Leading in Turbulent Times

By Michael R. Fraser, PhD, CAE
Chief Executive Officer, AMCHP

A key aspect of successful leadership is resilience – the capacity to "bounce back" from adversity and continue to lead despite obstacles and barriers to change. MCH leaders have demonstrated an incredible capacity for resilience given the many issues they face. With the myriad challenges (and opportunities) facing state MCH health programs, I thought it would be interesting to ask some of our AMCHP leaders for one strategy they use to lead in turbulent times. That is, how do they continue to focus themselves and their teams on the vision, mission and work of their programs given the many pressures and challenges in their states? Their answers below are great lessons for all of us seeking to lead through change.

Question: What is one strategy that you use to lead in turbulent times?

Stephanie Wrightsman-Birch
AMCHP President
MCH and CYSHCN Director, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services

I work to keep my sense of humor, make sure I do something fun every day and make sure I say thank you to my staff, mentioning something specific they have done to as many folks as I can each day. This helps me stay sane and also remember why I am here doing the work.

Katherine Bradley
AMCHP President-Elect
Title V Director and Administrator, Public Health Division, Oregon Health Authority

In turbulent times, the emphasis should be on frequent communications and being visible. The more people hear consistent messages, even when there is no new information or clarity, it is reassuring. And if there is information coming out in e-mail updates, staff meetings, and just walking around and listening offering consistent messaging – it makes a difference.

Lisa Bujno
AMCHP Treasurer
Chief, Bureau of Population Health and Community Services, New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services

I make time for fun. When things are stressful, staff need more outlets for that stress. This year, our bureau had a "Spring Fling Week" where each day there was a team building activity with a prize and some kind of ‘treat,’ hosted by one of the bureau sections. One day there were inspirational pencil flags, another day motivational pins. We had a Population Health Elevator Speech Contest and staff voted for the winner. Then we closed on Friday, with a pot luck lunch and awarded prizes, including gold medals. Staff enjoyed themselves, met others in the bureau that they didn’t know, and agreed that we need to make it an annual event.

Eileen Forlenza
Family Representative, AMCHP Board
Director, Family Leadership Initiative, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

One strategy I use to lead in turbulent times is to be flexible enough to shift my goals from short-term wins to long-term wins. For families, especially those who have children with special health care needs (CSHCN), long-term outcomes for the health and well-being of our children is always paramount and that same "vision setting" can be applied to systems work. Leading in turbulent times also provides me the opportunity to ask myself, "Am I keeping the Main Thing, the main thing?" This self reflection gives me an opportunity to explore what I am best suited for and the importance of aligning my contribution to the core issue. In my role, my contribution is to clearly articulate the family experience and to keep the Public in Public Health, and the Humans in Human Services.