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 Phil Meer.
Phil Meer was appointed CEO of PatientKeeper in 2020. He brings to PatientKeeper 20 years of experience in customer-facing leadership roles at enterprise software and healthcare IT organizations, and a career-long focus on ensuring customer success and operational excellence.
Meer joined PatientKeeper from Evariant, a leading healthcare consumer and physician engagement company, where he served as Executive Vice President, Customer Experience. Prior to Evariant, he held various business operational leadership roles at Automatic Data Processing Inc. (ADP).
Meer graduated Summa Cum Laude from Brandeis University, studied at the London School of Economics, and earned his MBA from the New York University Stern School of Business.
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 started with PatientKeeper as CEO in early March, and had five days in the office prior to moving fully to a remote work environment due to COVID-19. In terms of my history, I was born and raised in New Jersey and I currently live in West Hartford, CT, with my wife and three children. Professionally, I consider myself an operator, as opposed to an innovator, and I’ve always enjoyed tinkering to find ways to take existing processes and technologies and make them faster, less complex, more reliable, more consistent, and less costly. I began my professional career in the late ’90s, first as a Software Project Manager and then as a Customer Support Manager. I have an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business, where I was President of the Student Government. Afterwards, I spent eight years with ADP, a Fortune 500 company, running a variety of operational functions. My entry into healthcare was with Evariant, a pioneer in healthcare CRM technology (the company was acquired by Healthgrades Inc. in December 2019), where I served as EVP of Operations. This venture exposed me to healthcare technology and the enormous opportunity to improve the clinician experience and, in turn, to improve patient care through faster, more intuitive solutions that respect the time and value of the clinician. Throughout my career, I have been focused on how software can improve the professional lives of those using it, and PatientKeeper is laser focused on this important mission.
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?
The punchline is that the perceived need for speed is often in direct conflict with doing things “right”. When I was early in my career, as a traveling consulting project manager I was asked to submit a weekly expense report directly to my client for audit purposes. Instead, I attached my timesheet, which exposed my internal billable “rate”, which was far less than what the client was paying my company. (The markup on some junior consultants can be astronomical!)
It would have taken an extra minute to perform quality control on my work. It might have taken another few hours to better understand why my “internal rate” was ever on my timesheet, and to implement automation and quality control internally to ensure that this mistake could never occur again. This is a funny and relatively harmless example, but my take away was that in business and in life, it is often necessary to go slower to move faster. By identifying root causes behind problems and addressing these, you can mistake-proof a product or process and, ultimately, do things “right.”
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 several individuals I would say helped shape me. The particular individual that comes to mind is Eric Egnet, former CIO of Cross Country Healthcare Inc., who I worked for when I managed their ERP support helpdesk. Eric taught me so many lessons, more around leadership behavior and emotional intelligence than anything. When working in software, you are serving end users of varying technological acumen. I was on the receiving end of a very emotional end user who encountered a bug in the software, preventing the user from performing a critical function. Eric’s advice was “stay the course” and “you can’t be everything to everyone.” Eric taught me the importance of emotional self-control and courage of conviction in the face of adversity. After many years leading software delivery teams, I have adopted my own mantra, which is: “They say perception is reality, and they are completely wrong. Reality is reality. Ignore perception, and focus on what you can tangibly improve and execute.”
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 PatientKeeper started over 20 years ago, its focus was on helping physicians capture their professional charges on the rudimentary mobile devices of the day. The company’s mission has evolved and expanded over time; now we exist “to advance healthcare by creating instinctive, empowering technology that respects the importance of the physician.” With technological innovation, one can forget that healthcare is very personal, and the relationship between the physician and her patient should be the highest priority, and where the most time and energy is spent. Our purpose is to improve the physician experience through using our technology to eliminate or simplify the non-patient facing tasks required of a physician. PatientKeeper makes performing research faster, makes collaboration easier, leverages mobility, simplifies the creation of physician notes and accelerates order entry, all from one secure platform. If we are successful, physicians spend more time caring for patients, and less time on everything else.
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?
