Leadership in a pandemic
The spotlight has been shining on Australia’s healthcare industry as the rest of the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic. Media coverage has been intense and alarming, with news bulletins filled with scenes of hospital ICUs at breaking point as the pandemic has taken hold.
In Australia, we are preparing for these worst-case scenarios.
Fortunately, we can look back now, knowing we had enough time to prepare and that our healthcare services were up to the task. There has been a tragic loss of life as a result of COVID-19 but, in comparison to the rest of the world, our strategies and planning to handle the outbreak have worked well.
Health authorities understand the threat of a second wave of the virus, hence their decision to take small steps in loosening lockdown laws and allowing people to return to lives that resemble the pre-pandemic days.
During this crisis, our medical authorities have been given 24/7 access to broadcast messages to the public — from this, leaders have emerged.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth, standing side by side with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has been a reassuring sight. In addition, we’ve seen television commercials featuring the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, reinforcing the message, especially the need for social distancing.
It is this leadership in our industry that has been so vital in this crisis.
Leadership in a crisis
With the speed of response required, health workers heard news updates at about the same time as other Australians. Moving forward, we need to consider more closely our world of internal communications. Generally speaking, the public relations advice to an organisation would be to begin communications inside before going outside (to the external audience).
In other words, everyone in health care should know their role first and, when the plan is announced to the wider world, they can act and respond with confidence. In emergency pandemic situations, this isn’t, and can’t always be, the case.
With COVID-19 and National Cabinet decisions being announced moments after meeting, it was understandable that, in many cases, the public and health workers were sharing information at the same time. That isn’t to say that medical authorities and health leaders weren’t prepared for the new action, as they themselves would have been recommending these steps. The Prime Minister acknowledged this when he confirmed he was relying on medical advice in dealing with health issues. But as the situation moved on, the focus also turned to economic advice, hence the appearance of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to also speak on these issues.
There is no question that there has been strong leadership from our politicians and medical experts during the crisis, and the overall impression of the health industry is that it is in good shape.
Further down the track, once the heat has evaporated in this crisis, it would be good to review how internal communications faired during the crisis.
Until we have a vaccine, there are no guarantees this crisis will not return in the future. An internal comms review, analysing how we could do better, would enable the healthcare industry to identify any shortcomings, be even better prepared and ensure internal communication channels are working smoothly and even more efficiently next time.
Future opportunity for better internal communications
The healthcare industry is so large that any review of internal communications needs to be extensive and broad. When the time is right, the industry should see these moments as opportunities to strengthen and sharpen focus and processes.
A global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic creates change, and the upside of this is the provision of new opportunities. Good internal communications are the key to delivering a high standard of customer and employee experience. It is no good leaving employees in the dark. Any internal communications plan should spearhead leadership efforts by consistently communicating with employees, in a cascading series of messages, so they feel engaged, empowered, confident and are clear about the goals of the organisation. This is integral to ensuring that employees can act and do their part in achieving these goals.
We must acknowledge that there are different layers of leaders — it is important that all leaders are involved in conversations about internal communication strategies to critique and assist. To deliver on key opportunities and goals, leaders need to listen to the impact of decisions flowing from the top and the representation from their constituency. I use the word constituency deliberately because what I am proposing isn’t dissimilar to what we expect from our politicians. We elect our representatives to parliament on the understanding that they are meant to listen and put our views into the melting pot of decision-making.
In a business world it is understood that a more unified work environment, where there is a direct and positive relationship with employee engagement, will create a more productive and profitable business.
Leadership at different levels
Our leaders have a responsibility to engage and inspire the people that work on behalf of an organisation or business. Research shows that employees feel more engaged when they receive inspiring communications from senior leaders.
Before COVID-19 took hold, bushfires left a trail of destruction across Australia. Our firefighters were heroes, just like the men and women on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former Head of the Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, showed true leadership. When reflecting on the work of the volunteers that so bravely fought the fires he said, “The real challenge as a leader is to bring people with you.”
The health industry can now reflect on this time and learn, adapt and evolve accordingly.
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