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 Leonard Polonsky.
As Founder and CEO of MedStock, a leading supplier of medical, pharmaceutical and office equipment to clinics, hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other facilities across the U.S., Leonard Polonsky transformed a personal passion into a lifetime career. As CEO of a federally funded Health Center and later a hospital in Long Island, New York, Leonard had the opportunity to become more intimately aware of the healthcare issues of residents needing dire assistance. These real-life experiences together with his passion have culminated in establishing MedStock in 2003. Leonard’s vision for MedStock is to provide medical equipment and supplies to a wider community in need of exceptional partners, identifying a niche in the provision of comprehensive healthcare. MedStock is just what the doctor ordered, offering support and guidance for every customer with every order. For more information and to speak with a consultant today, visit www.medstockusa.com.
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?
My interest in the healthcare management industry stemmed from my childhood; my mother passed at a young age from a very rare cancer in her early 40’s. As I grew older and researched the treatments she was offered and the care she was given, I was disappointed to learn that there could have been more done to help her. I wanted to gain the experience to help others.
Having received my graduate degree in public health management, I spent the bulk of my career helping small to midsize medical centers and hospitals offer the best care and policies. I worked in the health insurance industry and spent time as CEO of a hospital. That’s where I noticed there was not only a huge gap in the distribution chain, but in the ability to obtain alternate products and overall assistance (aside from just taking orders) specifically for medical centers and multi-specialty doctors’ offices without those big names attached to the side of their buildings. I decided to bridge this gap by creating MedStock 20 years ago.
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?
One of my first clients based locally in Brooklyn requested an immediate order for ‘body bags’. When I asked her how many she needed, the reply was 10,000. Keep in mind that this number of body bags is unusually high, and my mind began to wonder… Is there something about to happen in New York where a hospital might need 10,000 body bags? What are you preparing for?!
I decided to ask her and see if there might be something going on where they expect so many people to die suddenly. She then told me, “No, no, no! I meant the large garbage bags that are as big as a person, the five-foot-high garbage bags!”
We had a good laugh (and I asked her to be more specific with the next order), but it reminded me that it’s very important to speak up and ask questions if something doesn’t feel right. Always be sure to listen and ask questions, and don’t be afraid to figure out what you don’t know in order to get the right result.
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?
I once attended a trade show when I was just starting my company and saw someone I hadn’t seen in 20 years who owned another medical supply company in Chicago. He came over to me and shared a heartfelt thank you. Years ago, when I was running a health center, he noted he was just starting out as a salesman. He came to my office and asked if I could give him some orders. I decided to give him a shot with a few orders even though I had never worked with that distributor. It turns out that his manager was going to fire him by the end of that week because he hadn’t received a single order. Apparently, my order came in on Thursday and saved his job. We talked for a while about the industry, and he gave me a great piece of advice to better position MedStock: You need to focus on new products coming into the arena that can help people in a unique way. I never forgot that — it was great advice.
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?
Based on the advice I received, I stayed laser-focused on what the company’s vision was at the start — focusing on new useful products that can help others in a unique way.
I’ve also learned that it’s very important to be flexible and adapt. You can’t have a firm goal at the start, but instead need to be nimble and shift as needed while understanding the current economic, political climate and the needs of your clients. For me, it was working and supporting small doctors’ offices (those under 10 doctors) since I knew from experience that the big distributors only cater to big doctors’ offices. There needed to be a dedicated company to bring the right products at the right price to those who needed them. It also made us expand into selling office supplies, since the demand from doctors was to have a ‘one stop shop’.
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 best example of this was the past year dealing with COVID-19. It’s been a time of drastic change and has been difficult for almost everyone around the world. It taught me as a leader to act quickly and lead with concern and optimism to get the job done.
As a small business, we had the option to furlough everyone as we weren’t importing any Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) due to the shortage. Fortunately, we didn’t have to furlough anyone and have extremely loyal employees who knew how important it was to get much needed medical supplies out to the medical centers on time. They worked tirelessly with the proper equipment in the warehouse and around the clock from home to make deliveries to those who needed it the most. Like everyone else, we were unsure how to navigate this new way of working and how long it might last, but from the start we made sure that every virtual employee had the right phones, computers, cloud-based software and other items to successfully help hospital staff take care of their rising patient load, especially those hospitals in New York that were hit the hardest.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No! It’s not an option when others rely on us for their gloves, masks, bandages and more. Especially during this time when resources were scarce.
One thing that has stayed with me throughout this whole experience was at the beginning of the pandemic before it hit New York. I was asked by a colleague based in China to donate masks for those in need because they were hard to get, and the situation was dire. We donated and shipped a significant amount of product to those families, and they were so grateful for the help. To help just a little bit and protect others, those are moments that drive us to do what we do.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role is to have clear communication and strong direction. Never forget what you set out to do and how hard you worked to get here. Offering clear communication to your team (whether they are remote or in an office) is crucial to ensuring everyone is on the same page. Don’t underestimate the power of your words.