I can share a very recent example. It was my first month as CEO of PatientKeeper, March 2020. I came prepared to launch a new era at the company. We were about to exhibit at HIMSS, the annual healthcare IT industry event that traditionally has been our biggest and best opportunity to engage our customers for feedback, launch new products, and build our sales pipeline. Within two weeks after starting my new position, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, HIMSS was cancelled, the stock market was crashing, and the financial stability, capacity and equipment required for the U.S. healthcare system to function was in doubt. To make this tangible, I could not even shake hands with my new staff, as I observed fear in their eyes in the first days and weeks of the pandemic. Moreover, the economic uncertainty required PatientKeeper to adjust financially. We immediately dismissed contractors, executed an across-the-board employee pay cut, froze hiring, and reduced discretionary spending. This was all in the interest of the financial position of our parent company and owner, HCA Healthcare, and our understandable mandate to divert available resources towards the direct care of patients and preserving employee jobs.
The first priority of any new leader should be to build trust; it was seemingly impossible to do this in an environment where I had to execute some very drastic and immediate actions without the benefit of a workforce that knew me and trusted me. So I was forced to adapt. “Management-by-walking-around” was impossible; instead, I made an effort to speak, or Zoom, or WebEx, one-on-one with as many employees as possible, at least eight per week. I’ve been doing that for five months now, and will continue to do it until I’ve connected with all 200+ PatientKeeper employees. The same goes for our customers. It had been my intention to personally visit every PatientKeeper customer within my first six months on the job. Out of necessity, those visits have taken the form of virtual visits, which is less than optimal; but they’ve actually been surprisingly effective and rewarding.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never ever considered giving up. Of course, the situation was not one any new, first time, CEO would ever desire. I took this position specifically because of the great impact that PatientKeeper has on the care and well-being of the providers using our platform and the patients that they serve. The initial weeks of COVID-19 presented the ultimate opportunity where I as CEO was forced to make and to communicate some extremely difficult messages.
My motivation to push through these challenges came from my customers. I was driven by the fact that I had 75,000+ clinicians depending on my company for core functionality, for support, and for our mobile capabilities which, in the time of COVID, were more relevant than ever before. The thought that a physician could view a patient’s chart, place an order, view an x-ray, send a secure message all through PatientKeeper’s technology meant that there was no other choice but to stay positive, work harder, and send a message of persistence to my employees and to my customers. We simply could not give up. Caring deeply about my customers and their success sustained my drive.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
There are three, all equally important:
- Inspire: During challenging times, a leader has to inspire all stakeholders to stay the course and focus on the job at hand in spite of challenging times. Inspiration comes from regularly reminding those of the greater mission around why we do what we do. In my case, within four weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, my team collected requests that came into our support organization for COVID-19-specific changes required to support patient care. We reviewed these and created a bundle of ‘free services’ available to all customers, on request, at no charge. Taking this action inspired our employees, and reminded them that we are doing our small part to support our customers selflessly during this challenging period.
- Communicate: It is imperative for a leader to communicate clearly, slowly, repetitively, and across multiple forums, always, but especially during challenging times. In the case of COVID, my Senior Team and I agreed to shut down our office on March 12th. We communicated the “why” behind the decision (employee safety) and communicated specific steps that we would require in order to maintain a strong, collaborative, productive work culture (i.e. standards for video conferencing etc.). I scheduled a series of All Hands Meetings where questions were answered transparently, sent one or two company emails per week with updates, and scheduled one-on-one meetings over a six-month period with every employee to ensure that I, personally, had an open line of communication to the employees that entrust me as their CEO.
- Appreciate: During challenging times, often employees are asked to do more, with less, under a time constraint. Unfortunately, some leaders forget the mental health impact of such demands, especially with COVID-19, as we did not know (nor could we predict) the impact that this pandemic was having on our employees outside the workplace. As such, a leader must demonstrate genuine appreciation for their employees, and must go out of their way to recognize individuals for hard work. At PatientKeeper, we gave all employees an extra day off for mental health, and encouraged our employees to regularly take breaks away from their screens during the workday. We discourage communicating after hours and on weekends. We made it a point to spend extra time appreciating employees and holding virtual events through our employee action team during work hours as a reward for our employees (and as a way of inspiring our employees to stay positive as we dealt with the financial and logistical impacts of COVID).
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?
The best way to boost morale is to focus your words and actions on the concept of “kaizen”, meaning “to make better”; actual positive action in the face of a challenge is the best way to demonstrate the strength of a leader and of a team. During challenging times, psychologically we can often perceive things that are not true. The human mind can build a narrative that is, often, worse than reality. My job as a leader is to remind the team that each positive action that makes our employee and customer experience better is worthy of celebration. Executing small, incremental steps towards improving a process, product, or service goes a long way toward demonstrating that a team can succeed, even in the face of uncertainty. It is action, and not words, that is my primary tool to use to demonstrate success and boost morale. A favorite quote of mine is, “In order to lose 100 pounds, you have to first lose one, and celebrate that win; then lose another, and celebrate that win.” Each “kaizen” helps demonstrate that a team can and will succeed, especially in times of uncertainty.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The following are best practices that I personally have found effective as it relates to communicating difficult messages:
- It is important to start with a direct and empathetic message, as opposed to “spinning” or waiting to deliver the news. A good place to start from is: “Unfortunately, I have some difficult news to share that I will do my best to articulate as clearly as possible. While this is not easy for us, it is my duty to directly and transparently share this news and to support you as you process this information.”
