As part of our series about the “**Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Eileen Egan.
Eileen Egan, RN, JD is the Executive Director of Phelps Hospital, a full-service 238-bed acute care community hospital in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. Previously, Egan was Vice President of Administration at Phelps Hospital, which is a part of Northwell Health. Egan is a certified emergency nurse and is certified in pediatric advanced life support and advanced cardiac life support. She is also an attorney, and earned her Juris Doctorate from Pace University School of Law. Egan is the recipient of the Phelps Star Award for outstanding service, commitment and attitude, and was nominated for Nurse of Distinction at Phelps and Emergency Nurse of the Year in Westchester County, N.Y.
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 joined Phelps Hospital in 1981 as the charge nurse in the Intensive Care/Critical Care and Medical/Surgical Units. I then spent 13 years in the Emergency Department before leaving to pursue a career in law. I worked as an associate attorney at Feldman, Kleidman & Coffey, LLP, and then rejoined Phelps in 2006 as director of quality assurance and risk management. I had various roles with progressive responsibilities, such as corporate compliance officer, chair of the Corporate Compliance Committee, HIPAA and privacy officer and Assistant Vice President. Prior to my role as Executive Director of Phelps, I was Vice President of Administration and oversaw the Risk Management, Radiology, Physical and Occupational Therapy, Hyperbaric Medicine, Wound Healing, Cardiovascular, Speech and Hearing, Sleep Center, and Respiratory departments.
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?
This doesn’t exactly fit under “funniest mistake,” but it does point to the need to “expect the unexpected.” I officially started as Executive Director on March 9, 2020 and within hours of my appointment, the first Covid-19 patient came to Phelps. Nothing funny about that, except for not realizing that Phelps and Westchester were in the eye of the storm. The takeaway for me was to get ready and anticipate.
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?
There are two people I am particularly grateful to and feel were instrumental in helping me get to where I am (besides my parents!). First, I am grateful to Dan Blum, my predecessor, who saw potential in me and promoted me to Assistant Vice President, then Vice President of Quality Assurance/Risk Management and Clinical Operations, which gave me the experience I needed for the next step in my career as Executive Director. He recommended me to be the interim Executive Director after his departure, since a formal replacement had not yet been identified. Although it thrust me into the midst of the pandemic, it ultimately led to me being offered the position permanently.
The second person I am grateful to for helping me achieve success is my former ER Director, and continued friend, Dr. Emil Nigro. While working with him in the ER, he encouraged me to go to law school, which I feel began my career path toward being Executive Director. He had the confidence in me and that made me feel I could succeed. My law school education was instrumental in giving me the tools I needed to build a successful career path as the Executive Director.
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?
Phelps/Northwell is driven to provide the highest level of health care to all who come to us. Our vision is to offer healing to all of our patients and lessen their medical and surgical burdens. This has not changed in more than 50 years, since Phelps was first founded.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The time that comes to mind is actually my first day as Executive Director, when I received word from my Medical Director, Dr. Tobe Banc, that we were the first hospital in Westchester to admit a Covid-positive patient. On my way into the hospital, I gathered my senior team, including our Marketing Director Margaret Plofchan, who was instrumental in ensuring we were prepared for complete transparency with current and accurate information to provide to the media who reached out to us immediately upon hearing of the cases in Westchester. After briefing the senior team, I called upon each employee to do what they do best. Each member of our team is a subject matter expert in their field, whether it’s nursing, emergency management, quality assurance, strategy, etc. I gave them the latitude to perform in their areas and relied on them to do their best. They each gave more than 100 percent and we operated like a well-oiled machine — and we continue to do so. When you are faced with a pandemic, there is no room for micromanagement.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Working as an ER nurse for more than 17 years taught me to never give up and to remain optimistic and motivated, even when patients are confronted with significant medical problems. We can prevail, no matter what the obstacles. Feedback from patients and staff sustains my drive.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical aspect of leadership during any challenge is to be straightforward, communicative and transparent.
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?
Pandemics by their nature tend to promote uncertainty and insecurity. It is crucial to lead by example, to engage the frontline staff and to boost morale by emphasizing the successes we have together. It’s important for staff to feel and see that their leaders recognize and value their sacrifices, that our camaraderie and shared purpose help us get through difficult moments, days, months… and that although we don’t win every battle, we can work together to win the war.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Tackle the issue in a forthright manner, being truthful, and present the facts accurately. Balancing the news with something positive can keep up morale.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Anticipatory management is the key to planning for both the best and the worst of challenges. Look back for wisdom gained from previous challenges, and plan forward with all the resources and information you can lay your hands on.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay visible to your staff, rounding in all areas as much as possible. Maintain an open-door policy as much as possible without compromising your own well-being. Be willing to do what you ask others to do, “walk the walk”.
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 communicating completely, all the facts, even the bad news.
2. Not communicating often.
3. Not seeing the bigger picture, or projecting out and planning for the longer term.
To avoid these mistakes, put yourself in the shoes of your staff. What would be your expectations?
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?
Even turbulent financial times can present opportunities for growth and prosperity. Without the pandemic we would not have the M-RNA technology. We had to be creative and focus on our patients’ needs. How can we meet those needs in extraordinary circumstances? Before the pandemic, how many of us used remote meeting tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams? How effectively did we use telemedicine? Those tools filled a need and their creators prospered. Who can count the businesses that were developed in the midst of this challenge by entrepreneurial souls who saw a need and innovated a solution?
Here is the primary question of our discussion. 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.
- Be visible. Good leaders find ways to meet the challenge of balancing the demands of meetings, phone calls and emails with real time among their staff. You have to get out of the office and onto the units to see how the staff is managing the challenges they face every day.
- Be communicative, often. Staff need to hear from their leaders, in person, in Town Hall environments, and in written communication on a regular basis.
- Be honest and forthright. You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of the people who work with you. When you address the good, the bad and the ugly honestly, you gain trust and confidence.
- Inject positivity in all situations. It’s easy to focus on the negative and get bogged down in those emotions, which can really rob you of the power to do your best. You can often encourage staff to face challenges by focusing on their strengths and accomplishments.
- Be open to others’ viewpoints. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. A good leader is always looking for what they can learn from others. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others, because you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” You can learn a lot from the experiences and wisdom of the people around you, from their mistakes and from their successes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I actually have many favorite life lesson quotes, but my best-loved is: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” — C.S. Lewis
How can our readers further follow your work?
Northwell leadership was at the forefront of the pandemic. Northwell CEO Michael Dowling was a key adviser to Gov. Cuomo from the early days of the arrival of Covid in New York State, keeping him apprised of the evolving clinical implications throughout those early critical months. Northwell continues to be in the news rather frequently, particularly when it comes to vaccination efforts here and around the world. Northwell has a robust website accessible by the community at Northwell.edu. The Phelps Hospital website can be accessed at Phelps.Northwell.edu. Mr. Dowling’s experiences were also chronicled in his book “Leading Through a Pandemic,” which is a fascinating glimpse into that subject.