Swinford: Multiple Crises of 2020 Can Be Opportunities to Accelerate Positive Change

To borrow from Thomas Paine, 2020 has certainly been a time to try people’s souls. From the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, to escalating conversations about race and racism, to natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires, this year has tested people’s perseverance and taken them out of their routines and comfort zones across the country and the world.

But while just holding on can feel like a full-time job these days, Numotion CEO Mike Swinford has taken a different approach. Absolutely, the essentials — are employees and their families safe, are our customers being taken care of safely, and is the business safe? — were job number one. But beyond that, Swinford has authored a new whitepaper that examines whether a time of crisis can actually be a time of reflection, renewed determination, and growth.

Looking for Ways to Excel

The paper, “Responding with Clarity and Purpose to the Events of 2020,” comes at a time when the world is acknowledging that the challenges of this year will ripple into next year… and possibly longer than that.

The whitepaper is a deep dive into a year that’s brought enormous and often painful changes on multiple fronts. But it’s also a testimonial of how Swinford believes leaders and the Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) industry can and should respond. While the paper discusses financial and operational practices to keep a business healthy in tough times, it just as often talks of the importance of taking care of employees, their families, consumers, and the community. As much as the paper acknowledges how hard perseverance can be, the paper also talks about opportunities to grow.

The four main talking points of the whitepaper are Being Truly Essential to Our Customers; Relentlessly Pursuing a Caring Culture and Unlocking Employee Engagement; Courageously and Openly Embracing Diversity and Inclusion; and Adapting and Accelerating Through a Crisis to Profoundly Transform and Grow. Each talking point features examples of how Numotion has responded. For example, Numotion’s illustrations of Being Truly Essential discussed how the provider quickly adjusted to the pandemic by shifting more than 2,000 employees to work at home within 48 hours, securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees who needed to work in the field, and accelerating the company’s telehealth and remote services’ capabilities.

In an interview with Mobility Management, Swinford began by acknowledging how difficult the year has been, and throughout the wide-ranging conversation, he repeatedly circled back to the well-being of Numotion’s team.

“There is no doubt that we’re all living it, every single one of us,” he said about the stress of 2020. “We’re all dealing with some form of anxiety and challenges. We used to plan for the weekends and vacations and trips and dinners out, and all that is on hold. The whole idea of looking forward to something has just been out the window, month after month after month for pretty much everybody. We’ve had several different surveys and discussion sessions with our teams to understand their anxieties. We’ve tried to do everything in our power to ease that burden.”

Asked specifically what company leaders can do to help employees during difficult times, Swinford mentioned the importance of clear communication. “We communicated several months ago that we didn’t see any real change this year,” he said as an example. “So everybody who was working from home is going to continue to work from home through the end of the year and probably into 2021. The more we can just be transparent and forward-thinking about how we see this playing out can really ease some of the anxiety and stress — just the anxiety of ‘Are we going to have to go back to the office? Because I’ve got homeschooling challenges and everything else.’ Everyone is dealing with so much.”

Leading Through the Storms

Swinford’s strong belief in meeting tough times head on can be traced back to the terrible hurricane season of 2004. “I often refer to the four most influential people in my career: Jeanne, Frances, Ivan and Charley,” he said of four powerful hurricanes that year. “I was living in south Florida, and the eyes of both Jeanne and Frances came directly over my house. I had two little kids, and we evacuated both times. Those experiences shaped me in more ways than I can describe from a leadership experience.”

Then in 2005, Swinford was working at GE Healthcare when Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast. “All we did was focus on taking care of our employees and their issues and our customers and all their issues,” he said of the storm’s aftermath. “And we did that for nearly two straight months, all day, every day. I saw our culture and the results of our business just excel so transformationally that it was a huge learning experience for me.”