- It is important to communicate verbally and visually (in person or through a visual UI such as WebEx, Zoom, etc. versus via phone or email).
- It is important to speak slowly and in an empathetic tone. It is important to pause, to let people receive the news, to be methodical in communicating the news, to share the “why this is happening” behind the news, to assure everyone of your support throughout the challenging time, then again to recap the news.
- It is critical to be transparent and not “spin” or use “corporate speak”. In challenging times, people want to see a genuine leader, not a corporate spokesperson.
- Lastly, it is important to share what you know and to acknowledge what you do not know. In times of uncertainty many are looking to their leader for certainty and binary, definitive answers. However, making definitive statements absent complete information is irresponsible. As an example, amidst COVID-19, I have been asked several times when the office will reopen, or whether our budget would be impacted long term. I always answer transparently with the information that I have, and remind my team that the situation is fluid and is subject to change, so no guarantees. It is always okay to say, “As of now I can share what I know — but to be clear this situation may change, and as soon as it does, I will communicate this.”
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As a leader, my job is to make short-, medium-, and long-term plans using the best available data and information I have at the time the plans are made. It also means anticipating what could happen to derail a plan, and having a plan for a “failure mode”. There are some easy frameworks that a leader can use for these exercises. To make a plan, use DMAIC (Define the objective, Measure current state, Analyze actions required to execute a plan and to identify barriers to success, Improve current state, and Control the change through systems and structure). To plan for potential failure points, use FMEA (Failure Mode Effects Analysis). List what could happen to derail your plan, measure the likelihood of that event occurring, and determine a plan for if that failure were to occur. For those failures that have a higher than acceptable likelihood of occurring, having a documented contingency response plan is a hedge against uncertainty and a confidence builder for your team.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My number one principle is “stay focused on your customers”. It sounds trite, but that’s the simple truth. Regardless of the economic (or medical) environment, or any internal “distractions”, you can never, ever go wrong with listening to and delivering consistent value for your customer. That involves maintaining close and consistent communication with customers — ideally multiple contacts within each customer — in order to keep a finger on the pulse of their business and your business relationship with them (which are two separate issues). If you stick with them, chances are they’ll stick with you.
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?
One common mistake companies make is losing focus on their core by reaching for the shiny object — some new thing that’s all the rage. It could be the new, hot technology; or a new distribution channel; or an “emerging market”. For example, in the healthcare industry today “telehealth” is dominating the headlines; and, especially during a pandemic, there’s no debating that telehealth is an invaluable technology-enabled service. But it would be a mistake for our company to try to jump into that area, because our expertise and mission is streamlining physician workflow, not patient engagement. We succeed best as a company when we stay focused and deliver on our core capability. To be clear, I’m not arguing against “innovation”; I’m warning against “distraction”.
Another mistake some companies make is prioritizing winning new business over servicing their existing customers. Nothing is more valuable to a company than its customer base. It’s essential that there be a team or department dedicated to customer success, and that each major customer has an “executive sponsor” on the company’s leadership team who has personal responsibility for the health of that business relationship, in addition to their other duties.
A third mistake companies make during difficult times is optimizing for the short term. This could result in abandoning long term, multi-year projects and investments to ensure short term business objectives are met. The temptation to optimize for the short term (for example, freezing employee perks, putting long term strategic initiatives on hold, eliminating marketing spend, or cutting investments in G&A functions) to preserve short term business continuity and stability is real, especially during challenging times. However, losing focus on longer term company culture, innovative initiatives, and customer needs will, in the long run, damage a company.
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?
Focus on getting better at what you’re already good at — I’m a big believer in “incremental improvement” — to cement or extend your competitive advantage. Don’t embark on a completely new green field initiative; instead, re-purpose or re-package existing capabilities to meet market needs. One great strategy is to deeply analyze your product’s adoption levels. What features are your customers using most? At what times of day? Do they prefer to access your product through mobile devices or through desktops? PatientKeeper spent many cycles looking at our adoption levels and focused greatly on driving adoption — essentially increasing the value of our solutions to our existing customers, in lieu of focusing on new business during a turbulent time in healthcare. The result has been record customer retention and several “same store sales” to our existing customer base in 2020.
