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Management in Practice

Leading through COVID: An Alumni Conversation

We recently convened a group of Yale SOM alumni, leaders of organizations in a variety of industries, for a conversation about the evolving challenges they have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A screenshot of a Zoom discussion

In a recent online conversation, four Yale SOM alumni talked about their experiences leading organizations through the COVID pandemic. Yale SOM’s James Baron, an expert in human resources and organizational design, was the moderator. He began the conversation by asking each to describe their biggest challenges of recent months, and the solutions they have found.

Graham Browne ’15
Founder and Executive Director, Forte Preparatory Academy

I’m the founder and executive director of Forte Prep Academy. It’s a public charter school in Queens, New York, basically in the epicenter of the epicenter of the New York-based COVID crisis. We’ve been closed since March 16th and have been operating virtual school ever since. One of the biggest challenges for me is to balance what I see as a very real and urgent need to provide immediate support to our team and our families and our school community and balancing that with the goals of a school, which is to continue to deliver a high-quality academic product that not only feels different from what we are used to doing, but is almost even more important given the context. So having to hold both of those things, in my mind, has been one of the biggest challenges for me.

One thing that’s helped is just being comfortable with technology and also being insistent with our team from the onset of our school in 2017 to get comfortable with technology, and to experiment with it, and to integrate it into their instruction and their daily work. So the on-ramp to transitioning our school into the virtual realm was sort of smoother than it would have been. But there’s still lots to learn, but I think people had a foundation to become a little bit more adaptable. And that’s myself included.

Gail Harrity ’82
President and Chief Operating Officer, Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of the biggest challenges is this need to pivot so quickly in everything, in all of the activities of the museum. We had been aware of the outbreak because of the international activities of the museum—we had staff in China, in Italy. We started actually quite early in February with a COVID task force and sort of implementing restrictions on travel and quarantining people who were coming back from places where the virus was well entrenched. But we didn’t close down to the public in Philadelphia until March 13. And it was a radical shift. The earned revenues evaporated immediately for the museum— the museum relies financially on earned revenues, on endowment income, and on philanthropy. So I think the biggest challenge was to figure out a way to sustain the staff, to try to shift to everything to digital programing, and that was extremely, extremely tough.

I would say the other sort of interesting, less evident challenge was, in addition to all of the logistical and transactional changes, was really the shift in culture. Trying to focus quickly on what were the principal goals during this most challenging time. Suddenly just the protection of the collection, the protection of the building, the authority of the protection services director was much more paramount.

But I think what has been rewarding or responding to that challenge is that commitment of the staff to the mission of the museum, to reaching out and trying to reimagine and reemploy all of their talents to maintaining activities for the museum. And it’s been really impressive to see how well people have pulled together despite the dramatic changes.

The museum is well known for its educational programs, recognized as one of the museums with the most outreach of a major museum in the country. And very quickly everybody was trying to figure out how to help the school district, how to help with a lot of our special programing for veterans, for autistic children, for families. People are pulling together in a very remotely in an impressive way.

Amanda Skinner ’08
President and Chief Executive Officer, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England

At Planned Parenthood we have a three-legged-stool mission: we’re a healthcare provider, we’re the leading sexual and reproductive health educator in the country, and we’re an advocacy organization. All of those things were significantly impacted.

“The uncertainty is like trying to make decisions while you’re standing on a kaleidoscope. A quick turn to the left and the whole picture changes. A quick turn to the right, it all changes again.”

Another challenge that’s really coming to mind for me is the tremendous uncertainty that we are trying to operate in. A family member of mine described it as trying to make decisions while you’re standing on a kaleidoscope. A quick turn to the left and the whole picture changes. A quick turn to the right, it all changes again.

As an organization we typically serve people, in all of our work, who are otherwise marginalized by the broader healthcare delivery system. We serve vulnerable populations. Our prioritized communities are young people, women, people of color, immigrants, low-income people, people who really struggle to access healthcare. And so in addition to thinking about the uncertainty for us, I have been thinking about the uncertainty for them. And the way that this crisis is impacting their lives and how it is that we can be there for them throughout this. Our incredible staff has just really jumped in and shown their values and really lived those values.

We formed a coronavirus response team immediately, and my colleagues there have been tremendously valuable to me as thought partners in making these decisions. And one of the things that we did right away is establish some guiding principles that would guide our decision making in this time, and those have been very helpful to keep returning to. That we would, for example, prioritize the safety and well-being of our staff and our patients, because as a healthcare provider we couldn’t completely close; we are part of the social safety net for healthcare. We had to focus on being able to protect public health, so everything that we were doing when we were interacting with the public was designed around protecting the public health and helping to flatten the curve.

We had a guiding principle to maintain operational continuity as much as possible to continue to serve all of those elements of our mission. We had a critical guiding principle around centering equity and thinking about what equity really means for both our patients, and again our staff, and the people that we serve in the community. We are an organization that tries to do our work through a social justice lens, both internally and externally, and that was a big part of what we were doing. And then the last thing was trying to make decisions that thought about today, that thought about tomorrow, and thought about a hundred years from now. We were really focused on sustainability right now, but also much longer-term sustainability. Those guiding principles really helped us in dealing with the uncertainty and trying to make decisions on such an uncertain truth platform.

Matt Strauss ’08
Managing Partner, Tao Group

We are a company that is known for experience dining and experiences everywhere from rooftops to nightlife. And our largest hub is in New York City, so we are right in the epicenter of this crisis. The biggest leadership challenges on May 20 were different from what it was on March 9, when we made the decision to close across the board.

“We would have a five-hour meeting, and then a piece of news would come out an hour later and completely wipe away everything that we had put together.”

Today I would say the biggest challenge is that we’re in a constantly changing world with the need to constantly look at the most correct information at that moment and make decisions on that accordingly. And how frustrating it was in late February, early March where we were sitting in boardrooms—when we still could—and have five-hour meetings, and then a piece of news would come out an hour later and completely wipe away everything that we had put together as our new plan for delivery and how we’re going to do it. We stopped feeling safe to even let our people come into the restaurants at all because we didn’t have the knowledge of the virus to know how to keep our own people safe. And so definitely the changing information, how little we still actually know about this virus, is the biggest challenge on my brain today.

The biggest tool and skill is really a heightened version of EQ [emotional quotient] and really just trying to be detached of your emotions and especially detached of that thing that you were sure of was the solution two days ago, and that new information today is just telling you cannot be married to that great idea.

We like to believe we’re a company of high ethos. Both our employees and our guests really feel their lives through our brands. And in this entire process, how to take care of our own people and keep them engaged as much as possible, with 5,500 employees worldwide on March 8 when this thing started, and keeping them engaged to keeping our guests and people still keeping us top of mind. And connecting with those people that feel a lifeblood through us has been our big priority. And it’s been extremely difficult but I’m blessed to have a great team of partners. We work together, we all bring different things to the table, and really have come up with the best paths, that change very often, for us to figure out when it is we can figure out what reopening looks like.

In some cities, we’ve just recently starting delivery about two weeks ago—in Chicago, only now. To evaluate we are ascribing right now to a thesis of “he who opens first loses.” Which may not be the attack attitude but we really need to see what this virus is more and how it’s going to affect the restaurant industry. Our first steps towards looking to anything at all are outdoor venues to start. But we still don’t have a date down. We’re just constantly getting new information.

Watch the discussion: