Lynn Britton saw the weather reports on the evening of May 22, 2011, and knew Southwest Missouri was going to get hit hard. But there was still no way he could be prepared for the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., and completely destroyed St. John’s Mercy Hospital.
“I don’t think there is ever a perfect disaster plan or disaster drill,” says Britton, president and CEO at Mercy, a 38,000-employee company which operates hospitals in more than 200 communities, including Joplin.
“You can’t anticipate every single kind of scenario that is going to emerge in a unique situation. What you have to do is be sure that the leaders you count on have been effectively groomed and mentored in your organization and that you’re confident that in the moment, they can make thoughtful decisions.”
That moment had arrived for Britton and his entire team. He was home when he got the call that Sunday evening from Michael McCurry, Mercy’s COO and executive vice president, that erased any doubt as to how real and how devastating the situation was.
“He told me a tornado had hit, a direct hit to the hospital,” Britton says. “While he didn’t have complete information because there was such a challenge on the ground in Joplin, he had enough to know we had probably lost the hospital, and he was worried as I was on that phone call about the work force, our co-workers and patients.”
Instantly, Britton faced a nearly impossible task. The list of problems running through his head seemed to be endless and every issue seemed more important than the last.
“There was so much that needed to be sorted out all at once,” Britton says. “We had our own work force, co-workers and physicians that we needed to be concerned about and interested in understanding how the tornado impacted them. We had our patients, those that we care for, who had ongoing needs that we needed to very concerned about. And then the broader community.
“Mercy is a not-for-profit organization. We exist solely for the purpose of serving the health care needs of the community. I can’t think of a greater time when those kinds of needs were present than in the tornado. The challenge was how do you focus on such a broad-based need and address it in very specific ways to all those different constituencies simultaneously?”
If the hospital and its staff had been untouched by the tornado, they would have had a massive job ahead providing care to all those who had been victims. But the hospital was gone. So there were still all those needs for all those people, plus so many others who needed help, and seemingly no capacity to assist with any of it.
That’s not the way Britton saw it, however. He had to convince his team that in the midst of all the devastation, there was still reason for hope.
Create a sense of purpose
Command centers were already up and running in Joplin late Sunday evening to provide immediate care. So Britton began preparing for his trip to the site the next morning by doing a little research on other recent disasters.
“I asked a couple of team members to do some quick research for me to see if there were any lessons learned from the other communities who had been through this sort of thing,” Britton says. “What happened to help the community come back strong? What happened to help companies that were really devastated by the disaster? What didn’t work? What were some of the lessons learned?”
Britton came away with an important piece of insight that would guide his decision making in the hours and days ahead.
“With Hurricane Katrina, most of the medical community did not have any continuity of jobs,” Britton says. “So they left the community, went to other places and established a new life. By the time the health care providers and hospitals wanted to try to rebuild, there was no medical work force to operate them. So they really struggled at bringing back to full operation the medical resources in New Orleans. I thought a lot about that and what we had to do to prevent that from happening with the Mercy work force.”
The Mercy hospital in Joplin had about 1,880 workers and Britton had a message for each of them: The hospital would be rebuilt and when it was ready to open, they would all have jobs.
“Even though it was going to take three years or more to build the hospital, they were going to stay employed,” Britton says. “We needed them to be flexible with us and we had to find ways to keep their skills in use. But we couldn’t reopen a hospital in three years if we didn’t have any current medical skills.”
It was certainly a message that offered hope for the future. But in the immediate aftermath of what was happening, it wasn’t much more than that.
“The local management team — you could imagine what a daze they were in,” Britton says. “They had lost their hospital, the very place that they come to work every day. The place they got their identity. At the same time, a number of people from the corporate office had descended on them to take control. The local team was in a fog and we were stepping in. It occurred to me on Monday night that wasn’t a good thing. I had to get that local team re-energized and refocused.”
Like everything else, that was going to be a challenge too. There was no conference room to gather in, no e-mail network to use to deliver his message and in most cases, no accessible phone lines.
Before he could energize this team, he had to find a way to get them all in one place.
“If your facilities are destroyed, as our’s were, we had to rent space at the Holiday Inn convention center,” Britton says. “We had to create a command center and get the word out that that was the gathering place. There had to be a place, one place, where everybody could come together. You just have to have a gathering place where people can begin to reconnect to each other.”
Spreading the word to everyone he could, Britton worked to gather his team. He then explained that he wanted a temporary hospital set up by the following Sunday, just one week after the tornado had struck.
“I gave them a number of big, hairy, audacious goals that they needed to see to,” Britton says. “One of them was we wanted to have an acute care presence back within a week in Joplin. I gave that job to the chief nurse and chief physician. I wish I could describe the look on their faces.”
Not surprisingly, it was one of great shock. But it was quickly followed by one of purpose and appreciation at being given a meaningful job to do.
“It’s an important responsibility for leaders to find that strength and demonstrate it to their team,” Britton says. “They needed to latch onto something like that to try to figure it out. When they first got that assignment, they were sort of shocked and unsure. But by about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I could see they had a spring in their step and a sparkle in their eye and they were coming to me saying, ‘We think we’ve got an idea how we can do it.’ They did it and it was evident why people need challenges.”
The team traveled to nearby Branson and asked a disaster team if it could move its field hospital to Joplin.
