As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need to Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Harris, CEO and co-founder of MedRhythms, a digital therapeutics company that uses sensors, music, and software to build evidence-based, neurologic interventions to measure and improve walking.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in a rural Maine town and, from the start, my parents guided the way for me, instilling confidence in me and teaching me that I could achieve whatever I wanted, to never quit, and to go out of my way to help others. I continue to live my life by these tenets and their example.
By the time I reached high school, it became clear to me that music is a powerful medium that I loved and that could affect people in profound ways, but, at the time, I didn’t know exactly what that meant for my future. Unsure of how I could turn my dream of using music to help improve lives into a reality, I decided to pursue a degree in psychology.
A major turning point in my life came during my junior year in college, when I first witnessed a music therapy session — it fundamentally changed my thinking and the course of my life. From there, I went on to become a board-certified music therapist with advanced training and certification in neurologic music therapy, which is the study of the neuroscience of music and its clinical application. I founded the music therapy program at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston and functioned as the hospital’s first music therapist. During that time, I routinely witnessed neurologic music therapy patients’ recovery times shorten and abilities exceed their care team and loved ones’ expectations. I knew that because all of these astounding results could be attributed to an understanding of the neuroscience of music, they could be replicated.
Immediately, the demand for my services at Spaulding was high. Eventually, the requests for services far outweighed my ability to supply them, and it was extremely difficult to turn patients who needed care away on a fairly regularly basis. Reaching this inflection point showed me that we needed to find a way to replicate what I was doing in the clinic in order to meet this unmet need. I began exploring the ways that technology could be used to deliver music-based interventions at scale.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
While this wasn’t really a funny mistake, it was a meaningful mistake. In one of my early clinical presentations I was talking about interventions that would help people function “normally.” I was quickly interrupted by an audience member who asked me what “normal” meant and explained that this term is offensive, especially to people who have deficits. It taught me a lot about empathy and I have actively tried to remove this from my clinical vocabulary.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When I was a junior in college, the University of Maine offered an online course in music therapy, taught by the only music therapist in the state, who had a private practice. When I took the online class, I fell in love with the content. Although a formal internship didn’t exist, I reached out to the music therapist and he gave me the opportunity to work with him during the upcoming summer. He worked primarily with children and adults who had severe developmental delays, but, as he was a traditional music therapist focused on quality of life and mental health, he wasn’t trained in neuroscience or standardized neurologic music therapy interventions.
The first live music therapy session that I ever witnessed involved an 18-year-old man who was physically and cognitively functioning at about a 1-year-old level. Within the first 10 minutes of the session, the man began to cognitively function at a higher level — opening his eyes, making eye contact and interacting with us — than anyone in his life had seen before. The patient’s family members and care team entered the room in tears of disbelief.
This first session sparked my passion for music therapy, but, at the time, I still had more questions than answers. How did the brain enable this man to respond in such a profound way to music? I knew that if we could answer this question through neuroscience that we could truly harness the power of music and replicate this type of therapy to help whoever would benefit from it. From that moment on, I’ve devoted my life and career to pursuing this mission.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
MedRhythms was built with one mission in mind: help people with neurologic injuries and diseases by giving them access to life-changing, music-based interventions. We had the neuroscience to explain this type of therapy’s profound impact and saw an unmet need for these interventions. For these reasons, we felt an obligation to found MedRhythms. The company first started as a neurologic music therapy services provider — we hired other music therapists to work alongside me at Spaulding, but within six months, we realized that we would not reach the scale or impact that we had envisioned with the model we were using. These services were not easily reimbursable and scaling a neurologic music therapy practice became difficult, due to the limited number of trained therapists. Realizing these barriers, we changed course and began to focus on technology as our path forward.
The first question was where to start. The greatest amount of objective research we had access to supported improvements in walking outcomes through a standardized, evidence-based neurologic music therapy intervention known as Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation. We also knew that there was a widespread need for solutions that improve walking function across a range of diseases, including stroke, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. It was through this lens that we decided to focus on creating a walking product that digitized Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation.
MedRhythms’ approach is innovative in a couple ways; we are developing novel therapeutics with a mechanism of action that is based on the neuroscience of music, and we are accomplishing this by creating digital therapeutics that are evidence-based, FDA-regulated, prescription products that can scale to reach people and improve lives all around the world.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
2020 has been characterized by uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, my leadership strategy has involved putting employee wellbeing first, fostering a culture of accountability and remaining transparent. A couple of initiatives that the leadership team and I have implemented include routinely checking in with folks through 1:1 meetings, implementing a project and progress tracking software for employees to leverage while working from home, and sharing regular company updates.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
While administering music-based interventions at the hospital, I’ve seen stroke patients who are not able to move or speak in their daily lives walk down the hallway or say “I love you” to their loved ones. I am a clinician at heart, and seeing the immense need for music-based treatments keeps me going every day.
