Communicating “Our Why”
When her father was battling cancer, Valerie L. Powell-Stafford, FACHE, CEO, Northside Hospital, St. Petersburg, Fla., learned firsthand what it was like to be a caregiver of a sick loved one.
“It was a very difficult time in my life as I sought to make sure that he received the very best care possible,” she says.
Her father would succumb to the illness. Though a heartbreaking and very personal experience, it would become Powell-Stafford’s breakthrough leadership moment—one that she turns back to for guidance as a leader.
Powell-Stafford believes that extraordinary events, both negative and positive, are opportunities for personal growth. “It was really eye-opening for me and gave me a deeper sense of empathy for the patients we care for.”
Now, 15 years later and looking back, she realizes that her father’s illness also helped her grow as a healthcare leader. “I got a chance to see the care experience firsthand from a patient’s and caregiver’s perspective.”
That experience taught her the importance of continually keeping the mission of healthcare—serving patients—front and center. “Most of us get into healthcare to help people, regardless of whether you’re a nurse, a housekeeper or an IT professional,” Powell-Stafford says. “As a leader, I’ve been hyperfocused on communicating ‘our why’ and connecting our caregivers to our mission.”
Providing Daily Reminders
Powell-Stafford takes time to lead the daily patient safety huddle. “It is very important to me, as CEO, to set the tone for the day and to make sure we’re all on the same page about what the expectations are for us as a leadership team,” she says.
The huddles also present an opportunity for Powell-Stafford to drive home the hospital’s mission.
At the beginning of every meeting, Northside Hospital employees recite their common purpose together, which is, “We make a difference by providing compassionate care to those we are privileged to serve.” Then, attendees share how they delivered on that common purpose.
“We give examples of how we made a difference in someone’s life, either a patient or a fellow colleague,” Powell-Stafford explains. “It could be a story of how one colleague supported another in caring for a patient. It might be how one department supported another department. Or it may be how a housekeeper connected with a patient by spending a little bit more time in a patient’s room and allowing that patient to share a story.”
The huddles have become a very important part of Powell-Stafford’s days. “It reminds me daily how important it is for us to demonstrate empathy and show compassion, not only with our patients but also with one another.”
“They [the huddles] have been really powerful and impactful,” Powell-Stafford says. “It’s great to hear specific examples about what we’ve done to make a difference in our patients’ lives. And it helps to remind all of us of our why.”
Northside Hospital’s employee recognition program is also aligned with the hospital’s mission and common purpose. Employees who connect with patients and make a difference in their lives receive special acknowledgements and rewards from both leadership and each other. Powell-Stafford states, “Colleagues who go above and beyond to live our mission and deliver on our common purpose are honored and celebrated on a regular basis in very fun and creative ways.”
The heightened and continuous focus on the hospital mission—or what Powell-Stafford calls “our why”—may be one reason the hospital’s performance on quality and safety performance metrics has improved. Since she came on as CEO in 2019, Northside Hospital has improved its Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade from a “C” in 2019 to an “A” in 2021 and was recognized by Healthgrades with a Patient Safety Excellence Award in 2020.
Rounding With Compassion
Another way that Powell-Stafford keeps leaders and staff laser-focused on the hospital’s mission is by rounding on patients and staff. Though executive rounding is not new, research from Gallup reveals more work is needed, especially when rounding with the workforce. Powell-Stafford takes great pride in rounding with both.
“I focus on talking to them [patients and staff], connecting with them, and demonstrating compassion,” Powell-Stafford says. “In this way, I try to be a role model to other leaders and colleagues.”
For example, when she was CEO and president of Englewood (Fla.) Community Hospital, Powell-Stafford was rounding on patients during the night shift. “I went into a patient’s room. I could see the patient was very anxious so I sat down and talked to her about what she was feeling. I told her about the hospital staff who were taking care of her and how awesome they are and how they would be there for her.”
A few months later, Powell-Stafford was at a meeting of the Englewood Neighborhood Association to give an update on the hospital. Before she spoke, the president of the association read her biography as a way of introduction. Then he took off his reading glasses and shared a story with the crowd about his wife’s recent visit to the hospital. It turned out that the patient whom Powell-Stafford had visited and comforted was the wife of the association president. “His voice started to crack,” Powell-Stafford remembers. “Then he said, ‘My wife had never been in the hospital before, and she was scared.’ Then he pointed at me and said, ‘This lady sat on my wife’s bed and held her hand and told her it was going to be okay.’”
That experience taught Powell-Stafford the tremendous impact hospital leaders and staff can have on someone’s life by taking a few minutes to demonstrate compassion. “It’s that kind of reinforcement that keeps me going,” she says. “It’s important for us to understand what a caregiver or a patient is feeling. There’s likely anxiety or fear, and we need to support them during a very difficult time in their lives.”
The pandemic, and the resulting rise in staff burnout, has made it even more important for hospital leaders to step out of their offices and interact with caregivers and patients in a meaningful way, Powell-Stafford believes. “We need to be very intentional in these very challenging times about seeking meaningful interactions with both caregivers and patients.”
How can leaders ensure that exchanges are meaningful? Powell-Stafford relies on her experience as a caregiver to her father to guide her. “Every member of the hospital staff that I encountered during that time made us feel special and listened to. They responded to our needs and often anticipated our needs.”
This compassionate approach to care is Powell-Stafford’s North Star. “With COVID-19, our colleagues, patients and community need us now more than ever. It’s really important that we all choose to demonstrate our why every day.”
Valerie L. Powell-Stafford, FACHE, is CEO of Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., a position she has held since 2019.
Previously, Powell-Stafford held a number of leadership positions in HCA Healthcare Florida hospitals, including CEO of Englewood Community Hospital from 2016 to 2019 and COO and ethics and compliance officer at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton from 2014 to 2016. Prior to that, she served as COO of Doctors Hospital of Sarasota from 2009 to 2014. She was promoted to that position from assistant administrator and ethics and compliance officer of Community Hospital in New Port Richey.
Her ACHE service includes a position on the Board of Governors from 2015 to 2018 and as a Regent-at-Large for District 2 from 2012 to 2015. She was president of the Western Florida Chapter of ACHE from 2007 to 2008 and is a recipient of the ACHE Exemplary Service Award.
Powell-Stafford has also served on the boards of the University of Michigan Health Services Management and Policy Program Alumni, St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, and the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Executive Cabinet of Tampa Bay. She received a Master of Health Services Administration degree from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor of Science degree in health administration from Indiana University.