Learning to lead in China’s coronavirus crisis
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A discussion about the merits of executive education is quite a diversion from the “new normal” of Kate Gaynor’s working life. As a doctor and general manager of Guangzhou United Family Hospital, a 105-bed general facility in southern China, she finds herself leading a front-line institution that is fighting the spread of coronavirus.
The biggest challenge in Guangzhou is not allowing people to relax their guard, says Dr Gaynor, speaking at the end of March. “There have been 1,400 cases of coronavirus in Guangzhou province, a much lower level than other parts of China, and some sense of normality is returning. So I am constantly saying we have to keep up our vigilance.”
Dr Gaynor’s staff are required to check everyone entering the hospital, but they must also isolate cases and ensure their safe transfer to other medical facilities for treatment.
“We can see and assess them, and if they display positive symptoms they are directed to a fever clinic (a government designated area) to be assessed for coronavirus,” she says.
“It is tiring for people to have to wear extra levels of protective equipment, and not sit next to one another. People want to go back to normal.”
The coronavirus pandemic has put Dr Gaynor’s leadership skills to the test, so she is grateful to have started 2020 fresh from completing an executive education course at ESMT Berlin. The Executive Transition Program is taught in three residential modules at ESMT, which is housed in the former East German state council building in the centre of the capital.
Dr Gaynor was encouraged to sign up to the course by a friend who worked at engineering group Siemens in Germany. “She kept saying, ‘I am doing this great programme and the classmates are terrific.’ Just as she was finishing she called again and said there was a scholarship for women, but you need to apply in two days.
“This all happened as United Family was about to open the hospital in Guangzhou. My role was moving from being a clinical manager to general manager, with a staff more than three times the size of those I had previously been responsible for. All of a sudden, this course that seemed to be designed for someone like me fell into my lap.”
The programme started while the hospital building, run by United Family Healthcare, one of China’s largest private healthcare providers, was still being fitted out. This gave Dr Gaynor the time to travel to Berlin to attend classes. It also meant she could start applying the lessons learnt as soon as she returned to China.
“The curriculum was all about helping you move to doing something at a higher level than you were before, so it was very good for the changes I was making. But one of the things I found most useful was the way they encouraged us to work with the cohort of my fellow students.
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“Over lunch we would have a problem-solving exercise where one of us would present a real-world problem we were facing,” she says. “The person presenting then had to be quiet while the rest of the group discussed it and decided between themselves what might be the solution.
“People were pretty frank. In some cases, the person presenting the problem might be seen as part of the problem. But for me, those sessions were extremely valuable.”
Dr Gaynor had harboured ambitions of a medical career ever since her teenage years, when she volunteered at the ambulance station in her home town of Ocean City, New Jersey. “I was always interested in people,” she says.
After medical school, and a period in residency, she started working overseas, first with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outposts in Sierra Leone and Hawaii, then for the Hawaii State Department of Health, where she worked on a project to prepare the Pacific US state for an influenza pandemic.
“A lot of the lessons I learnt there have provided me with some good transferable skills,” she says.
Management responsibility came after Dr Gaynor moved to China to take up a job as a family medicine clinician for what was then a small clinic in Guangzhou. This was not something she had been working towards, she admits, but was a fortuitous opening.
“Being the general manager of a hospital was not the original plan, but I found myself gradually becoming more involved in the work behind building this hospital; checking the architectural plans and helping to put the staff team together,” she says. “Everyone started talking about me as the general manager.”
Dr Gaynor is proud her hospital was ahead of the game when it came to preparing for the Covid-19 outbreak. “We started hearing about coronavirus at the beginning of January,” she says. “On January 10, we had our first drill to see how to respond if we had someone showing symptoms. We were two weeks ahead of the government, which did not issue its official guidelines until January 24. My staff did an outstanding job.”
Guangzhou is in the south of China, 130km from the border with Hong Kong and 1,000km from the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. It has been a challenge to maintain vigilance about coronavirus because the origin of the outbreak has seemed so far away, even to the Guangzhou hospital team.
“The focus has switched here from ensuring no one locally contracts the disease to stopping people bringing it back to China from overseas,” she says. “People here now think it is a problem for foreigners and that they don’t have to worry about the local situation.”
Dr Gaynor’s time at business school has helped her grow into the leadership role and better understand her management style, she says.
“The people at ESMT are very good at preparing an individual to operate at a higher level of leadership,” she says. “This has definitely helped me step up to management. A large part of this is having a better understanding of myself and my strengths.”
With that Dr Gaynor is due back on the wards. “You have to be visible,” she says. “You have to be out there circulating with people, reinforcing the message that you guys are doing a great job. And you have to tell them they must not slack off or we will be in a position we do not want to be in.”