He saw, Swinford said, that in desperate circumstances, leaders need to push forward. “They present such a unique opportunity to be laser focused,” he said of challenging times. “Many, many people across many industries get paralyzed with everything happening and getting stuck in survival mode, rather than thinking, ‘This too shall pass, and how we lead through it will define how we come out of it on the other side.’ So for me, past experiences have been defining moments that really make me think first and foremost, we’ve got to make sure we’re healthy as a company. We’ve got to take the appropriate cost measures, we’ve got to have appropriate cash preservation measures. But once you’ve done that and once you can handle, absorb and deal with your projections of worst-case scenarios, then you quickly turn, take a look at your strategy, and you say, ‘Are there aspects of our strategy that we need to change? That we need to delete? Or are there things we should add to our strategy? Are there things we need to accelerate and just step on the gas? Certainly, remote service and telehealth fall into that category.”

Through September 2020, Numotion had conducted 7,600 telehealth sessions this year.

Swinford pointed as well to the myNumotion.com app, which currently has more than 60,000 users, and he’s proud that the Numotion team has significantly improved its delivery times while simultaneously keeping employees and customers safer during the pandemic. “Everything that we focus on is very much around number one, our employees, and number two, our customers and customer experience,” he said. “Coming through this crisis has let us sharpen our focus on our employees and our customers to make sure that we’re doing everything and running every decision and every initiative through that lens of ‘Is this going to help the well-being of our employees and is this going to help the well-being of our customers?’ That really allows us to be focused on all that’s important. And it allows us to de-focus on what’s not.”

The pandemic has confirmed, Swinford added, how crucial CRT is to the consumers who use it. “The crisis has amplified how essential we truly are to our customers. Obviously, we’ve always been essential to our customers from a mobility and independence standpoint. But in the midst of a pandemic, when many of our customers fall into very high-risk categories, it is that much more important to keep them out of emergency rooms, to keep them away from others who might be infected. It went from really feeling fortunate that we were considered an essential business to really feeling the weight of the world of truly being essential to a population that deserves nothing but the best support, the best products. That’s a pretty heavy responsibility, but it’s been very rewarding and it’s been a very positive thing.”

Vulnerability, Passion & Transparency

The United States was already in the thick of the pandemic in late May when Minneapolis police officers confronted George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store. After Floyd died while being arrested, four police officers were charged in his death, and the country faced a reckoning on race relations.

Two of Swinford’s whitepaper points — Relentlessly Pursuing a Caring Culture and Unlocking Employee Engagement, and Courageously and Openly Embracing Diversity and Inclusion — are tied to Numotion’s responses to Floyd’s death and the resulting protests across the country and around the world. In the interview, Swinford again touched on the importance of open, honest communication, particularly on critical and potentially volatile topics.

“We have dozens of different mechanisms for getting feedback from our employees,” he said. “And we’re constantly looking for more. We have an ATP Ambassador Council: One ATP from every region is an ambassador for their peers with me and with the leadership team. We get together regularly and talk about whatever they want to talk about. They drive half the agenda, and we drive the other half of the agenda.

“I can’t talk to over 500 ATPs personally and connect with every single one of them, but I can speak very candidly and openly with 15 and spend time with them regularly. Pre-pandemic, they would get together with our leadership team, and we would do different team-building events and spend time talking about key initiatives and priorities of the business and get their feedback, like ‘That doesn’t seem like a priority,’ or ‘That is exactly what we need as ATPs.’ They bring stuff to us every day, different concerns, areas they’d like to see us address, whether it’s tied to their compensation, whether it’s PPE that they need, or COVID testing that’s being required at different clinics and how we can provide that to them on a regular basis. They may say, ‘You really fell short on this particular message; it seemed tone-deaf relative to this other issue.’”

Swinford said Numotion’s leadership team began meeting daily as the pandemic was starting in March, and more than seven months later, the team still meets weekly. “We provide updates from the last week, we’ll get feedback on what their teams are concerned about, what they are frustrated with, what the issues are they’re having. In the summer, we started talking about people going back to school, and employees having a lot of anxiety about ‘How are we going to deal with this homeschooling dynamic?’ or ‘I’m going to have to take my children to school and I’m working from home, so are we flexible from an hours perspective?’ Of course we are. All our flexibility has come from listening and getting input from employees. The key is number one, they’re able to voice those concerns. And number two, we take action when we hear those issues. When we take actions that are connected with the feedback that they’re providing, they know we care enough to take the actions, and we’re going to continue to do so as they continue to highlight various issues.”

