Brent is the Chief Home Care Officer of EvergreenHealth Home Care, a provider outside of Seattle in Kirkland, Washington. EvergreenHealth has been recognized by Healthgrades as one of America's 100 Best Hospitals for the past five years (2017-2021). Brent has been leading the EvergreenHealth Home Care division since 2016. He is also on the Board of Directors of the National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC) and a board member for Northshore Senior Center. Originally from Kansas, Brent moved to Washington partly for his love of the mountains. Brent's currently enrolled at Cornell to earn his MHA.
Matt: Do you have any unique habits or unusual things that you love that other people find different?
Brent: The default for me is climbing. I find that when I am put into a stressful situation outside of work, it helps me balance stressful situations when I’m working. Mountaineering is something that I really lean on frankly, to balance myself. Without that, I think I'd be in trouble, honestly. A lot of people don't understand that. They think - I've got three kids and they might ask why would you do that and put yourself at risk. But it’s interesting to me because I don't view it as a risk. There’s obviously a risk in everything, even for example like working with patients with COVID. But risk is something that you can counteract by virtue of being prepared, understanding safety, understanding yourself, and being very diligent. So for me, climbing is probably a unique thing that a lot of people just don't necessarily understand. They might often think it’s for thrill-seeking or something like that. But to me, it's actually the opposite, it's for seeking balance. Climbing is a grueling endeavor. It is quiet. It's very boring. It’s very tiring stuff but it is a way to flush everything out and realign yourself. It seems the more I’m able to do that, the better I'm able to find focus.
I also think there's a lot of cool and convenient metaphors that can be used from a leadership perspective in climbing. For example, if you look at the pandemic this past year. In climbing, when you think you're going to reach the top or summit and when you find out it’s not the summit, it’s called a false summit. These are motivation killers for many people. Oftentimes, they think – “you know if I can just barely make it to this next stage..”. But the more you climb the more you realize that you should never celebrate any of the minor summits. In fact, not even the summit. What you celebrate is getting back down and getting back to your car. So that's the way I'm looking at the pandemic. This has been a hell of a go and we’re more than 11 months deep [at the time of recording]. It's been a series of false summits and I'm not even going to get too excited about the vaccine because we know that, frankly, we're not there yet. We're not back in the car yet. But when we're back at the car, that’s when you take a deep breath and celebrate for a minute then move on to the next challenge.
M: Are there any books on leadership that you typically recommend that have had a significant impact on your leadership style?
Brent: The irony about being a dad, and being someone in an MHA program is that the books that I read are actually either super technical, you know healthcare economics, or somewhere along the lines of Madeline or The Cat in the Hat. So there are those extremes. But actually, I just started a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, called Leadership: In Turbulent Times. I can't fully endorse it yet because I haven't finished it but she’s pretty amazing. She wrote Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, about Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment. Leadership: In Turbulent Times is essentially a study on what presidents have done in the past when they’ve had to lead during extremely difficult periods. I’d also like to mention, my wife’s work, she’s been able to spend some time with Ibram X. Kendi who wrote How to Be an Antiracist. It’s a book that’s on top of my reading list when I’m completed with my coursework. He's a pretty exceptional human being. Conversations with my wife on her interactions with him have helped me on improving my perspective on bias, diversity, and inclusion. As a white male, 43, from Kansas, I've had to work my butt off to understand these issues. I’d like to quote Sean Nicholson who’s the Director of the MHA program I’m enrolled in at Cornell. He's a healthcare economics professor, and one of our students said “Sean - What are you going to do, to make sure that diversity, equity, inclusion, and overtly antiracism are part of our part of future educational offerings from Cornell?” and Sean said, “The first thing I'm going to do is examine my own biases.” This just struck me, this concept where it’s very easy to say, - you need to do better - versus looking inward. As a leader, in Sean’s case, your case, or my case, I think it's really important to examine what biases we may have and work on those to be able to work with our staff, especially as white men.
M: Are there any people or experiences that have had a significant impact on your leadership style or approach?
Brent: I'm really fortunate to be surrounded by a group of leaders that report to me that I’ve learned from and continue to do so. We have a unique leadership setup where it's not, ‘Brent’s way goes’. I very overtly encouraged dissension or at least constructive disagreement. I learn from and see my management team as role models. It never was hard to do because we have such good people. There's a colloquialism that everyone says as a leader, which is - never be the smartest person in the room or always hire people that are smarter than you. That's one thing I've succeeded at, I really have. I have a group of passionate people, hard working, patient focused, clinician focus, and common sense leaders. I couldn't be luckier to be exposed to this group of people. Honestly, getting to work with these folks has been the highlight of my career so far. Also, I think the exposure through the NAHC board and another board I'm on for North Shore Senior Center are places where I've learned a lot from other board members. These experiences have been extremely valuable in my leadership development.
M: Assembling a successful team as you described is often one of the harder things to accomplish. How did you go about assembling your team and what were some of the traits or characteristics you looked for?
Brent: The easy way to describe what I look for; is that any leadership team that is well functioning is not a reflection of their leader’s personality but likely is some reflection of that leader’s weaknesses. So, we look for the color wheel, honestly. I'll use our home health management team as an example. We have a sixth manager coming on right now. If you compare a color to a leadership trait we work very hard to make sure that our strengths are balanced out. That can be a super, corporate work jargony thing, but there's actually some science behind it. If you consider that you have someone who's super organized and type A, you know shows up to work at 5am, which actually we have two of those, one of whom arrives at 4am. Our team has worked really hard to yield to one another to get the best results. I've purposely hired leaders who have some traits in common, which are hard work ethic, compassion, empathy, and some level of vulnerability. Vulnerability, you know, it's not something you hear men say very often. But I’ll tell you what, the leaders I look up to the most are the ones that raise their hand say, “I blew it”. Versus sort of working around it and sticking with some decision that doesn't make a lot of sense. So our leadership group is well balanced and it represents that color wheel.
