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What three qualities are most important in a successful leader in healthcare communications?

Posted: January 12, 2012 - 8:53 PM ET - by Elisabeth

Today’s blog post is a reprint from Communiqué. Last year the magazine posed the question, “What three qualities are most important in a successful leader in healthcare communications?” I shared my thoughts on a balanced approach to leadership, and I think it applies to many industries:

While all successful leaders need qualities that engender trust and respect – integrity, sense of purpose, vision, experience and confidence – leaders in today’s healthcare environment may be more successful by achieving a balance in three key areas: determination and flexibility; practicality and idealism; and expertise and a willingness to continue learning.

Determination and flexibility

Determination to lead an individual or a group toward a goal in the face of challenge, criticism or any number of unforeseen events should be balanced with the flexibility necessary to “pivot and turn” when a plan or goal needs to be adapted.  For example, today’s crossroads of media and technology have revolutionized the pace of communication, requiring industry leaders to think quickly, navigate skillfully and communicate effectively with their organizations’ stakeholders.

Expertise and a willingness to continue learning

The previously mentioned advances in social media and information technology have spurred rapid and dramatic change, inspiring breakthroughs in health and medicine and transforming the way information is delivered and exchanged.  Leaders in healthcare communications must understand these new resources and processes in order to assess their effects.  Experience is invaluable, but it can generate bias.  A successful leader needs to be open to new ideas and approaches.

Practicality and idealism

“There must be a better way to do this,” is a popular sentiment among leaders.  That thought stems from the practical experience of having created or done whatever “this” is and the idealism that inspires and drives a vision.  The most successful leaders – in our industry and outside of it – seem to derive this balance from an understanding of their stakeholders’ needs and expectations.

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A message from the universe

Posted: May 5, 2011 - 7:30 AM ET - by Elisabeth

I’m a believer that life presents some tests over and over until we pass them – and some messages repeatedly until we heed them. When I see or hear a message more than a few times in a short period – a magazine article or news story, a conversation or memory, an inspiring quote or even my horoscope (yes, I read it regularly) – I feel like I’m getting “a message from the universe.”

It started with a tea bag a week ago Tuesday. Really! If you’re familiar with Yogi tea, you know the tags have brief sayings. This one said something about trusting my intuition.

Wednesday night, at dinner with colleagues, the conversation turned to Gavin de Becker’s book, “The Gift of Fear.” Those of us who had read it were explaining the premise to those who hadn’t: follow your intuition. Becker describes how victims of violent behavior often feel fearful before any violence takes place, and how paying attention to that feeling can protect us. His example, which has stuck with me for years, is how a woman ignores her intuition and gets on an elevator with a suspicious stranger. Is she doing what’s polite rather than right?

Thursday morning I was at the PRSA Health Academy National Conference listening to a keynote speech by Elizabeth Cohen, CNN’s senior medical correspondent. As she spoke about “Communicating with the Empowered Patient” she shared stories of patients who didn’t accept the diagnosis they were given, but followed their “gut feelings” to get the treatment they really needed.

She also told her own story about her daughter who was admitted to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit when she had seizures shortly after birth. The doctor’s orders to discontinue high doses of drugs and spinal taps were not passed along to the next shift, and she found herself arguing with the nurses about the need to do another painful spinal tap, “Nothing had prepared me for this moment: the moment I would have to protect my daughter against a system bent on doing the wrong thing. Not my public health degree, not my 12 years as a medical journalist at CNN, nothing.“ She was sent back to her hospital room sobbing hysterically until she was able to explain the problem to one of her own nurses who helped to resolve the situation.

As Elizabeth joked about her “empowerment through tears,” I felt my past slamming into me. I remembered feeling anxious and frustrated in my brother’s hospital room. I thought something wasn’t right. Maybe I was overreacting? No, something was definitely wrong. The familiar rhythm of the beeping and blinking medical machinery was out of sync, but no one was responding to the call button. My anxiety turned into fear and my frustration into fury. I heard yelling as I bolted toward the nurses’ station. It was me. Screaming! Doctors and nurses came racing into the room with equipment. I sat in a corner of the room watching the flurry of activity and shaking. Nurses came in like clockwork for the rest of the night, but they avoided eye contact. Finally one nurse walked in and looked right at me. I wasn’t sure whether I was more embarrassed by my outburst or angry that was how I had to behave to get Steve the help he needed, and she seemed to know that. She leaned over my chair and said, “you did the right thing.”

Right, not polite, but I followed my instincts.

My “message from the universe” seems to be a reminder to follow my instincts … listen to my intuition … trust my gut reaction. … but I know better than to trust every decision to fortune cookie wisdom and intuition. I believe it’s wise to apply some rational thinking to my “gut reactions” – and in this case, even a little research.

As I was thinking about this post, I looked up more information on decision-making – from Psychology Today to Harvard Business Review. I learned that not even the “experts” agree on how we should make decisions. One gives no credence to intuition, saying we should always deliberate. The next says particularly when time is of the essence, we should follow our intuition. Another believes gut reactions are unreliable in turbulent situations, but more credible in calmer situations. Yet another says, counterintuitively, the more complex the decision, the more valuable our intuition – perhaps because the outcome is a matter of perspective.