“We brought it there and it was the beginning of a recovery for that team,” Britton says.
As Britton tried to give his people meaningful things to do and as much normalcy as he could provide in such a devastating situation, he also made an effort to be compassionate to the great stress everyone was feeling.
He began listening to stories and sharing those stories with as many people as he could.
“The maintenance worker who came in and had to walk the last mile because of the debris and risked his life to shut off a gas line because gas was leaking into the hospital — he had to crawl through debris carrying a 3-foot long wrench so he could turn off the main valve to the gas line,” Britton says. “Story after story and I made sure I told them over and over to help that team appreciate what an amazing job they had done.”
He told of how the hospital had been evacuated in 90 minutes, with 183 patients, two surgeries in progress and a number of patients in the ICU.
“That’s that moment where you have to find within yourself that strength to be inspirational,” Britton says. “They just lived through a devastating experience and you have to relate that experience to them. You have to be present.”
There were an endless number of decisions that Britton had to make, but it was his presence that was the most important thing he could provide at that time.
“If you’re decisive and you have all the right intent and righteous cause for what you’re doing, I don’t think people are going to remember a decade from now the nuance of one or two decisions you have gotten wrong,” Britton says. “What they’ll remember is whether or not you acted and tried to look at the bigger picture and to do the right thing. You do those things and people will remember that. They’ll remember that you stood for something and you made a difference in the lives of people at a time when they were vulnerable and they needed you the most.”
Think of your people
As the days began to pass and the immediate crisis began to ease a bit, of course, people’s concerns turned back to their job security. Britton had promised that everyone’s job would be protected, but many still didn’t believe him.
“I had to answer 1,000 times, ‘What does it mean that I still have my job?’” Britton says. “I would say, ‘Were you worried about your job before the tornado?’ They would say, ‘No.’ So I would say, ‘Well, then don’t worry about it now. You have your job.’ They’d say, ‘Well, when does the paycheck stop?’ All that sort of stuff. You just had to really be present and patient and continue to repeat the messages over and over and over again.”
So how did Britton put his people to work when their place of employment was a pile of rubble?
“You have to call on others to help you,” Britton says. “When we announced we were keeping all the co-workers on the payroll, we knew those other hospitals would grow their business for the short term because that displaced volume had to go somewhere. So we called each one of them and said, ‘What if we shared our talented work force with you? You pay us whatever hourly rate you would pay for the same skill and we’ll keep them on our payroll and pay their benefits to it helps defray the cost.”
Britton credits the tenacity with which everyone at Mercy shared the stories of how they were getting through it all for the strong response from other hospitals and businesses from other industries.
“It was a great testament to how once we had rallied around the work force and the community, that everybody rallied around us to really help us through it,” Britton says.
Britton admits that he wasn’t approaching decisions in the immediate aftermath of the tornado from a purely business perspective. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon noticed just that when he met with Britton the Wednesday after the tornado hit.
“His worry was that the board of directors would somehow be upset with those decisions,” Britton says. “I said, ‘Governor, I’m fine.’ He said, ‘Well, what does the board think of all this?’ I said, ‘I haven’t talked to them. They don’t know these decisions. We haven’t taken the time to convene them or have that conversation. But here’s what I do know.’”
Britton proceeded to talk about his confidence that the board would back his decision to support the Mercy employees and help Joplin recover, even if there was substantial financial risk involved.
“If I went in there and said, ‘Board, let’s take the insurance money and run,’ they’d fire me on the spot and they should,” Britton says. “I absolutely felt confident I’d have their support around it. And, of course, I did when the time came.”
The people of Joplin and of Mercy have begun to recover. What remained of St. John’s Mercy was demolished in January and ground was broken on the new hospital earlier this year.
As Britton looks back, he says overcoming seemingly impossible situations requires a leader who can step down from his pedestal and truly feel what his people are going through.
“You need to think about the situation you’re going into and how people are reacting,” Britton says. “Think about how people are reacting to their trauma and put yourself in their shoes. Think through what you can do to be compassionate and supportive and help them out of that dilemma.”
How to reach: Mercy, (314) 251-6000 or www.mercy.net
The Britton File
Lynn Britton, President and CEO, Mercy
Born: San Angelo, Texas
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business, Abilene Christian University; MBA, Oklahoma City University
What was your very first job?
My family owned a hardware store and I was a salesman on the sales floor when I was 9 years old. I had my own clientele. They would come when I was going to be there after school, and I was the only one they wanted to wait on them when they came into the store. It would be all about something they wanted and what assortment of things we had. and I would talk about the features of this or that product. Or they needed to solve a problem in the house and I’d help them with that.
How did you gain all this knowledge?
I always give my dad a lot of credit. He was the kind of father who taught you that you start at the bottom and you have to work your way up. So I did that and we had lots of dinner conversations about how things went at work. He was also president of the chamber of commerce and president of the school board and all those kinds of things.
He would let me go with him to meetings, and I was always fascinated how it was he would choose to give someone an assignment or why he would pick a certain position on something. So we’d talk about that on the way home after those meetings. It was a tremendous learning opportunity. It formed me as a young man.
I give him a lot of credit. We lost him about 20 years ago and I miss him greatly. There are still times where I’ll do something and I’ll think for a split second, ‘I have to tell Dad about this.’