By Cari Guthrie

Reflections on Leadership During a Pandemic

I have been a CEO for almost 9 years and working in the behavioral health field for over 30 years. I have experienced and seen a lot of things – some amazing and wonderful and some sad and discouraging – but I have never gone through or expected to go through a pandemic. I have to say that I believe that Cornerstone Montgomery dealt with the pandemic very successfully even with the many ups and downs. Much of this I attribute to our amazing employees. From the beginning, they remained committed to the people we serve and flexible to the ever changing data. We were all learning together as information was updated almost daily. As a leader, I was constantly evaluating all the information, what to do about it and how to share it with staff. Every day, I reflected on what I needed to do to reassure staff and clients and keep things moving forward. Even now, as COVID concerns continue, I am still learning about myself as a leader.

What lessons will I take with me into the future? There are many that I can share.

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate – and when you aren’t sure what to do, communicate some more! We realized early on that communication was going to be key with all of the changing data and misinformation that was available. Our management team met 3 times a week at first because the information was changing almost daily and we wanted to be on the same page. We had a couple of staff send out all staff emails with misinformation. So, we immediately locked down all staff emails so that only I could send them. We kept that in place for several months until we felt that the risk was minimal. Throughout the pandemic, I have been the point person for all communication so that we could keep it consistent. At first, I was sending out multiple emails a week with updates about COVID, PPE, and service delivery. After about 6 months, those emails became weekly and now they are 1 – 2 times per month. We created a covid questions email address that went to identified medical staff and myself so that anyone could ask a question at any time. We posted all updates on our employee intranet so they could easily find the information.
  2. Resources, resources, resources! Look under every rock and reach out to every contact when you need help. When we realized that we weren’t going to be able to find the PPE we needed, we turned to volunteers and friends. We reached out and accessed every contact and resource that we knew and heard about. Staff made our own hand sanitizer from recipes online, volunteers and donors gifted us with masks – both homemade and purchased, we accessed county and state resources for funding and PPE and we were able to provide everything that our staff needed to do their jobs safely throughout the pandemic. We used grant money to install an HVAC air cleaning system at all three administrative buildings. We applied for and received state and federal COVID funding including PPP. While we had one client pass away very early on and many clients and staff test positive, we only had one outbreak at one of our 24 hour group homes. At all other locations we were able to contain the infection to 1 or 2 initial people with no further spread. This is a huge success for both staff and clients who followed the protective protocols every day.
  3. Be flexible whenever possible. We had to pivot quickly and adjust to telehealth and remote work. Because we were flexible and had the IT resources in place, we were able to do this quickly and efficiently. Yes, there were hiccups, but they were resolved for both staff and clients. We had to be flexible with following CDC guidelines that seemed to change everyday at first. Our management team met regularly and made adjustments along with the science. In fact, we were often ahead of the curve when it came to closing offices, requiring masks, and even the vaccine mandate. We also had to be flexible with staffing – while no one left their jobs in the first year, 2021 was not the same. Turnover has been as high as 40% and qualified candidates are limited. We have had to be flexible with schedules, capacity, and the budget – realizing that COVID is going to have an impact on all of these things for months to come.
  4. Make the tough decisions and don’t have regrets. There have been days during this pandemic where I did not like my job – and that is very unusual for me. Deciding to close programs, to close down the offices, to require masks and other PPE and most recently to mandate vaccines have all led to some resistance. I realized early on that I would have to be the one to make the decisions – with input from a variety of people – but I would have to own it and hold to it myself. There were many people who thanked me for making these decisions, but it’s the ones who disagree that make you question and doubt things the most. I am sorry that we had to make these decisions, but I do not regret a single one of them. Safety was the priority and it had to be so that we could continue to serve our clients in the community.

I am truly proud of how Cornerstone Montgomery has gone through the pandemic. I believe that we will be stronger because of it and that it will help me be a better leader going forward.