Kevin M. LaChapelle of the San Diego American Indian Health Center

    We Spoke to Kevin M. LaChapelle of the San Diego American Indian Health Center on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    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 Kevin M. LaChapelle, CEO of the San Diego American Indian Health Center.

    Kevin holds expertise in implementing culture-focused performance improvement in clinics, ambulatory surgical centers and hospitals. He is skilled in identifying performance gaps, defining strategy, and creating measurable change. Kevin has a focus on integrating systems and culture to align behaviors to achievements in safety, patient experience, and cost containment. He is also a community-minded leader with a lengthy history in serving refugee populations through the non-profit organization he founded in 1999 focused on leadership development and project-based learning for underrepresented refugee communities. This includes an annual medical outreach abroad for a month. Kevin previously served as National Director of Care Experience, Patient Safety & Risk for Kaiser Permanente, Consulting Advisor for Press Ganey & Associates, Corporate Director of The Sharp Experience, The Sharp University, and Consumer Research at Sharp HealthCare, Director, Support Operations at Scripps Health, Adjunct Professor at National University and Walden University. He also served as a police officer and an elected school board member.

    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?

    Interestingly my background was in law enforcement, and after serving about 8 years as a police officer, I began attending college. A mutual friend had shared with me that they recommended me for a position at Scripps Health in San Diego as Director of Support Operations. During this role, I was fortunate to learn many things on the operations side of health care. That was my first job in health care, and I was hooked immediately. There are many parallels with law enforcement and health care. After Scripps, I was privileged to work for Sharp HealthCare at their corporate office as Director of the Sharp Experience, where I really developed my passion for patient-centered care. After Sharp HealthCare, I worked for Press Ganey as a consultant and learned more than ever by leading efforts to improve the patient experience and quality at many different hospitals and clinics. Just before my current role, I was fortunate enough to work for Kaiser Permanente out of its corporate office. For me, I am awed that I was able to serve in some amazing organizations that taught me so much and shaped me into the leader that I am today. I am always so grateful for the mentors along the way.

    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?

    During my first health care job at Scripps, during new hire orientation, one of the presenters was Chris Van Gorder, the President and CEO of Scripps. When he shared, I felt an immediate connection. He was former law enforcement like me, he had a twin sibling as do I, and he was very straight forward which I appreciated. I was fortunate enough to be selected for one of his leadership academies and that forever impacted my life. When I arrived at Sharp, the President and CEO Mike Murphy had the same impact on me. He and Chris have quite different styles of leadership, and the combination of the two has really helped me to strive to have a little of both.

    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?

    The organization I am currently with was unique. The Board had purpose which really helped me sense that this would be a great fit. The challenges however, included some that needed to decide if that want to be on the bus for the new journey, or should they maybe get off the bus. To be on the bus would mean we would take the patient experience to the next level, full engagement of the patient in their care and to include their family. Some in health care resist this approach, however, from my experience, I have witnessed firsthand how purposeful organizations that put the patient and the center of everything, by far have the greatest outcomes. That is the exciting journey we are now on…

    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 current situation that has impacted the globe is COVID-19. It has impacted our organization in many ways. I would say that we have focused on what is in our control and what is not. In other words, it is what it is, but how we deal with it is critical. We chose to be optimistic and position ourselves to be present for our community to help them through this. Many on our team have commented that having a focus on serving our community through this has helped them lead their families through this in a positive way as well. We are thriving now more than we were before COVID, because we made the choice to be at our best and pull together. Our Board provided amazing support, and our regulatory agencies such as Indian Health Services and Health and Human Services etc. have been amazing. We have felt that they could see our team step up, and they too stepped up to support us with the what we needed from funding, to PPEs and COVID testing equipment.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    I view my life that everything happens for a reason. Every situation both good and bad are designed to help me prepare for the next challenge in life. My mom was a very inspirational part of my life. I had a difficult time in school as a kid with ADHD. My mom always believed in me, at many times, more than I believed in myself. She passed away a few years ago, and during her last days there were medical errors involved that really compelled me to do everything I can to improve quality for our patients and to truly advocate for our patients, every patient, every time. I see patients as if they were a family member and how would I want them cared for. While at Sharp there was a medical error resulting in a death, and that man’s wife has become a strong mentor to me. Reggie Smith, in her late 80’s and does not skip a beat, leads their Patient Advisory Council. Reggie picked up where my mom left off. That sustains my drive to be at my best, and know that I was put where I am for a greater purpose, and I am committed to accepting the responsibility to make a difference in the lives of those I am entrusted to care for.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    I believe optimism is critical. We must be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But the leader also must be a realist and help navigate through difficult times, and not be afraid to make critical decisions. The leader must have a nurturing sense, but also provide the structure necessary to push through the difficult times. A leader will always be criticized, but in challenging times we must have the courage to move forward and build momentum through consensus building at times, but also at the right time decisive action needed to keep the organization upright and on track.

