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March 17, 2021

Becoming a CEO During a Pandemic: A Lesson in Empathy

There are over 16,000 HHS team members fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. Even with all the proper PPE, hand hygiene practices, and strict cleaning procedures, they know in the back of their minds, when they wake up and head to work, there’s a possibility they could catch the virus. Yet, they still show up and do their essential work with a smile on their face and an eagerness to serve. 

When I became CEO in July 2020, I felt a strong sense of gratitude and humility that I had the opportunity to lead such courageous people.

As our company and the entire world buckled down to defeat this virus, I heard story after story of team members going above and beyond to keep patients, residents, and guests safe. It’s no exaggeration to say that in my first eight months as CEO, I’ve learned more about leadership from housekeepers, cooks, maintenance workers, and floor techs than from any book I’ve read or class I’ve taken.

As I reflected on this, I realized that the one characteristic that has led to successful management throughout the pandemic is empathy. Empathy for our team members, for our customers, and for the patients, residents, guests, and students we serve.

As we sought to understand and empathize with the challenges experienced by these various groups of people, we saw organization-wide improvement in three critical areas:

• Communication

• Resiliency

• Adaptability 


When the pandemic hit, we immediately knew it would transform the lives of our frontline team members. With so many working in healthcare facilities and senior living communities, there was some fear, anxiety, and — most of all — uncertainty.

From a leadership perspective, we sought to understand the dynamics of the changing landscape in the field. What are the immediate challenges facing our team members? How can we equip them to overcome those challenges? How are our customers’ needs changing? What can we do to support them in the rapidly evolving circumstances they find themselves in?

As we asked ourselves these questions, it led to a company-wide effort to improve communications with our team members in the field and our customers. We wanted to become a source of education to make sure they knew the relevant updates from the CDC and WHO, best practices for infection prevention, and proper PPE usage.

We implemented daily and weekly meetings to deliver real-time updates and freely provided information on our website to our customers and the general public. We also provided guidance for our managers to help them develop contingency plans, adjust their operational procedures, and keep themselves and their customers safe.

We also made sure that we expressed sincere gratitude to every team member for every little thing they did that kept us moving forward. Even just showing up to work deserved a heartfelt thank you, and we sought to never miss an opportunity to extend that thankfulness.

It may have been easier for us to respond with fear, anxiety, and an attitude of self-preservation. But instead, we began with empathy. We thought first about the challenges and needs of our team members and the people we serve. Our success was a byproduct of that approach.


Resiliency has been a common topic of discussion throughout the pandemic. It’s a person’s or an organization’s ability to survive — and even thrive — during a crisis.

What makes an organization resilient isn’t merely its systems and processes. It happens when people fully embrace an overarching purpose and mission, and they wholeheartedly believe that their job is appreciated and their hard work has a real impact.

The pandemic helped our entire team rally around the mission of HHS and its partners. The combined work of our team members, contributions of our partners, and support of the communities we serve strengthened our resolve throughout the pandemic.

Our empathy led to resiliency because we understood that our team members needed something bigger than a paycheck to come to work for. We focused on instilling a sense of mission so that it could permeate our teams and give them purpose in a time otherwise saturated in hopelessness and uncertainty. 

Resiliency can only happen when everyone’s working towards the same mission. Because no matter what crisis may be happening, our mission doesn’t change. There’s a vision we’re all working towards, no matter the circumstances. The challenges don’t change that, but they can intensify it and give your organization a burst of adrenaline to weather any storm.


Adaptability is only a useful skill when you know what you need to adapt to. To understand how the environment was changing and how we needed to adjust, we again relied on empathy. 

It wasn’t about adapting to preserve resources. Instead, we realized we need to repurpose our resources. 

In the field and the home office, the pandemic caused a shift in priorities. Instead of cutting resources in areas that became lower priorities, we shifted them to the things that became higher priorities. We reallocated resources that were typically involved in generating new growth into supporting our existing partnerships with critical functions like recruiting, staffing, and contingency planning. Understanding and adapting to the new environment drove high customer and team member satisfaction rates. 

Growing in Empathy

As a young CEO, I’m responsible for the success of our company. These last several months have taught me that, to be successful, we must first focus on serving the needs of our team members and our customers. And to understand what those needs are, we have to begin with empathy.

As empathy has helped us be successful amid a pandemic, it will guide us in a post-COVID world. We must first look to how we can best serve every team member and customer, knowing that our success is dependent on theirs.

Tag(s): Leadership

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