As the pandemic took hold, Numotion’s pulse surveys continued, and the company hosted virtual happy hours to keep colleagues connected. Numotion’s Women’s Network hosted video conferences with tips from parents across the country who shared what was and wasn’t working with their homeschooling efforts. Numotion gave employees two additional floating holidays in an attempt to ease the stress of the events of 2020.

Then George Floyd died, and so many people found themselves soul searching.

“We’d been talking about diversity in all senses, whether it’s race or gender or sexual orientation or people with disabilities, and we’ve been making a lot of progress,” Swinford said. “But certainly, when the Black Lives Matter movement started, largely on the heels of the George Floyd killing, it was that weekend I was texting my HR leader, Adam Holton, and I said, ‘We need to do something. We need to do something big and very visible, and we need to do it this week, as soon as possible. Because this is on our people’s minds, this is on every employee’s mind, especially our African-American employees, and we have a huge African-American employee population. So that’s what led to the video. Literally within the same week [of] that killing, we had our first video panel discussion with African-American leaders.

“It’s hard to explain the vulnerability, the raw, real passion and transparency and willingness of people to go out on a limb and talk about racism and talk about the challenges of being African-American within society, within corporate America, within Numotion.”

The first video quickly led to a second one on current events from a law enforcement perspective.

“We got some feedback from the initial video [from] people who were former law enforcement officials or were married to law enforcement officials who felt like, ‘Is the company picking sides? Is the company picking the side of Black Lives Matter?’, which inherently must mean we’re anti-police or anti-law enforcement,” Swinford explained. “And it doesn’t mean that at all. You can be very supportive of law enforcement and all those who protect and serve and do so valiantly and with integrity. Those who do not, need to be held accountable. You can be very much for law enforcement, and you can also be very much for equality and diversity and be anti-racist at the same time.”

So far, Numotion has filmed three Diversity & Inclusion panels, featuring Swinford and other Numotion employees in a Q&A format. The first video was on Race Inclusion. The second was on Law Enforcement Experience. The third discussed Bias.

“I just facilitated the calls,” Swinford said. “It was the honesty and the incredible vulnerability of the leaders we pulled onto these video conference sessions that really brought them to a level that was just unbelievable.”

He acknowledged that some Numotion employees weren’t sure pursuing these conversations was the right move.

“That’s always been one of my preferences from a leadership standpoint,” Swinford said of his tendency to bring difficult issues out into the open. “Not everybody has that as a priority from a leadership standpoint, and I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. But I’ve always preferred to confront conflict head on.

“Early on, I received feedback from some of our leaders: ‘I don’t think we should be jumping head first into the discussions around racism and discussions around law enforcement. This is a very, very volatile and emotional topic.’ And I said, ‘I know it is, and it’s volatile and emotional for every one of our employees. It’s real, and it’s here, and that’s why we should talk about it.’ Not talking about it probably speaks more volumes than talking about it. With racism in particular, I saw a quote that really resonated with me the weekend after George Floyd’s killing: ‘Are you not racist or are you openly and vocally anti-racist?’ Because there is a huge difference, to say, ‘Well, I’m not racist, so this is not my issue’ versus ‘Are you openly and vocally anti-racist?’ Depending on how you answer the latter part of that really changes your perspective in terms of especially as a leader, what you should be doing, how you should be addressing these issues.”

Speaking the Truth

The videos were shared with Numotion employees, along with Numotion board members, the company’s owners, and a select group of CEOs, several who, Swinford said, later decided to conduct panel discussions of their own.