    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?

    Through COVID-19, our team went through an exercise. Over 70 employees created their own personal mission statement. This was a powerful exercise for each member of the team to reflect on who they are, what is the contribution they offer to this world and those around them. Many shared with me how impacted they were not only in creating their own personal mission statement, but when they read their peers mission statements they realized how they are surrounded by amazing people all striving to do good, and work together to make our health center the best we can be.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    We have to be clear and concise, and always transparent. In addition, we need to always have a way forward for whatever the difficult news is, in other words, “Now what?” and “Where do we go from here?” are very important, and connect the dots, what have we learned, what is the impact, and how will we navigate through this.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    As they say, failing to plan is planning to fail. For me, I chose to always prepare for the worst, yet hope for the best. We have to become very agile in the times we are in. We must be able to pivot in our strategies and learn to take advantage of data analytics to help us predict what is to come and how it will impact our organization. For example, before COVID our Dental Department was the highest performing. When COVID hit, Dental took the greatest hit because we had to put significant changes in place due to dental requiring aerosolized procedures which put patients and staff at greatest risk. We had to mitigate this risk. After COVID, the highest performing became our Behavioral Health department having huge increases in depression, anxiety and isolation issues patients were facing. We had to adjust quickly to the TeleTherapy, TeleDental, and TeleHealth modality of seeing patients. Had we not been able to quickly adjust to the new normal, we would have suffered significantly. Interestingly, members of our board and executive team predicted right when COVID started that we would likely see an increase in Behavioral Health patients, and because we had that foresight, we were able to meet the demand.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    Stay anchored in the mission, purpose, and vision of the organization. Remain true to that and be proactive in the customers you serve, and they will not forget how you rose to the occasion to continue to care for them even during difficult times.

    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. Fear of pushing forward
    2. Fear of making critical decisions in a timely manner
    3. Losing sight of what our purpose is
    4. Genuinely believe that failure is not an option

    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?

    Just before COVID, fortunately we identified some risks that we had as an organization. One was not having a competent leader to oversee program development and funding. We brought in an amazing person, Martin Furey, who is well connected, highly intelligent, and aligned with our vision. Martin immediately took the lead with our CFO, Tim Nguyen, in exploring the different funding sources to get through this while other leaders began assessing their departments to help their team transition to a highly agile workforce. Get the right talent on the team and help them see the vision so together we can move forward gaining ground and seeking every opportunity possible to advance our purpose in caring for our patients and their families.

    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.

    1. First, the leader must immediately assess themselves as a leader, a SWOT analysis. This will help them better position themselves to lead through this difficult time.
    2. Stay close to the leadership team. Our Executive Leadership Team and Board have a close relationship. We depend on each other and respect each other’s expertise.
    3. Assess the uncertainty and read everyday to make sure you have the best information at hand to make decisions.
    4. Use data to make decisions, and when strategies are not showing results, do not be afraid to change them to adapt to the situation so they can be effective.
    5. Find the time to have a sense of humor and show optimism to your team. This one is exceedingly difficult at times, but if those around us do not see light at the end of the tunnel they might start to give up.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    If you treat people as they are, they will become worse. If you treat them as they could be, they will become better. If we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

    -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Paraphrased)

    The relevance of this quote has had profound impact on my life. Years ago, I met a young man in the drive-through of a Jack in the Box. While waiting for my order, I asked him, “Are you going to college?” He said no, he had dropped out of high school, but when he was younger, he used to think he could become a lawyer. I gave him my card, telling him we had a program, and if he was serious, he could get his GED then go to college and make his dream come true. Not only did he earn his GED, but then earned his Bachelors, went to law school, and he is a practicing attorney here in San Diego. He shared with me that I had believed in him more than he believed in himself. I thought I was mentoring him, but he also mentored me. He was the one that told me I should go to college despite learning challenges with ADHD. I listened, and now I have masters and a doctorate, all because he, too, believed in me more than I believed in myself.

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