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.
Prioritize with a focus on value: The most important thing a leader can do during uncertain times is to focus a team, organization, or population. Make sure that the answer to the question “why are we here” remains crystal clear. In business, the focus should be on providing customers with consistent value.
At PatientKeeper, the onset of COVID meant that we could not fund all of the initiatives we wanted to execute, so we launched a program called the Critical Few to narrow our company focus and resources on only those 3–5 initiatives that provide the most value to our customers.
Inspire and appreciate employees: As a leader, you are responsible for setting a strategy and for serving your employees to help them to perform to the best of their capabilities. Barriers to employee success are typically psychological. During uncertain times, employees, rightfully, are less likely to prioritize their performance at work above concerns about more important matters: health, family, money, safety, etc.
During the early days of the pandemic, my primary mechanism of inspiring employees was to remind my employees of HCA Healthcare’s mission: “Above all else, we are committed to the care and improvement of human life.” PatientKeeper’s specific mission is to advance healthcare with instinctive, empowering technology that respects the importance of physicians. This regular reminder was a rallying cry for PatientKeeper and helped us to remain focused through the uncertainty of the pandemic.
In terms of appreciation, my experience suggests that employees enjoy public recognition. It’s easy to send a “great job” email but regularly holding forums (Town Halls, All Hands Meetings) and mentioning employees by name in emails takes a leader’s capacity and focus to do, regularly. That said, this could not be more important during trying times. Any recognition from a leader is positive, and its impact on employees cannot be overstated.
Communicate calmly, transparently, regularly, and empathetically: Uncertain times invite people to do more interpretation (potentially to make up concerns that may or may not be valid), and could, psychologically, result in serious anxiety and strain to mental health. As a leader, it is critical to communicate regularly, directly, slowly, calmly, and empathetically when sharing news, and to do so across visual mediums (ideally in person or via WebEx or Zoom). Moreover, it is critical to state what you do know — and also what you do not know — so as to give those under you the knowledge that they can trust the information you are sharing.
During March and April 2020, I held three Town Hall Meetings and sent over a dozen company-wide emails. In all cases, I worked hard to remove any “corporate speak” from my messages and share information with sincerity and empathy. I worked hard to anticipate the personal impact to my team, such as unfortunately having to work a bit harder as we had to let a majority of our contractors go to preserve employees’ jobs and precious capital.
In summary, crisply delivering relevant messages, and the manner in which a leader communicates in a crisis, will directly impact morale, resilience, and performance.
Optimize strategy for both the short and long term: Uncertain times require leaders to think not only in the moment, but also to anticipate what the organization or business will look like 1, 3, 5, and 10 years after the crisis. In my lifetime, there have been military conflicts fought with no post-conflict governing strategy, leading to years of ongoing, more dangerous conflict after. In business we have seen companies double down on their core short-term strategy during challenging economic times only to be displaced by innovators or emergent startups.
In the early days of COVID, a temptation would have been to reduce spending on marketing campaigns and to delay our Clinical Communications Suite product launch. While it was unpopular from a financial perspective, we decided to proceed in anticipation of the future needs of our prospective and current customers for enhanced mobility tools. This was a hard decision, but one that sets PatientKeeper up for success for many years beyond the conclusion of this pandemic.
Reject politics, perception, optics, narratives: A leader has to be able to decipher factual information from opinions that may be motivated by “political” or “optical” considerations. This could not be more critical than when faced with a crisis. Using a “narrative” of a crisis to influence a decision or for political gain is not a characteristic of a strong leader.
I have repeatedly messaged to my organization that “perception is not reality, reality is reality.” As a leader, basing decisions on facts and insulating myself from “spin” and “politics” that could cloud my decision-making has been one of the tenets upon which I’ve built my career. Sharing this philosophy openly allows those around me to confidently share information in a “safe” environment without concern for perception or judgment. This allows for faster, more effective, and collaborative decision-making that is critical when faced with an uncertain situation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t be everything to everyone.” A professional mentor shared this with me early in my career. It helped me to grow as a leader, to be ‘laser-focused’ and, most importantly, to not let politics, drama, or emotions impede progress, especially in a crisis situation. I carry this mantra with me both inside the workplace and at home.
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