellSpan to reorganize its resources last fall to increase the value of their service, put the system in a good position to act quickly during the pandemic, Gapstur said. The changes enabled WellSpan to get supplies, such as personal protection equipment to its hospitals seeing the most COVID cases.

Gapstur deflects credit to her staff, saying she’s fortunate to work with “smart, talented people.” “And that, of course, can make leaders look like they’re doing a great job,” she said.

Throughout our interview, Gapstur made references to her colleagues and the roles they played in the preparing WellSpan for this time. That humility is a simple thing, maybe, but it’s an important trait for anyone who manages people to develop.

I learned this from a boss I had at Girard Bank in Philadelphia when I was a student at Temple University. Her name was Lois and she was a short, fireplug-shaped woman, who was smart, funny, quick to praise, and just as quick to let you know when you were screwing up. But we loved her, because she showed respect for everyone, and in return, we did our best for Lois.

Garry Lenton is managing editor of Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.

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