M: Do you have any methods or tactics to address stress, especially amid the uncertainty with something like the pandemic?
Brent: Frankly doing more of what's worked in the past. In tough times for me, breaking habit can be a big problem. For instance, I have to work out or I have to exercise five or six times a week. I have a regimen and I am absolutely stuck to it. I mean nothing stops me from doing that because if I don't, it's going to result in me not doing the work I want to do and I'm going to get more frustrated. So, in the last year with the pandemic and school, along with my family life, I maintained that. But I think that the workout example is probably just more specific to me. However, the larger concept that I think worth sharing is the idea of loving yourself first, but not most. I remember hearing that the first time and just really struggling with it. I struggled with the idea early on, thinking “I'm a dad now” and the idea of loving yourself first was challenging. But it's down to that somewhat tired metaphor of - put your oxygen mask on first, because you can't put anyone else's on if you don’t take care of yourself. People in healthcare struggle with that. I know that I can’t be the leader, the spouse, the dad, the climbing partner, board member, the guy helping someone across the crosswalk, whatever it is, at the level I need to be unless I know that I'm filling up my fuel and my jets. That's a really important thing that people are going to need to do especially after this year. I mean, there's going to have to be a reckoning for the pandemic. We can't just assume that the healthcare industry, who collectively went through what looks to be a battle or a war, is going to take a deep breath and everything's going to be great. Because, like a war, the troops are going to come back, and how we treat them and how we react to the people that have saved so many lives while risking theirs is extremely important. We need to find an incredibly creative and sustainable way to support caregivers that have been struggling through this.
M: How has your leadership style or practice changed as you your organization began handling the pandemic?
Brent: Day one for us was February 29th. Being in the initial US epicenter in Washington state, we got the call late on the 28th about the first death at our hospital. At that moment, I recognized that I know what I'm okay at and what my team could be better at. I took a step back to let them lead where they lead best. I think a lot of leaders thought that they would best serve their group or team if they were running every meeting in front full time. I think there's a way to lead or maintain leadership and responsibility, by virtue of not being one talking the whole time. In the past year, I've only led two Incident Command calls and I believe we’ve completed almost 110 of them. I do my best to make sure that the person who is best at running the meeting’s agenda is in that position. For instance, the person who is best at delegating that specific work, and the person best at taking back those action items for completion, should do so, regardless of title. That's one good example of how I think many leaders could benefit by stepping back and letting folks who are better at certain things do that work. I think leaders that overreach can inadvertently do some harm and burn themselves out.
M: What does work look like for your team during the pandemic and in the future post pandemic?
Brent: Wherever remote is appropriate and where remote adds value, and where remote does not decimate a sense of belonging in a team, we are okay with it. One interesting perspective we’ve learned is that there's an equity issue here. You have several parents, more often, mothers versus fathers who have to educate their kids right now as well as work. We have worked really hard to provide flexibility where we communicate what needs to get done and what the expectations are, and if it needs to be done at home, we know that life is going to happen and there needs to be a balance between the two. I'm a younger Gen Xer, right on the cusp, we’re usually considered the ‘Oregon Trail Generation’, which is between Gen X and Millennials. I think Gen X believed this to some degree and I want to say, Baby Boomers, definitely believed that if you're working from home you're just working on your laptop and don't go let your dog out to go to the bathroom. You are supposed to be working. To me, that is sort of ridiculous. As leaders, we are not paid to necessarily be at a location for eight, ten, twelve hours a day. You're paid to have some function or utility to your work over some period of time. To get things done and execute on strategy and to lead people. With this mindset, we’re able to allow our staff to help their kids. It’s up to us to make sure that the people who are responsible for taking care of their kids during a pandemic can, so these kids don't end up having some academic sacrifice, while still enabling our team to accomplish the work needed for patient care.
Personally, I've had to change a because I'm a bit of a hypocrite. I'm in the office every day, and our staff is mandated to not be here every day. There are six of us out of 600 that are here every single day and that's by design to make sure our staff who need on-the-ground support have it. Again, I probably don't need to be daily, however, I believe that there needs to be one common denominator, one leader here to carry things forward in person. We’re doing this to protect ourselves and limit vectors of transmission. Microsoft Teams has been a game-changer for us. We've been able to pull together a majority of our 600 staff for town hall calls and you can see 75 or so team members on Teams. The best part is when they're talking to each other and saying, “Oh my gosh, how's it going!?” which has made a huge impact on staff connecting. When our team connects likes this, you get to see the humanity of their life with these video calls. It tells a story. I think that level of exposure is healthy for a workplace. For example, I've been on a call with our CEO, and my kid has jumped on my lap, and I just say “Sorry man, you know, this is why I don't work from home.” I am fortunate to have the opportunity to come in daily—many of our staff are not able to do that. Our goal is to support them. It’s interesting, all of a sudden if there are disruptions with kids or other things, it's acceptable. It wasn’t like that before 2020… I think it brings a lot of your humanity into those interactions and it gives everybody a little more perspective about who everybody is. We’ve pushed a policy in our system and specifically, Homecare, which is to expect having cameras on during calls. There are a few exceptions to that where cameras on can be a distraction, but when we speak, our cameras are always on. I especially think leaders should have their cameras on as it may be the virtual equivalent to being at the front of the lines and leading by example.
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