As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, it’s impossible to ignore another disaster wreaking havoc in the Gulf Coast region. And while a hurricane and an oil spillare dramatically different events, they’re bound to share one outcome—a devastating impact on the people, communities, and industries surrounding them.
Corporate America has a lesson to learn here—we must act as though people’s lives and livelihoods depend upon our decisions. Because they do. The best defense against disaster, whether natural or man-made, is to take steps now to ensure your organization is safeguarded against accidents, fortified to withstand them, and buoyant enough to recover in their wake.
At Ochsner Health System, we lived this lesson five years ago. When Hurricane Katrina hit, we faced a $70 million operating loss, more than $27 million in property damage, and 4,000 employees who relocated or were displaced. It would have been easy for us to fall victim to the storm. Instead, we tapped into a culture of resilience to not only survive Katrina but ultimately grow from a single hospital in a struggling community to a thriving regional health care system.
Several years before the storm, we saw a significant opportunity to improve the way we ran our organization; while our priority had always been to serve our patients, we needed to start thinking more like a business if we were going to serve them effectively. Through a deep collaborative relationship with GE Healthcare, we focused on three core areas to evolve our culture: leadership, people, and process.
Leadership is the foundation of our success, and without it we would have been lost in the storm. We recognized early on that we needed to invest in our leaders and expose them to a variety of perspectives from other industries and disciplines. Working with GE, we developed a Leadership Institute where experts from Harvard, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and other thought-leading organizations developed content and served as instructors; the institute is constantly evolving with courses in subject areas that are relevant to various positions. General Electric helped us sharpen our focus to bring leadership and a culture of accountability to employees at all levels of the organization—ultimately helping to strengthen our operations at the front lines. In the immediate wake of Katrina, this leadership sensibility helped us fight the instinct to hunker down and instead re-engage with our community.
Second, we recognized that we’re only as good as the people who make up our workforce, and it’s not enough to just invest in individuals. Rather, we believe that great ideas are generated when collaboration is highest. We built an operating structure in which teamwork, open discussion, and sharing of best practices are encouraged, regardless of level or function. For example, we make sure that new programs and tools have buy-in from both administrative and medical staff so that both viewpoints are represented and patient needs are better served. As a result, collaboration has become hardwired into our culture–which proved a saving grace when we acquired several troubled hospitals after Katrina and had to integrate and retain new employees at all levels. In 2009 alone, Ochsner’s staff turnover dropped from 20 percent to 13 percent.
At Ochsner, employees begin the process of goal-setting and understanding our operations even before their first day on the job. We have equipped our managers with “Red Carpet Experience” resources that focus on the new hire’s lifelong career with us. The program includes peer interviewing, meetings with organization leaders, group welcomes, and follow-up calls from Human Resources. In addition, all departments have a designated mentor for each new hire whose role is to help the new hire acclimate to Ochsner and develop a career plan. The mentor aids in steps such as introductions to colleagues across the system, training recommendations, and on-the-job learning.