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?
Being honest with your team is important. If you’re constantly optimistic and letting everyone know it’s all great but it’s soon about to crumble, it doesn’t do anyone good. Let them know about the difficulties you are facing as a team and offer solutions on how to work together to combat them. Having a ‘we’ mentality is paramount to success. That said, a little optimism and encouragement can go a long way.
I also truly believe that you’re not too big to do anything. A CEO can pick up trash or pack up boxes just like everyone else when needed. Putting actionable proof behind your words shows dedication and lets everyone know that you are a part of their team.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
No one wants to try to read between the lines. It’s best to cut to the chase and say it straight. There’s no point in lying, and I always try to look for a glimmer of hope to share. And a little humor if appropriate.
I also think that the right body language is crucial while you’re giving difficult news. Don’t be too stiff, use open arms and soft body language to show that you care and are empathetic to the situation. With that, preparing for the conversation can help ease your nerves and make sure you have the right tone, nonverbal cues and speaking points. During the conversation, take the time to explain the rationale as needed. Your team deserves to know your thought process and the facts behind any decisions that impact their livelihood.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You just have to make plans no matter what. If you believe in yourself and what you’re working towards, you just have to get up every day and be a leader. Sure, things can change but try to make educated decisions regarding your business and be aware of what’s happening in the world that might affect it. A few key strategies to implement can include:
- Maintain flexibility in the structure and work process so your teams can be nimble and evolve as needed.
- Develop check-ins and regular reporting across teams and management so everyone is kept in the loop on important updates.
- Set targets and expectations of your team so they know what they’re working towards in the short and long term.
- Be available to anyone who needs time with you and show you are invested.
- Be decisive. Even if it’s on the tough decisions, you need to be a leader who has a vision and confidently moves towards it.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Focus on your people. They are who represents the company when they pick up the phone or answer a Zoom call, and they’re either leading with love or resentment and frustration. Foster an environment where they can thrive, learn and be happy.
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?
- Giving up too quickly! Give yourself time to see things through before you think of giving up.
- Being too broad or too niche with your offering. For instance, just selling needles or gloves at a good price leaves yourself open for competitors to undercut you.
- Try, try, try. It’s very easy to be introspective but you need to keep your strength and leverage your network, use social media, and think outside of yourself.
- Waiting for the perfect time. Nothing is ever perfect and there is never a perfect time. If you want to launch a new service or go after new business, don’t wait until things are ‘just so’. You need to get out there before you miss your window!
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?
For us, it was very important to take the time to build up our website and ensure ease of use for our clients to purchase remotely. It’s where most of our business comes because it’s so easy for purchasers and has been around since 2001 — several years before our (much larger) competitors. Knowing what’s most important to your clients is key. I’d also say that service, no matter what business you’re in, is crucial. Continue to offer the same level of service throughout this time, call clients to check in and be in touch with partners. You’re not the only one going through this and we make it out stronger together.
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.
- Believe in the company and the quest. It’s so important as you start a business to really home in on the mission and what you stand for. In times of crisis, this will always be an anchor to help guide you. At MedStock, we’re helping doctors help people — and it’s important work that we need to believe in so we can move forward and do our part to help during this difficult time.
- Establish a plan. Take a step back and take a moment to breathe. Try to create a strategic plan looking at things from a macro, then micro level. How will this affect my business and employees? Today, in six months, or one year? Since uncertainty is one of the biggest causes of anxiety for teams, knowing that their leader has a plan to navigate through this can be very helpful for morale and output.
- Communicate. Once a plan is established, make sure you clearly communicate regularly to your team. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the everyday minutiae (especially if you’re all working remotely) and forget about communicating clearly with purpose and confidence. Let them know where the business is, any plans to make big changes and how things will continue during the turbulent times.
- Don’t be afraid to try new things. Although you might not think that a tough time is the right time to experiment, it may give you time to try a few new things that might benefit your business in the long run. We took the time to revamp our operations and website, so things run smoother for our clients. Don’t be afraid to take a little step outside your comfort zone if time and resources allow.
- Join forces. It’s important to build a strong network around you and your business, as you never know where opportunities for your business might arise and the chance to help someone succeed. At the start of the pandemic, we leaned on others in the industry to help fill each other’s gaps to help hospitals in need. If we have the gloves and they have the N95 masks, we can help each other out where possible.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A favorite quote from a previous boss which always stuck with me is: ‘It’s a small thing, but it’s a big thing’. The way individuals act in small ways show how they view and value everything. If you do the little things right, you will do big things right in life too. It’s indicative of how someone is at their core and has been an important reminder in my life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Please visit our website at www.medstockusa.com or Instagram — @medstockusa. Thank you!