Never Waste a Crisis

Beth Toal, St. Luke's Health System

You’ve heard the mantra: “Never waste a crisis.” In healthcare, where challenges are an everyday reality, this perspective is essential.

Just ask Beth Toal, vice president of communications and marketing for St. Luke’s Health System, a well-respected, nationally-ranked health system serving a large region of Idaho. A couple of years ago, the health system faced a challenging chapter in its 100-plus year history. Nearly overnight, the organization had expanded to become a nine-hospital health system. While continuing to maintain excellent quality and standards of care, it was dealing with that growth, plus backlash from a highly public and lengthy anti-trust lawsuit.

The St. Luke’s story framed the session at the 2017 Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD) conference that Toal presented last week alongside Jarrard Partner Anne Hancock Toomey. Their presentation, “Igniting Advocates to Make Change Happen” focused on St. Luke’s journey to reconnect with its community, revitalize its brand and rebuild trust by getting back to basics.

The following edited conversation explores the nuances of how St. Luke’s is succeeding, the importance of genuine relationships and why it’s critical to listen to feedback – even when it’s tough to hear.

Jarrard Inc.: Where did you begin your work following that challenging chapter?

Beth Toal: We started by first hitting the pause button and then listening, a lot. Our system had been through a tremendous period of change and we discovered that our relationships had suffered.  We found out that while no one questioned the care we provided – or our exceptional employees and physicians who provided it – they didn’t understand some of the actions we had taken. While we were clear about our intentions and we knew that our intentions were good, our key stakeholders didn’t see that as clearly as we hoped they would. We needed to hear that feedback and then address what we heard.

Anne Hancock Toomey: Listening is key. It takes patience and a lot of humility for smart leadership teams to stop pushing an agenda and start spending the time to ask insightful questions about how they’re doing as a provider, an employer and as a community partner.

 J: How do you truly listen in an institution that employs thousands of people?

AHT: You do it in a variety of ways. St. Luke’s employs more than 14,000 people and serves a million patients per year. You can’t reach everyone you’d like to engage with in a one-on-one fashion. Using a combination of mediums – pulse polls, leadership summits, intranet portals, town halls and more – ensures people have the opportunity to ask questions and get answers and to connect in ways that matter to them. I’m not sure there’s an organization that listens more than St. Luke’s does today.

BT: We were also really deliberate about identifying where we had gaps in key relationships and then connecting our leaders and board members with those community leaders and stakeholders. We made it a priority to engage with as many people as possible in a meaningful way. Through these connections, we’ve had the opportunity to hear what’s on people’s minds. It’s fantastic the way that has impacted decision-making and communications for the better.

J: What about when you hear negative feedback? How do you keep from taking it personally?

BT: You have to be humble and open. Receiving negative feedback is very difficult. It did require some of us to go through a refresher course of sorts about how to hear and respond to that kind of information. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be prepared to hear and respond to both the good and the bad. To engage in this level of listening requires commitment and practice.

AHT: When you’re in a tough chapter in the life of your organization, be assured that it will get better, but you’ve got to start by listening instead of continuing to talk. Only then can you truly see the path to turn things around. And you can in pretty quick order. St. Luke’s has made a tremendous amount of progress changing the conversation inside and out in the last couple of years.

J: As you look to the future, how will you change how you tackle future challenges?

BT: We can’t be complacent. St. Luke’s, like all health systems, will continue to have challenges. It’s important to build trust and support for the organization before you need it. The key is developing real relationships, over time, with the people who matter to your organization.

AHT: Leadership teams and boards often do a sound job of evaluating the clinical, financial, operational and legal aspects of big strategic decisions.  It’s the job of healthcare communications leaders to remind them about the importance of getting the people politics right.  The bigger and more complex you get, the harder that can be.

J: Why is it important for those relationships to be “real”?

BT: Any relationship – personal or professional – can become transactional if you think of it as just another something on your to-do list. The work we do is complex, and daily distractions can cause us to lose focus on what really matters.  We need genuine relationships with the people in our organizations and within the communities we serve if we want to deliver on our mission in a meaningful way. There is no doubt this takes time and effort. But the result is worth every minute invested.

J: Is there anything specific to St. Luke’s that positioned it to successfully rebound from crisis and challenge?

BT: We have an incredibly supportive and engaged leadership team and board. They were involved from the beginning. They rolled up their sleeves, and they’ve been right alongside us the whole way. And that’s not easy to do. In those early days, we chose to turn the mirror on ourselves to see how we might be contributing to the challenges we were having. It was informative and humbling at the same time. Once we had a clear picture, we got to work and we haven’t looked back.


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