Leadership is a common topic — and a critical need — in times of crisis. But the truth is that to be most effective, leadership needs to be built before crises strike and nurtured at all times.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has most of the nation under shelter-in-place orders, Mobility Management talked with National Seating & Mobility (NSM) CEO Bill Mixon — who was joined by Ann Mahaffey, VP, Human Resources, and Stephanie Buckley, VP, Marketing — about the role of leadership in times of crisis, and how businesses can work at creating great leaders every day.
Mobility Management: You have referred before to NSM’s emphasis on creating a culture of leadership. Describe what that means to you and your team.
Bill Mixon: We really believe in the power of leadership, and we talk about it every day. We want to have a culture of leadership, and it’s foundational to who we are as a company. If there’s a single concept that is pervasive throughout our organization, it’s servant leadership, or the upside-down pyramid.
We believe it’s critical that every team member believes that they’re part of our organizational mission and vision to serve our clients. Imagine an upside-down triangle: The way the upside-down pyramid works is that the people at the top of the pyramid are our field people. Above them is the client. On the pyramid, below our people in the field, are leadership and management and the support systems that we have in the company. We set about constantly trying to reinforce the concept that my job and Stephanie Buckley’s job and Ann Mahaffey’s job is to be supportive and create an environment where we’re serving the people who care for our clients. We serve our people who serve our clients. That’s a foundational concept that we have.
MM: And what does that concept look like in action?
Mixon: We want to model the behaviors that we want to see in the organization. So all leaders should model the appropriate leadership, with servant leadership being number one on the list. We want to connect on a personal level with those that we lead, and we want to involve our teams along the way. It’s a team sport, a team activity, so this concept of modeling, connecting and involving is something that we have adopted in the organization.
MM: So there are people — service technicians, ATPs, your funding specialists — who are front-facing, meaning they are directly working with your clients. And you see your role as supporting those people who work with your clients?
Mixon: We spend a lot of time structurally making sure people understand that concept. My job is to support the total organization and in particular the people in the organization that support the client. It really is all about us working hard to create an environment where the people who serve our clients have the processes, technology and communications they need to do their jobs effectively.
That’s a critical message and it’s a critical aspect of our culture. We really try to live that every day.
In addition to our mission, our vision and our values — our six values or “HEARTS” of Honor, Excellence, Accountability, Respect, Teamwork, and Service — this upside-down pyramid is how we enable this organization to succeed.
Growing Leaders in the Organization
MM: If those are your overall goals, then what are the day-to-day applications to reach those goals?
Mixon: The objective is to teach servant leadership. We have a number of things that we’ve done to build our culture and our leadership. We believe that leadership involves lifelong learning and that we in the organization are all students of leadership.
We have a comprehensive leadership development program with leadership training curriculum, both virtual as well as on-site programs. We have technical training around how to do the job. We also have quite an investment in leadership development, and many of our employees participate in that. We have a monthly Student of Leadership e-mail series, where we pick a particular topic. I talk about it a little bit, and we encourage our field organizations to sit down and talk about this particular topic.
You wouldn’t be surprised that this month’s leadership topic is overcoming adversity in times of uncertainty.
MM: That makes sense, given what the world is currently experiencing.
Mixon: We’re doing everything we can, and we obviously have appropriate conversations about leadership in the face of adversity. That certainly is an appropriate topic.
And in 2020, we have made leadership and the development of people and teams a much more material component of our evaluation process, particularly for our leaders.
Ann Mahaffey: When you’re asking how is servant leadership modeled and what does that look like, we know that’s a daily walk. If your leaders in the organization are not trained and prepped before this time we’re in now, you’re in trouble. You’re in trouble now if you haven’t been preparing leaders.
One of the things that is important when you’re modeling servant leadership is the spirit of listening and responding, and I think all leaders in our organization are trained and encouraged in that process. We have very active advisory groups across our business that are generally organized by job classification, and we get on the phone with technicians, ATPs, and funding specialists and listen to them, follow up and respond to the ideas and concerns they have.