“Many of our employees have shared comments on how they not only watched it themselves, but because they’re at home with their spouses, they watched it with their significant others, they watched it with their children, they’ve watched it with their parents,” Swinford said. “And I’ve done the same thing. My wife and my children watched them, and I overheard my boys — who are both away at college now, a freshman and a sophomore — talking about their takeaways and things they hadn’t thought about and some of the white privileges they weren’t aware that they had. That sort of takeaway and awareness is so powerful. And it makes me proud to work alongside all of Numotion’s employees and those who participated voluntarily on these panel discussions. They just did such an incredible job of being transparent and vulnerable in sharing their perspectives. It’s propelled our culture forward in terms of people being respectful and inclusive and being willing to listen to one another and those who might have different views.”

Which brings up another sensitive question: In difficult times and especially on such volatile topics, how can leaders get employees to speak openly and honestly about how they feel? What can leaders do to improve the likelihood that employees will speak the truth when it matters most?

“It is many things,” Swinford said, “but all of those things need to be centered around listening, around being respectful, around being vulnerable and honest and transparent. It’s having multiple mechanisms to listen, to internalize what your employees are feeling and where their concerns are, and it’s taking action and making sure that they know you care about them and you care about their well-being in the same way we care about their customers’ well-being.”

And that includes when employees want to share feelings that can be tough for management to hear. “When we got some kind of constructive feedback after the first video, I immediately called these people, I had video conferences with some of these people, just to hear them and without ramifications,” Swinford said. “In the same way I wanted to hear from our African-American leaders — and some who had feedback were African-American — I wanted to hear all the concerns.”

Numotion is also focusing on inclusion for people with disabilities, a group that’s historically been marginalized. “We have just become a corporate sponsor with Disability:In, which is a non-profit organization that focuses on inclusion for people with disabilities, whether that’s vision impaired or hearing impaired or mobility disabilities,” Swinford said. “It’s one thing to have a mission for serving people with disabilities; it’s another thing to make sure we are creating a culture that hires and promotes and develops and includes and values people with all forms of disabilities, as well as all races and all genders and every other form of diversity. CEOs of various companies are pledging to be all in in creating inclusive workforces and inclusive environments for people with disabilities. I couldn’t be more proud to be all in for Numotion and Numotion employees to create a company that is as inclusive and diverse as those individuals we serve.”

Accelerating Into Hard Times

While 2020’s many challenges have tested the courage and convictions of so many, Swinford said Numotion is even now seeking to accelerate. The whitepaper, for example, speaks of the company’s expansion, both technologically and via market growth.

Part of Numotion’s confidence, Swinford said, comes from vigorous multi-year planning that, even if it didn’t specifically anticipate a 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, put the company in a good position to take quick action as needed.

“We go through a multi-year strategy planning session every year in the second quarter,” Swinford said. “A key part of that is going through literally dozens and dozens of planning assumptions. There are certain things you can plan for, like hurricanes happen every year. We have employees who are completely displaced, so we have 20 generators in our inventory that are solely for employees who have an extended power outage at their home, at no expense to them. We’ve had employees from Connecticut to Louisiana to California who’ve lost power at their homes, and we show up with generators and gas cans and a whole box full of very, very long extension cords and safety procedures on how to operate the generators and how to use them.”

Perhaps because of his personal experience with hurricanes, Swinford and Numotion have been quick to respond to natural disasters. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for instance, Numotion donated two tractor trailers’ worth of scooters, Group 2 power chairs, bath chairs, walkers and hospital beds.

By the end of the interview, Swinford had circled back, once again directing the conversation to Numotion’s team, their well-being, and what comes next.

“Planning for something you can’t plan for sounds counter-intuitive, but you can,” he said. “You know that you have to get cross-functional people together, you have to assess the issue, you need to assess the risk to employees and to customers, and you need to put actions in place. Anytime there’s a natural disaster anywhere, we have a standard procedure for checking in on every one of our employees: Are they okay and safe, are their families okay and safe? Have they suffered any loss or personal property damage? Is there anything we can do to help them? If there is, we’re going to help them. And then we do the same on the customer side.

“I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of how we’ve managed through this crisis so far. We’re not out of it yet, but we’re at a point now where we are accelerating, we’re stepping on the gas, and we are making some big, bold moves. I think in the next six to 12 months, you’ll see some really big strategic bold moves we’ll be making because we’re so well positioned right now.”