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 Marie Olesen, CEO of La Jolla Cosmetic Surgery Centre and Medical Spa. Marie teaches and speaks internationally on the interrelated topics of patient satisfaction and business performance. She’s created two software companies to enable practices to define, deliver and monitor care touchpoints and measure patient satisfaction. The focus of Marie’s career has centered around two principles.
“Helping good doctors take better care of their patients:” Marie began working in medicine during college and her career has focused on creating great patient experiences. She began surveying La Jolla Cosmetic Surgery patients in 1988. She used their feedback to guide development of care and communication systems that enhanced patient satisfaction and improved business performance. She is a contributing author to The Business of Plastic Surgery. Marie designed the first CRM software in cosmetic medicine in the mid 90’s and sold the company to a subsidiary of J&J. Her software enabled practices to define care systems and to monitor and manage patient experiences to insure optional satisfaction.
“Helping patients find the good doctors.” Marie’s second life mission became apparent when her husband, R. Merrel Olesen, MD, founded LJCSC in 1988. They quickly became aware that consumers didn’t know how to choose cosmetic surgery providers and needed to be educated to make safer choices. The Olesens co-authored Cosmetic Surgery For Dummies in 2004. Dr Olesen focused on the medical education and Marie helped readers understand and evaluate provider training and certification. In 2011, she created realpatientratings.com, to provide a trusted source that would enable practices to tell the true story of their quality and enable consumers to use 100% verified reviews to make better decisions.
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 am passionate about delivering great patient experiences. I made my first customer complaint at age 12 to Disneyland. I still have the response from the hotel manager who acknowledged the problem, said they were fixing it and invited me back! It was a life-changing lesson.
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?
When we built our first office in downtown La Jolla, it was very luxurious like a European hotel. But when the patients came, many were not comfortable, the opposite of my intentions. Later we moved onto the campus of Scripps Hospital in the XIMED building, and while it is still a very pretty office, the more casual décor has broader appeal. In this case, the lesson, is to try to understand what your patients want before you think for them and potentially make a mistake.
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?
In my late 20’s, I was heading the Admitting Department at Scripps Hospital. I became terribly ill and nearly died. Paul Ellingsen, my brother-in-law, owned and operated skilled nursing facilities and urged me to come and work for him so I could take extra time off if I needed it. I will always be thankful for that because I learned a lot from him. He was passionate about great patient care in an industry with many poor operators. He wanted things to be right for the patients. He had remarkably high standards for cleanliness. He was an innovator. He designed a cart that brought food from the kitchen to the resident areas and then served it directly to the patients so that food would be hot. He understood the value of a strong team and had many long-term employees who appreciated how he cared for patients. He was a kind and fair boss. His thinking and attitudes affirmed my natural inclinations.
While I no longer oversee the care of physically defenseless patients, I believe that most patients in medicine need more support, help and education related to their medical care. I also carried forward my deep belief that such care is best delivered by a stable, kind, “work family” who knows they are valued for their contributions to creating great patient experiences.
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?
When we founded La Jolla Cosmetic Surgery Centre in 1988, we found a saying, “The Secret of Success is doing what you have to do, better than you have to do It.” This resonated because patients cannot really judge medical quality, so they are vulnerable to bad actors. Like every other profession, not all medical providers have the same ethics putting the consumer at risk. Remember, this was pre-internet and cosmetic surgery was still in its infancy.
One of our primary concerns was that cosmetic patients did not know how to find the good doctors. Patients did not understand the protections of Board Certification and many doctors quoted fake boards. Because it generally occurred in outpatient facilities, the normal vetting of surgeons by hospital medical staffs did not occur. The safety and quality protections of certified operating rooms were missing in the outpatient setting. Many doctors took shortcuts that impacted safety and patient experiences, such as having registered nurses on their teams. We have literally taught consumers what to look for. We have had a certified operating room, all board-certified surgeons and MD anesthesiologists long before it ultimately was mandated. This carries on today with a great deal of misinformation about local versus monitored anesthesia and the misconceptions can put patients at risk.
Thank you for all that. Let us 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?
Looking back on the 32 years of our practice, I can think of several difficult periods. Both the breast implant crises in 1990 and the recession of 2008 were driven by external factors. Internal issues forced us to close our Dermatology division in 2010.
Each of these impacted our business volumes and reductions in staff or time worked by our staff because of decreased patient activity. We have found that the best way to handle these times are with transparency both internally to the team and outwardly to our patients and to the community. When we closed our Dermatology Division, we had to reduce our staff by 20%. We had a team meeting to make a plan. Our choices were to eliminate one in five staff members, or everyone could stay, but work a day less for a time. The team chose to preserve all jobs at lower hours. Now ten years later, many people are still with our practice. When COVID occurred, we had to make similar decisions. Everyone remembered what happened in 2010 and we approached it with similar transparency.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
We all have doubts sometimes, but I have never been with a business that failed, just went through hard times. Staying positive is important. My Dad once said to me, “If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, you’re analyzing the situation incorrectly!” I think that is true. I believe whatever is happening can ultimately be converted to good. And even in the most difficult situations, there are moments of kindness and teamwork and caring that might not be evident but for the difficulty of the situation. You learn a lot from how people react to adversity.
In my role as an owner and leader, many people depend on me, not only the staff but the patients or customers, so giving up is not an option. With COVID, we have the additional issue of safety. We must protect our team, but also protect the business that all of us depend upon. That is a harder line to walk. In these uncertain times, the team needs to have confidence that we will make good decisions that protect their lives and livelihoods.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Never let them see you sweat! When times are scary, it is more important than ever to be calm and hopeful, and to keep moving forward as best you can. Again, from my Dad, “It’s ok to pray, but row to shore…” An organization must make as many positive actions as possible to protect and preserve for better times. Use the changes needed in challenging times to find new ways of doing things that can carry forward to the better times to come.
