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Leadership lessons from Kaiser Permanente’s COVID-19 response

In the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, two leaders at the Kaiser Permanente Baltimore Harbor Medical Center recognized widespread symptoms of stress among their teams. So, they invited everyone in the building to come together (wearing masks and standing at a safe, social distance) for five minutes every day. They played music and walked around, and instead of asking people, ‘What are you doing?,’ they asked, ‘How are you doing?” 

It wasn’t a meeting, said Terri Ellis, director of learning and organizational development for Kaiser Permanente. It was a community event. “And the impact was incredible,” Ellis said. 

Other Kaiser Permanente leaders adopted the Baltimore approach and implemented it in medical centers across the region where they work, watching the effects ripple across their teams. People relaxed; their spirits lifted. Ellis said it was a leadership lesson — one the organization may not have learned if it weren’t for the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The intention there was to give people a reprieve,” she said. “The unintended consequence is that people at the center felt a sense of community that was going by the wayside in the midst of the pandemic.”

“Thrive breaks” themselves were not unusual at Kaiser Permanente. These signature breaks had long been incorporated into lengthy meetings at the organization to give people a chance to stretch and release physical and mental tension. But during the pandemic, they took on a whole new meaning. As Ellis reflected on the chaos of 2020, she found several key takeaways that will impact leadership strategies at Kaiser Permanente, the region’s leading health care system (1), now and in the future. 

Leadership lesson: Embrace innovation

It is often said that 2020 was an unprecedented year, one that challenged organizations across all industries. But it also presented many of us a unique opportunity to learn and develop as leaders, Ellis said. 

“One key theme coming out of Covid-19 is this awareness of how innovative we can be, how creative we can be and how fast we can move when the structures and patterns that were set in a normal world melt away,” she said. “Covid-19 is an audacious challenge, and what we need to do to address it has brought out all kinds of other solutions that we may not have thought of.”

Those learnings have varied, depending on the work, Ellis said. For instance, some teams at Kaiser Permanente have had to continue showing up in person throughout the pandemic to deliver care to patients. That has brought certain safety challenges to the fore.

“How do you come together and do the work and drive results while also staying safe and staying connected?” Ellis said. “And for leaders, how do you lead in that context? It’s not business as usual. It’s everything from team huddles and rounding to making sure the psychological needs are being attended to as well, which are equally as important. It’s not enough to say, ‘Put your mask over your nose. Make sure you’re washing your hands.’ That’s critically important. It’s also critically important to say, ‘How do you feel? Do you need a mental break?’”

Even within the standard practices of team huddles and rounding, Kaiser Permanente leaders have found room for innovation. With rounding, a practice in which leaders “walk the floor” to interact with members of their teams, they have found a way to do it virtually. Using technology, leaders have been able to continue the practice remotely, connecting with employees and sharing important information or resources. 

When it comes to team huddles, which are intended to be short meetings at the start or end of the day, Kaiser Permanente leaders have created “huddle cards” that are sent to all managers daily. Those cards offer information on specific topics, questions and information managers can review with their teams — everything from updates on policies to wellness messages — which can build emotional intelligence and employee engagement over time. 

Leadership lesson: Engage your people 

The pandemic has also helped reinforce the fact that people are Kaiser Permanente’s most valuable resource, and the organization’s leaders are finding new ways to build the skill of employee engagement, Ellis said. 

“We’ve worked on this all along, and it’s just become so much more apparent — and so much more necessary,” Ellis said. “We need to learn how to engage our employees in the work that needs to be done and the problems we need to solve and the opportunities we need to go after. It’s not directive leadership; it’s communicating a vision that makes sense and empowering our teams to help get us there.”

To that end, leaders at Kaiser Permanente shifted quickly amid the pandemic from managing work to helping their teams and employees understand what decisions are being made, why they are being made and what those decisions mean to their day-to-day work. At the same time, they are actively looking to discover what their employees and teams need to stay healthy, both mentally and physically; how they can remove any barriers; and how to keep those employees connected. 

Case in point: Kaiser Permanente’s Partners in Care program, which focused on building a culture of service within the organization to better support each member and patient’s unique needs, shifted amid the pandemic to equip leaders with critical knowledge and skills to lead during times of uncertainty, such as: 

  • Identifying what employees need most. 
  • Helping employees move through the stages of fear to adoption when faced with change or uncertainty.
  • Ensuring employees feel respected and valued.
  • Encouraging employees to speak up about their safety and wellness needs. 
  • Reinforcing connections among employees and teams and helping them stay aligned with their priorities, performance and team collaboration. 
  • Modeling what it means to create caring moments for employees so that they do the same with members. 
  • Building resilience — both within themselves as leaders and within teams — through practices like mindfulness moments. 

Leadership lesson: Keep learning 

Ellis explained that even the expedited learning process with the Covid-19 pandemic was an evolution. Leaders began the year in a collective state of “unconscious incompetence:” They didn’t know what they didn’t know in regard to the pandemic. When Covid-19 hit, that morphed into a “conscious incompetence,” in which leaders have realized they don’t have all the answers. Now, Ellis said, leaders at Kaiser Permanente have transitioned into a state of “conscious competence.” 

“They know the safety protocols, how to enforce those protocols, how to support their teams, how to build connection and how to have real conversations in a virtual world,” Ellis said. 

The next step in the evolution is toward unconscious competence, which is comfortable, like running on autopilot. But it’s also dangerous, for one important reason, she said. 

“It’s like learning how to drive. When you’re learning how to drive, you’re focused on everything: the gear, the clutch, the brake. You’re consciously aware of every little step it takes, but at some point, it becomes an old hat and then you don’t even think about it. And that requires less energy. It’s automatic. But learning doesn’t happen there,” Ellis said. “That’s where this Covid-19 time is so challenging. It’s so hard, but it’s so rich because it’s learning and development, especially when it comes to leadership. Leaders need to embrace the opportunity to learn while the environment for learning is ripe.” 

To learn how you can improve the health of your workplace, visit Kaiser Permanente’s Covid-19 Return to Work Playbook. 

1. Disclaimer: In the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) 2019–2020 Health Insurance Plan Ratings, Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States’ private health plan is rated 5 out of 5, among the top 1% in the nation, and our Medicare health plan is rated 4.5 out of 5, the highest rating in DC, MD, and VA. The 2019 Commission on Cancer, a program of the American College of Surgeons, granted Three-Year Accreditation with Commendation to the Kaiser Permanente cancer care program. The Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group is the largest medical group in the Washington, DC, and Baltimore areas and exclusively treats Kaiser Permanente members. Permanente doctors are recognized as Top Doctors in Washingtonian magazine (2019), Northern Virginia Magazine (2020), Baltimore magazine (2019), and Washington Consumers’ CHECKBOOK magazine (2018). According to NCQA’s Quality Compass® 2019, we lead DC, MD, and VA in the following categories: colorectal screening, breast cancer screening, childhood immunizations combo 9, cervical cancer screening, and timeliness of prenatal and postpartum care for women. Quality Compass is a registered trademark of the NCQA.


Originally published on The Washington Business Journal.