What Have the Past 6 Months Taught Health Leaders About Work During a Crisis?

We asked experienced health leaders Doug Watson, CFO at Dignity Health Arizona, and Ginger Figg, former CAO at Norton Medical Group, what leaders can learn from managing the COVID-19 crisis.


Many trends have been transforming healthcare radically. The U.S.’ current capital-intensive model had already been under pressure as communities experience shifts in healthcare needs. At the same time, technology and automation offer alternative business and delivery models. And when the coronavirus hit the nation, it accelerated some trends and inverted others. There’s unparalleled pressure on health leaders to steer their organizations in ways that will keep populations healthy, deliver the best care possible, and do so in a way that is financially sustainable. 

We asked experienced health leaders Doug Watson, Chief Financial Officer at Dignity Health Arizona, and Ginger Figg, former Chief Administrative Officer at Norton Medical Group, about what leaders can learn from the past 6 months of managing the COVID-19 crisis. 

Is your communication truly transparent, authentic, and compassionate?

It’s no secret that communication is important — you’ve heard it a hundred times. Yet how many times do leaders reflect if their communication is truly all it should be? Ginger reached out to several former colleagues to get their perspective on what are the greatest learnings we can extract from the situation and was once again reminded that communication is key during a crisis situation.

“The principle might seem basic, yet it’s not always easy to implement. It’s essential not to make decisions in silos, to have daily conversations so that all stakeholders are able to understand what’s going on across the organization. The goal of conversations should not only be to share information and be transparent but also to understand the gaps and challenges, to make it a true two-way street of information and human connection. As a leader, you may not always have all the answers but willingness to be open helps to comfort concerned individuals. There have been many furloughs and pay reductions, so we’re in a situation where healthcare professionals are not only concerned about themselves and their family’s health but also about their ability to put food on the table. These people need to see that comfort from their leader.”

Allow situational leadership

In line with Ginger’s notion of not always having all of the answers, Doug recalls that great leaders know when others might be better equipped to handle certain situations, especially with the rapidly changing environments that crises create.

"A lot has happened, so there’s a lot we’ve learned. In the beginning of the pandemic, we were occupied with coping. We were trying to figure out what was going to happen. We had shortages of PPE. We were facing many challenges,” he reflects. “Then, when the lockdowns occurred, we went from normally having a busy season to virtually having no elective procedures and not having enough work for people to do. That meant we had to try and figure out how we can take care of our workforce. People can’t just be furloughed without consequences, so we had to find ways to manage flextime and other things to keep everybody engaged. Then the surges in infections happened and it went from being very quiet to being overwhelming very quickly — we had too much work that had to be done. As a leader, you were in a situation where you’re asking people from being furloughed, or, in our case, flexing down, to flexing up in a big way and to work extra shifts because you can’t find others to come in fast enough to help you. Then Arizona dipped back down and had a period close to normalcy. Now the infections are ramping back up again rapidly.


"There are a couple of lessons learned. The first one is that there’s a concept of situational leadership. As a leader, you have to recognize that sometimes the person whose title is in charge is not the one who should be in charge. The COVID pandemic is a clinical crisis so when you’re trying to figure out what to do, the clinicians are the ones who have to take the lead. They’re on the ground and know what we’re trying to deal with. Our CMO Dr. Keith Frey and our CNEO Robin Shepherd both stepped up. As leaders, you have to be responsive to these shifts and not enforce your title when there are other people who can better address the immediate issue.”



(Re-)establish the goals and mission

“You have to be very clear about the goals of the organization, what you’re trying to accomplish, how you’re going to go about it, and what values you have in the process,” continues Doug. “We’re very fortunate to have a very strong mission and set of values so that is something we can come back to.”

Finding the balance between consensus and timeliness in decision-making

“Another learning that was crucial is that we have to ensure that people understand how we make decisions,” adds Doug. “In some cases, you have to reach a larger group consensus. In other cases, you have to empower people to make the decisions with parameters on the field — during a crisis, there are some things that can’t wait. And then sometimes, you have to call it from the top and you have to help people understand how you make decisions. You have to be able to just tell them that you considered everything, and have come up with a solution that they need to make happen because there’s no time to revisit.


Either way, the way to approach decision-making is with clarity: Be clear about what you’re trying to do and how you’re going about doing it. If you make a mistake, fail fast, re-group, and redirect. Having commitment and transparency is critical.”

Get more leadership insights in the full interview

Hear more insights from Ginger, Doug, and other top leaders like Deborrah Himsel, Executive Coach, Author, and Adjunct Faculty in Management and Organizations at Eller Executive Education; three-time World Championship winner and two-time Olympic medal winner in the shot put John Godina, and host Joe Carella, PhD, Faculty and Former President at Eller Executive Education in the session A Winning Mindset: Achieving Greatness for the Future of Healthcare on the right.