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Women's Lifestyle Magazine

Leadership During a Pandemic: Q&A with Tina Freese Decker, President and CEO of Spectrum Health

Jun 22, 2020 11:09AM ● By Interview by Elyse Wild

In 2018, Tina Freese Decker became the President and CEO of Spectrum Health  the first woman in the health care system’s history to do so. Today, Spectrum Health has 4 hospitals, including Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, 150 ambulatory sites and telehealth offerings,  31,000 compassionate professionals, 4,600 medical staff experts, 3,300 committed volunteers and Priority Health, a health plan serving 1 million members. We talked to Freese Decker about leading the health system’s response to a global pandemic. 

Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: How would you describe your leadership style? 

Tina Freese Decker:  I try to be as authentic as possible. People want leaders who are trustworthy, have integrity, are transparent about what’s going on. I try to make sure that I connect to people through that authentic approach. I also make sure I reflect on what my own values are and how I can be true to myself and take care of myself. I know that if I can’t do that, I won’t be a very good leader for others. I also know that I try to balance thinking big and thinking small. Part of my job is to think about the implications for the future and understand the possibilities that are ahead and embrace those from an innovation perspective. I also understand how things work in small areas: The detailed plans, the messages that we have to get across. I approach any decision it in terms of big and small. 

I think especially in today’s world, it’s important that we have a plan, that we understand what the knowns and unknowns are and communicate those. But I also recognize when it’s time to make a change and to be adaptable and flexible. And so we have to balance both of those. Sometimes that’s very difficult to do because you want to stay the course in some areas. I know myself well enough that I’m OK with asking for help when we don’t know what is going on, and also saying we need to pivot and be adaptable or stick to convictions and provide direction.

WLM: That’s a great segue to my next question, which is how your approach is shown to be beneficial right now during this time when I’m sure you are having to make a commitment to a course and then maybe completely pivot the next day based on new information. Can you talk a little bit about how your overall approach leading up to this situation is helping you lead right now? 

TFD: My approach engages from a collaborative perspective. There are decisions that we always need to make, and there are decisions where you can be at the head of the table, but you can also have a seat at the table. I really believe in that collaboration and listening and understanding different points of view and making sure that we can move forward with those. 

I also believe especially at this time, that it’s important to talk to others because they know what’s going on. And so I often walk around and talk to people, understand what’s going on, and they’re saying what their recommendations are moving forward so that we can make the best decision. Engaging with people is essential; over-communicating and over-listening are critical. So for us, that is the daily email update, live town hall sessions where I can answer questions or  just walking around and talking with people. As I walk around or I do those town halls, I’m also really working to over-listen and hearing directly from people about what’s working and what’s not working and what their ideas are. Consistent, clear, calm communication is essential whether I’m giving it or I’m receiving it.

WLM: It sounds like a lot of your work is putting forward the effort to connect with your employees. Having a leader say, “Hey,what do you think? How’s your day? How is this working like that?” makes such a huge difference.

TFD: Absolutely. As COVID-19 was just starting to come into our communities, I made a point to travel to all of our hospitals. I wanted to get a sense for what was going on in each of the communities and understand what they are proud of so far, what they were concerned about, what we could do to help them, what we could get out of the way so that they could actually get some things done and care for their community. That has been really beneficial. The other thing that I did when I was rounding is I wanted to just continue to communicate, but also give them confidence, share some of the best practices that we were learning across the organization and let them know that we are working on the top issues: testing and PPE and how to care for patients and how to keep them safe. Reiterating those things and focusing on the top of mind issues was extremely important.

WLM: I love that you said over listening because being listened to touches such a human part of us that sometimes I think we forget is there until we’re in a situation where we truly feel like we’re being listened to. And that brings me to my next question: How are you supporting your staff to help them stay motivated, find joy and feel safe?

TFD: There’s a number of things that we’re doing. We’ve continually focused on resilience and understanding what our team members need, and everyone needs something a little different. At the heart of it, it’s connecting to people. Healthcare is personal, so we need to connect and make sure each of us is doing OK. Taking the time to do so. Everyone gives their compassion, their heart and soul to caring for others. Here’s what we need to do to care for them: We’re trying to do some other engaging activities. We just celebrated Nurses Week and Health Care Week. 

We had the lighting of the luminaries to celebrate people. 

We celebrated graduation, and we asked many of our team members to identify if they have someone graduating from preschool to med school and any degree in between. We’re trying to bring some lightness and joy. The other area that we’re celebrating is our wins small or big. It can be celebrating someone that is leaving one of our inpatient units because they’re a survivor of COVID-19 or because they just stopped their cancer treatment and they’re in remission. We have to take the time to rejoice in those very positive things, those small steps  make a big difference as we go forward.

Lastly, I go back to the communication. So, as you said, it matters if you are listened to. I believe in very strongly that we need to make sure we’re engaging with our people, that they understand that we care and that we follow through on the action steps to ensure that they are safe, that we’re doing everything we can to protect them and help them do their job in the most efficient and effective way possible.

WLM: This is quite a moment in our world, our history, our community? What are you most proud of the staff of Spectrum Health for?

TFD: I am just incredibly proud of our team members and all of our partners. Every day our team comes together ready to support each other, ready to serve our patients and members, and to really live our mission of improving health, inspiring hope and saving lives. I’m grateful for the innovativeness, the generosity. I saw them living our values of compassion, collaboration, curiosity and courage. One of things that I saw is that this really brought us together as a team. One role of a leader is to build the best team possible, and you bring individual strengths into that and you mold it to make sure it’s complimentary with other strengths. I saw that everyone was building off of each other’s strengths to make it even better going forward. That’s the area that I’m most proud of, is our people and our community. Our people are making the day right now. They are helping our community be healthy, and I’m very proud of them.

WLM: What advice do you have for other leaders right now?

TFD: It’s really important to communicate and to listen. Communication needs to be often, and it needs to be transparent. It’s not only with your team, but it’s with others.  There are knowns and unknowns and we start to separate them out: What do we know and what don’t we know? And then how do we communicate what we know with confidence? And then how do we find out the answers to the unknowns? It’s helping people understand the steps that we’re going to take, the optimism that we have going forward and how we can put together that plan and be flexible. Communicate that process, and be authentic, be true to your values. Being a leader is not a race. It’s a journey, an emotional and a physical one. You really have to be true to your passions, your values and to yourself as you go forward. 


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