The most reasonable discussion I read took into consideration how knowledgeable people were in the area in which they had made the decision. “Not surprisingly, their success rate was several times higher for decisions made in fields where they had expert knowledge. If intuition is indeed the handmaiden of experience, it stands to reason that those decision-makers who have passed Herb Simon’s 10,000 hours of experience threshold would have higher quality intuition.” And then, of course, there’s Einstein …

So it seems there’s a time and place for both rational, deliberate thinking and intuitive, gut reactions. In fact, there’s opportunity for a useful balance.

Are you wondering what decision it is I’m supposed to be making? Actually, I’m not sure yet either … I’ll keep you posted.”

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Characteristics of a leader

Posted: April 14, 2011 - 7:45 PM ET - by Elisabeth

“It’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he is leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming.”

I don’t worry so much about “managing.” The communications professionals I work with are at the top of their game. They don’t really need to be managed, but I do think a lot about how I can be a good leader.

How do I define a “good” leader?

More importantly, how does my team?

By definition, “to lead” is as simple as “to take someone somewhere,” but as a business owner, with aspirations to build a company and make our services indispensable to clients, I want the trip to be one of inspiration. The people I work with are the key to being indispensable. How do I inspire them to imagine that possibility?

“My job [is] to awaken possibility in other people.”

Many books, articles, videos, even motivational quotes offer insight, but one of the most poignant pieces of advice I’ve seen about being a good leader – and being a passionate person – comes from a TED Talk by Benjamin Zander.

His wit and humor grab you from the first moments of the video. If you’re a music lover, you’ll enjoy this one. If you’re not, you may enjoy it even more.  If you’re sentimental, you’ll need tissue. … and if you’re a leader, well I hope it makes your eyes shine. It did mine!

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Attitude is everything

Posted: March 3, 2011 - 2:26 PM ET - by Elisabeth

Thank you to everyone who contributed to last week’s blog. We were thrilled to read sentences from lots of great men and women. As promised, I’ve picked a winner … those who know me well know that this “hard-core executive exterior” covers a “hopeless romantic interior,” so I chose “Love conquers all … and matters most” submitted by Mary Beth Googasian.  Mary Beth’s prize is a spa gift certificate … because massages are good for your health!  See how nicely I brought that back to health and wellness?

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They say “attitude is everything,” and in a business where client service is our biggest priority, that’s especially true. We love our work, but we’d be lying if we didn’t admit that we face challenging moments – whether we’re working hard to meet and exceed client expectations, facing the near constant deadline pressure of a 24/7 news cycle, or just trying to “keep all the plates spinning” in our own lives. This week’s blog is by our colleague, Patty Keiler. Not only does she keep spinning plates – and generating headlines – for her clients, she’s given us all some good professional – and motherly – advice.

Riding in the car a couple years ago with my twins – who had just turned three – I decided I’d had enough of their whining. I rolled down their windows and politely asked them to throw their bad attitudes out. Their whining quickly turned to laughter as they physically flung their negativity into the sky. I hurried to roll them back up, lest the winds shift.

The next day (ok, probably later that day), more whining commenced. As most parents know, the same trick often doesn’t work twice. But to my surprise and elation, moments later they were flushing it down the commode.

Bad attitudes have since been buried in the snow, left on rides at Disney World and passed around like a hot potato. I don’t know if it’s the humor that accompanies it, the feeling of control, or the complete randomness of it all. But I do know it works. Not all of the time, but certainly enough to keep it going.


So, last week I was complaining (whining?) yet again to my mom that the long winter was making me short-fused and grumpy. I said I couldn’t wait to be uplifted by chirping birds, budding tulips and trips to the park. Her reply: “Then don’t. Just throw your bad attitude out the window right now.”

I’ll be darned, the moment truly was accompanied by a feeling of catharsis. I did feel better — and motivated to take control of my attitude. Now every time I start to feel grumpy, I remember I threw that out – or should I say I’m reminded so by my mom, my kids, or my husband.

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“A great man is one sentence.”

Posted: February 17, 2011 - 5:30 PM ET - by Elisabeth

This has always been one of my favorite expressions. It’s attributed to Clare Booth Luce who said it to President John Kennedy.

According to Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan, “She told him … ‘a great man is one sentence.’ His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. ’He preserved the union and freed the slaves,’ or, ‘He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.’ You didn’t have to be told ‘Lincoln’ or ‘FDR.’ ”

It’s been the topic of news articles, magazine contests and writers challenges, and it’s been popularized again in recent years by Smith Magazine. This online community of storytellers has sparked 6-word discussions across a variety of topics and media, from consultant and author John Baldoni asking the question to leaders in the Harvard Business Review in 2009 to Tara Parker Pope posing the question about love and heartbreak in The New York Times earlier this week for Valentine’s Day.

Part of my fascination is in learning what friends and colleagues believe is their lesson or their legacy. … So I’m posing the question to my readers. In fact, I’m going to offer a prize for the most compelling response. Yes, I know that’s totally subjective. The prize will be too, based on the winner’s sentence. It’s open to my colleagues, my friends, my doorman, my parents (c’mon, I’m counting on you to reply), pretty much anyone who’s willing to share six words about themselves or someone they admire.

To start the ball rolling, I’ll share mine. Now, admittedly, I’m a little less serious than Abe or FDR. … I’m “entrepreneurial mission driven by blonde ambition.”

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