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Four CEOs Discuss Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic

Key takeaways from our latest Breakfast with Brian.

 

Insights_Withology_Ep12_Content_1_Ep12Lisa Hughes, P. Sue Perrotty, Brian Tierney, Stacey Robertson, Angela Val

 

The COVID-19 pandemic created some of the greatest leadership tests corporate executives have ever faced, and its forces permanently reshaped how people approach work, travel, education, healthcare and even their news consumption.

 

At a recent “Breakfast with Brian” event, we had the privilege of convening four Philadelphia-area CEOs — Lisa Hughes of The Philadelphia Inquirer, P. Sue Perrotty from Tower Health, Stacey Robertson at Widener University and Angela Val of Visit Philadelphia — to share their unique stories of stepping into the top job in the midst of a global pandemic, along with the leadership strategies that have transformed their organizations.

 

A few of their key takeaways include:

 


 

Here’s a glimpse of their conversation with Brian and the insights they shared:

 

Brian: We like to joke about how often the word “unprecedented” was used in that time, but each of you truly faced challenges that no one had navigated before — and you all did so with courage and creativity.

 

Sue, you chose to join a hospital system after decades of experience in banking. What were some of the biggest business challenges you faced, and what did it take to see the amazing financial and institutional turnarounds that Tower Health has experienced?

 

P. Sue Perrotty, CEO of Tower Health:

Brian, as you know, I was not the CEO there in a non-pandemic era. So I would just say that the biggest change for me was going from a regular business to a life and death business.

 

I also walked in the door with no clinical experience. While I have served on Tower Health’s Board since 2019, I’ve never worked in a hospital. And I declared that right up front. I told employees that I’m going to do what I do best: I’m going to help lead the organization in a different direction, and fix the finances, but I needed them to not hiccup on the clinical side because I wouldn’t know how to fix it. And they didn’t.

 

We also made a deal that I would communicate to them, every week, everything that I did.

 

So every Friday since the day I walked in there, I have put out a weekly wrap. It’s the most well-read document in the organization — I get about 75% readership, which is unbelievable.

 

Something I tell CEOs all the time is that if your employees don’t know how you make the money to pay their salary, you have failed your organization. We educated a lot of staff about how we make money and how they impact that, and we’ve had a really great journey of change. I believe that, as leaders, we can manage economic capital beautifully. In my opinion, we have often failed at managing human capital as beautifully. So my focus has always been on unleashing the power of human capital. If I can do that, we will win. But no matter what I do with our finances, if I can’t unleash human capital, it won’t matter.

 

Brian: Lisa, the pandemic highlighted the critical importance of local journalism — along with the ongoing struggles of an industry in transition. How did you lead staff through both of those outside forces at the same time?

 

Lisa Hughes, Publisher & CEO of The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Our first concern was, of course, how do we keep our employees safe? I had 500 people going to a plant every day, printing a newspaper. We needed to focus on their safety, and we also had to think about how we could get the news report out to folks if we couldn’t deliver the paper. That was really in jeopardy.

 

The pandemic made us really innovate and think more deeply about our digital business. It was sort of the inflection point where we said, “Okay, we really need to get serious about this.”

 

We set up our live blog, which was a huge success, to really push through the news, and our digital storytelling innovation grew our digital subscribers from 35,000 to 90,000.

 

Now, you know the newspaper industry has been disrupted for decades. So the organization I walked into, a month before COVID, was a deeply troubled employee group. It was all about, “Do I have a job tomorrow?”

 

I needed to address that. So we started with the basics: Educating folks on how we make our money.

 

Who’s our customer? How do we make our money? Who’s our competition? All that had changed. So we started quarterly reports. We’re a private company, but we do a report like we’re reporting to Wall Street — we share all the company goals, all of the metrics, all the data. We needed to open the books and build business literacy. It’s absolutely mission-critical for employees to be able to understand how their work relates to our company goals.

 

Brian: Stacey, we know that the pandemic affected the business of higher ed in many different ways. But one unique thing about your role is that your decisions directly impact thousands of young adults — in this case, students who were also deeply and personally affected by the pandemic. How have you been leading your staff and your students in the wake of everything they’ve been through?

 

Stacey Robertson, President of Widener University:

When I started in July of 2022, mental health issues and socialization issues were a challenge for us in coming out of COVID. Folks had been learning online and in the privacy of their own rooms, and now we were asking them to go into classrooms and engage again.

 

We realized very quickly that we needed to create a sense of belonging on campus. We’re a little under 900 students in the first-year class, so over the course of nine nights we had all the students over to dinner at my house.

 

I want to first say that I was not doing the cooking for those guys! We partner with Aramark, and they’re amazing.

 

But we had tons of games, and we tried to create opportunities for connection. We had everybody wear a name tag that had three interesting facts about themselves, and we had a bunch of our crew leaders who were at all of these events as well, sitting at the tables and chatting with them. They would say, “Okay, tell us about your three interesting facts.” And what we found was that students would start to connect.

 

Sometimes it’s just a matter of one person and one connection to make a place where you feel safe.

 

And so that was the beginning of a whole series of campaigns that we initiated. We partnered with the Jed Foundation to develop an entirely new approach to wellness on campus. What we try to do at Widener is meet everyone exactly where they are. And so whatever you need, when you get admitted to Widener, we will meet you where you are and we will provide you with the tools that you need. All you have to do is pick them up.

 

Brian: Angela, you became CEO of the company where you had once worked as a receptionist! You re-joined the organization in 2022, just we were starting to figure out what a new normal could look like. Can you share how the pandemic shifted the tourism business — you needed to sell Philadelphians on Philadelphia! — and how it changed you as a leader?

 

Angela Val, President & CEO, Visit Philadelphia:

Our money comes from the Philadelphia County hotel tax. There was never a scenario where all hotels would close for an extended amount of time and no revenue would be coming in!

 

We were very lucky to have reserves, but we knew a day was approaching when that money would run out.

 

At VisitPhilly, we own nothing. No hotels, no shops, no attractions. We are promoting other people’s businesses, and we’re also promoting a vibrancy and a vitality of place. When people come to Philadelphia, they’re expecting these streets to be filled with people, day and night. The worst thing to see is a city with no people in it!

 

So, when it was safe, we really needed to get people to come out of their houses, come back in from the suburbs. We wanted people not just to come in to work, but for you to go get a beer after work. Just to have people out on the street so we could start feeling like us again.

 

One of the things that was really clear in COVID is that if I didn’t start paying attention to safety and security, transportation, and cleanliness, that I was only there complaining. All of these things have to work for us as residents.

 

We have to feel good about where we live for us to be able to invite visitors here, and for other people to want to come here to work or live.

 

In the midst of this, I learned that I could show my vulnerability as a leader. I just didn’t think that was part of the definition of leadership, but having that Zoom camera on all the time, while things were on fire behind you — you just have no choice but to let people see that you don’t have all the answers. And where I thought, “Okay, this is how you get fired,” it was something that made people think, “All right, that’s a person.” And then all of a sudden we started working differently together.

 

I will say, that in getting this position, I thought it would feel like, “I finally got this.” But it’s just an opportunity to keep doing what you’re doing, just better and more meaningfully.

 


 

Want more? Watch the full video of this Q&A on our live recording of Withology, hosted by Brian Tierney.

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