I never dreamed of being an entrepreneur. I was a clinician who saw a large need and found a solution for it. I started MedRhythms because, as a clinician, I felt like I had a responsibility to do so. There are millions of people who don’t have access to the level of care that they require — human beings deserve the highest level of care and because we have a solution, it’s our responsibility to bring it to them.
Through neuroimaging and neuroscience research, it has been shown that two profound principles underpin the relationship between music and the human brain. First, research shows that — regardless of age, culture, ability or disability — 97% of the human population responds objectively to music on a neurologic level. For the vast majority of people, a music stimulus activates the brain globally by engaging almost every region of the brain. There’s no other stimulus on earth that engages our brains as globally as music does. Second, music aids in the process of neuroplasticity. This holds true when we engage in music by playing an instrument, singing, or practicing music-based interventions in a clinical setting. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to strengthen old connections or to build new connections throughout your entire life. When a person engages with music, their brain physically changes — this is why it’s such a powerful healthcare stimulus. I believe the more that we understand about how music impacts the human brain, the more it will change the landscape of global healthcare. We’re on the wave of something that’s going to be very impactful.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, it is imperative that a leader stay calm and level-headed. In times of great challenge, it can be easy to become overly reactive and make emotional decisions, which are often the wrong ones. A leader must be able to objectively evaluate the scenario and then make decisions about the path forward with an informed conviction. No matter what your industry, who you work with or how successful you’ve been, there will always be hard days and the key to conquering them for me has been to model composure and lift my team up.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I’ve found that communication and connection between teams are the best tools for boosting morale. At MedRhythms, we’ve instituted quarterly company updates to keep team members in the loop with the progress the company is making, in addition to scheduling routine one-on-ones and stand-ups that allow people to work together face-to-face and uphold a collaborative company culture. Outside of the workday, we conduct virtual company-wide events where MedRhythms employees plan games and activities. We’ve found that these virtual events have allowed the team to feel connected to their coworkers during a time when loneliness is weighting on so many. We also organized a socially-distanced company party this past summer, where we all gathered for a scavenger hunt and everyone wore masks. Owen McCarthy, the President and co-founder of MedRhythms, and I have also taken it upon ourselves to personally delivery flowers and candy to employees’ doorsteps to help keep spirits lifted and let our team know that we care.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I’ve found that tackling difficult situations head-on with honesty and transparency works best. However, this approach must be accompanied by a sense of confidence and include a plan for the path forward in order to ensure trust across the organization, alignment with the mission, and a shared understanding of immediate next steps.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
While data and analytics have certainly come a long way in helping business leaders see where their companies and industries are headed, we will never be able to truly predict the future. Successfully operating within a landscape that’s changing so rapidly comes down to focusing on near-term objectives and making quick decisions with the information at hand. A leader must be able to quickly evaluate a given scenario and make fast, informed decisions. One thing we can always control is our response to uncertainty — we can stay focused on the objectives and march toward our goals. There is always a path forward; to find it, leaders should refrain from becoming consumed by the unknown and focus on staying agile. This agility is what allows us to lead successfully through transformation.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
During turbulent times, I think it’s most important for a leader to be honest about the reality of the situation while remaining confident about the path forward. When confronted with a challenge, it’s important for leaders to be transparent, but it’s also critical that they instill confidence in the team members about the future of the company. Leaders need to be measured, confident, and able to motivate a team through the ups and downs. As a mission-driven organization, MedRhythms will always steer the team’s focus toward those we serve and the millions of lives that we can improve through our technology.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1. Not building a team and culture that is agile and capable of adapting
2. Not being willing to pivot when necessary
3. Not reaching out to mentors or the community for help when needed.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Staying flexible and keeping an open mind have been the keys to our agility at MedRhythms. For example, during the pandemic, our therapy practice was unable to see a lot of patients for a long time, but we were able to recover lost revenue by developing teletherapy services that have been highly scalable and have allowed us to grow as a company. We’ve had patients from all over the world request these services and they have seen improvements in outcomes as a result.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Transparency — The team should know when times are tough, when budgets are tight etc.
2. Confidence — A leader must exude confidence in uncertain times to instill trust in the organization
3. Adaptability — The leader of an organization must be willing to change or pivot, even if that means going against what they have told the team in the past
4. Humility — It’s important for people to admit if they are wrong and be willing to continue to move forward in a different direction
5. Inspirational — Leaders must keep the team committed to the company’s mission, focused on the task at hand, and empowered to execute and navigate challenges. We saw how critical all of the aforementioned leadership qualities are after the pandemic impacted the business and we needed to navigate the significant unknown circumstances in order to move forward and continue to make progress.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In a commencement speech that was delivered by Maine Senator Angus King, he said the following: “Don’t let your eyes be the limit of your vision.” Particularly when starting a company in a new industry without a charted path, I would think about this often to push myself to think bigger and more creatively in order to figure out how to make the company successful. I often come back to this quote during challenging times.
How can our readers further follow your work?
For more information, readers can visit https://www.medrhythms.com/.