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How does a business leader react to an unprecedented crisis? How does one handle a situation unlike anything he or she has ever been asked to handle before? Those are the questions that have been presented by the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn.

Lori Alford, chief operating officer of Avanti Senior Living in The Woodlands, Texas, found the best answer was this: Be yourself.

“One of the biggest things that I learned was that the team doesn’t need a perfect leader during a time of crisis,” she told Senior Housing News in June. “They just really need an authentic one.”

While that is unquestionably a great starting point for any leader in any situation, it only begins to describe what has been required of leaders during this critical period, and likely beyond. Alford herself went on to discuss, in a wide-ranging interview with Senior Housing News, all that has been asked of her. How she has served as a sounding board and a morale-booster. How she has had to make difficult budgetary and strategic decisions.

How, more than ever, she has had to be all things to all people. 

The bottom line is that the COO’s role is evolving and that COVID-19 has accelerated that evolution. That’s true in every industry, not just healthcare, and centers not only on versatility but vision. Simply put, COOs are being asked to wear more hats than ever before, and different ones at that. And if they were once asked to serve as managers of day-to-day operations and performance, they now must fill a different role -- that of visionist. In other words, they have to be able to anticipate things like never before.

When asked about the pandemic’s impact on her facility, Alford described it as “a test for our culture,” as was indeed the case for every organization, all over the U.S. While she had some initial trepidation about whether her staff would be able to meet that challenge, those fears were quickly allayed. Everyone, she said, “showed up with a vengeance.”

She made sure they were supported, that they were given a pay bump -- “hero pay,” she called it -- and that their other needs were met as well. For example, she sent out regular messages to the staff, and at first carefully crafted each missive. But after a while she just decided to write from the heart:

“I wrote what I wanted to share with my team, which was: ‘Be safe, I care about you, we’re going to protect you, we need your help with this.’ It was really enlisting them into our cause into our purpose of staying COVID-free. And the more authentic and genuine I became in my communication, the more responses and likes I got back. So, that’s been a really big kind of leadership lesson. A team doesn’t want a perfect leader, they just want a genuine leader who they can trust and know has their back.” 

Such empathy, which Alford said has likewise been expressed by the staff toward the residents, is obviously an essential part of every COO’s toolkit. You’ve got to genuinely care for those with whom you work, and those you serve -- residents in the case of someone like Alford; clients or customers in other corporate settings. That matters. It informs every decision and impacts the entire operation.

A COO’s versatility and vision also continue to mean a great deal in an ever-changing world. The first is reflected in the outsized impact technology is making in all phases of corporate life. Consider the Hebrew Home at Riverdale (N.Y.), which has been holding weekly webinars for the families of residents, allowing them to ask questions and share concerns. COO David Pomeranz told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News that it’s “like putting on a familiar TV show.”

McKnight’s also reported that at Mission Health in Tampa -- as at many companies -- Zoom has become the preferred mode of communication with staff, affording leaders the opportunity to keep the rank and file abreast of the latest developments, and what best practices might entail during the pandemic.

At The Allure Group, we installed electronic tablets at all 1,400 bedsides in our six facilities long before the pandemic. While the residents used them for entertainment and relaxation purposes at first, they have provided a crucial communications link to loved ones when governmental regulations prohibited in-person visits.

In addition, Vis a Vis technology -- i.e., hand-held monitors provided to patients upon discharge -- has enhanced transitional care.

There will no doubt be more developments along these lines in the years ahead, in all business sectors. That speaks to the vision that is required of a modern-day COO -- to how they must always anticipate what lies ahead.

Here’s another example of that, also from the healthcare space: An assisted-living facility was scheduled to open in LaGrange, Illinois in early April. But the pandemic, then in its early stages, caused the facility’s leaders to rethink things. They pushed back the grand opening to mid-May and redesigned the rooms, lighting, and ventilation system, as well as the access points and changing areas for staff.

In short, COO Maria Oliva told Senior Housing News, “The delay allowed us the opportunity to continue to learn and evaluate what was happening.” To modify. To adapt. Indeed, an enlightened leader must always be adroit in an ever-changing world. The current circumstances have made that clearer than ever.

About the Author(s)

Melissa Powell

Melissa Powell is the COO of The Allure Group. She has nearly 20 years of experience coordinating, assessing and improving senior care in New Jersey and New York City.

COO, The Allure Group
COO Changing Role