We poll our organization and listen to what’s on their minds. And right now, we are ramping up some of those things that have been a daily practice in our business. I know Bill and I have been spending extensive time over the last two or three weeks on calls with employees, on calls with leaders, on calls with ATPs, listening to what they need and then responding. Those are happening at a weekly cadence right now.
Listening and responding has been a practice in our business for years, and I think that’s paying off now. Our employees are used to feeling comfortable in providing feedback and knowing that we’re going to respond.
MM: And how is NSM using communications in this current and quickly changing situation?
Stephanie Buckley: The marketing communications department is very much in step with providing materials that are tangible. When I heard Ann and Bill speaking, I wrote down, ‘Actions speak louder than words.’ The communications team is here to support all the different things that we have going on to help support our field and that servant leadership perspective. But we really put things out there to help support interactions, such as the whole involve-and-connect concept that we introduced starting at [NSM’s February 2020] Symposium. Again, it’s a way for us to take actions and not just speak about them.
The support from my department is to get those out there to hopefully activate people to become servant leaders across the organization. Because it’s not just those who are in the Support Center in Franklin, Tenn., that can be leaders. Every one of us are leaders every day. That’s really the concept that we use quite frequently within NSM.
Leadership in Trying Times
Mixon: Leadership is even more critical when times are uncertain. People are uncomfortable right now. I know I feel uncertainty.
So for our teams, I think communication is more important now than ever. We have a mentor, Mike Feiner, who is a student of leadership, and he basically says you cannot over-communicate to an organization. It is impossible to communicate too much. People desire communication: They want to know what’s going on, to know what’s happening inside of the company. They want us to be proactive and doing everything we can to deal with this challenge from COVID-19. So broadly, I would say there are three things we’re trying to do.
We’re trying to focus on our employees’ health and well-being; we want to be sure people are okay.
It’s really important that leaders remain calm and that we have clarity of purpose; we have to be the calm inside of the storm for the team. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Winston Churchill and the amazing leader he was during World War II. We need to remain calm and relay clearly, but calmly the strategy of the business.
And we need to be available for people. We need to listen and be more available than ever. We have to be crystal clear that our priority is them and getting to the other side of this challenge with them.
Those are broad concepts on how we have to behave as leaders. What we’re saying to the organization is we have three strategic imperatives right now in the face of COVID-19.
One, to ensure the safety of our employees; they have to be safe, we need them to be safe, we need them to make decisions that will ensure they’re safe.
Two, we want to continue to further our mission: We do want to take care of clients, but we have to do it safely.
And three, we want to maintain business continuity: We want to be smart, we want to cut back on unnecessary spending, we only want to spend our dollars on things that are mission critical and are taking care of clients.
We also want to be nimble, and we want to learn new and exciting ways to take care of our clients that ensure safety and leveraging technology. There are all kinds of exciting opportunities with telemedicine, and we’re working closely with CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] and our many industry partners for approval to utilize these new approaches in providing CRT to our clients. The use of remote technologies can certainly provide additional safety for our clients and our employees, but more importantly, remote technology can also streamline the client experience and speed up the lengthy cycle times caused by administrative hurdles that burden our industry. We have a unique opportunity in the face of the COVID-19 crisis to demonstrate a better way to provide CRT care and services, and we want to capitalize on that. And there are all kinds of other creative things that we’re doing relative to our delivery methodologies to ensure that our methodologies are safe for the client and that we can continue to offer service, which is our business continuity.
So safety, continuing the mission, and business continuity are our three strategic imperatives right now during the COVID-19 crisis, and we’ll keep these until we come out the other side. And when we come out the other side, we’ll be back to our mission, vision, values that we’ve had for a while now in the business.
MM: And right now, flexibility in leadership is important.
Mixon: The mission is critical, and we have to continue the mission. But we have to do it differently. We have to be flexible. Conducting our business cannot be the same as it was literally six weeks ago. We have to do it differently, we have to be flexible, and we have to evolve in real time. We are changing the tires on the bus as it goes down the highway at 60 mph.
This story is sponsored by National Seating & Mobility.