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?
Communicate and stay calm. During COVID, I have done a fair amount of communicating to our team, our patient base, and the community. The message is slightly different, but the direction is the same. We will get through this and here is how we can do so safely. If whatever we are doing does not work as anticipated, then recalibrate, fix it, and try again until you get it right.
COVID really takes a toll because we cannot physically connect as easily; some people are working from home, there is less “visiting” and sharing happy stories. We do not get the revitalization that occurs in a happy workplace. We used to have a lot more fun and we are looking forward to seeing that element of our life and business return to normal.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Authentically and candidly. I lead a large team of 45 people. Normally, we are serving patients in two offices as well as our surgery suites. People work different times of day and there is not a good way to connect so I do a lot of communicating in writing. Pre-COVID, we could have a team meeting and recently, we have done several virtual team meetings. I wrote a number of blogs to our patients which I shared internally as well. We have received many compliments from patients and staff about how important those calm messages were in such uncertain times. We do not think you can do too much of this.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It is hard but doing anything well requires constant attention and effort so you should already have some “listening” systems in place to anticipate changes and needed adaption. With COVID’s evolving requirements and recommendations, our “plans” are much more likely to need more frequent modification, but we are trying to bring some order and structure, nonetheless. Ultimately, I regard surmounting difficulties as a test of capability and character, both for me and our team.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Teamwork. Gather a team of like-minded people who work together toward the achievement of something important, your shared vision and beliefs. Focus on helping your team, support each other and bring the value you intend to the community.
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?
- Taking unethical shortcuts: While this is a problem for many businesses, it can be really dangerous in medicine. Compromising safety for money is not an acceptable path. Learn how to run your business safely and profitably.
- Devaluing your team: In medicine, many practices are run by doctors who say to their staffs, “Serve me” and run a hierarchical organization where staff don’t feel valued and where, frankly, it’s much harder to deliver great patient experiences. Instead, say, “Join me” All of us working in harmony can create memorable patient experiences that lead to personal satisfaction, longevity of the practice and great reputations.
- Not Understanding patient needs: Those of us in medicine can forget what it is like to be an outsider. Some practices do not take the time to understand their patient needs and to be sure the team fulfills those expectations.
- Not asking for feedback: I have been surveying patients since 1988. Using their feedback lead to great improvements in our practice and to our enjoyment of our work life and satisfaction. Their comments in the form of ratings and reviews are very affirming that we are on the right path. We have thousands of 5-star reviews and we share them with our team. This year in 2020, we are honored to win our 20th Best of San Diego award from the Union Tribune Readers’ Poll. While our practice has won many awards over the years, we cherish the community recognition involved in these awards.
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?
- Adapt: Circumstances are always changing, and you have to be ready to evolve. We used to do virtually all our patient visits at the office. Now we offer virtual appointments. For example, one of the steps for someone considering cosmetic surgery or a med spa procedure is a visit called a “consultation”. The patient discusses their desires and concerns with a surgeon or provider. In the past the patient had to drive to our office, park, and drive home. It could take hours depending on how far they live from our office. Now this visit is virtual, and everyone is happier, more relaxed. We have learned that coming to our office was more intimidating than we realized.
- Depend on Data: I am a huge believer in using data to make decisions. While we can always use the authority of leadership, I prefer to use data so that everyone understands what is compelling the change.
- Build a strong, stable team capable of adapting during difficult time. Some practices are very casual about staff turnover. They accept it as normal. We really want to choose good people and keep them for a long time. Sometimes as we make changes, such as opening our medical spa, we have more turnover as we learn the traits of people that will be successful in the new environment, but ultimately, we find and keep the right people.
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.
- Stay focused on your mission…do not let the uncertainties damage your core systems, in our case caring for patients with kindness and competence. With COVID safety protocols, we cannot care for the same number of people, so we had to develop new ways of caring for patients within our facilities safely and responsibly.
- Communicate: Keep communicating and make every attempt to be a source of positive energy and positive actions.
- Be ready to listen: LJCSC is what we call a “work family”. We have all been together for a very long time and everyone needs to feel they have a voice and their issues will get a fair hearing and potentially influence change. With me away from the office because of my age and COVID risk, my COO, Janelle Robinson, has had to be my eyes and ears. In taking on a larger role, she and I reorganized, and I took over tasks that could be completed from afar and she took over some of my on-site responsibilities. We have worked together for many years so were able to make this transition.
- Increase patient/customer feedback: During times like this, you really need to know how your customer is responding to the changes you are having to make. We are really diligent about continuing to survey our patients and to share their feedback, which has mostly been positive. We try to learn from issues that caused disappointment.
- Try to create normalcy: This is the hardest because with all the COVID precautions, there is a “new normal” but it is not as calm or as enjoyable as our previous work life. Janelle is planning our first virtual staff social event — everyone at work and at home is dressing for our annual Pool Party Palooza (which we had to cancel). We want to celebrate our 20 Best wins, take a break, laugh, and have fun at work again.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
During WWII, there was a poster, Keep Calm and Carry On. I love that sentiment. I have become better at this as I have gotten older. I believe in staying positive and making a difference with our daily activities. The short-term negatives are just that, a temporary problem until time or events enable us to resolve it and put it into perspective. Ultimately, we must decide how we want to react to the vagaries of our daily lives. If we believe, as I do, that what comes to us is meant for our good, then all the time people spend railing at Fate is wasted. It is better to just get through it, hence, Keep Calm and Carry On…
How can our readers further follow your work?
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