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Excellence in Human Understanding: Leadership secrets from an award-winning executive

No one person can define an institution. Sometimes, however, one individual’s contribution can have a transformative impact on a team, on staff, or on an entire organization. Their dedication to the patient inspires us all to reach for a higher standard of caring and compassion.

It’s these individuals that NRC Health seeks to recognize with its Excellence in Human Understanding award.

One of this year’s winners is Dr. Adolphe Edward, Chief Executive Officer of El Centro Regional Medical Center (ECRMC) in El Centro, California. This article will explore what makes Dr. Edward’s leadership so distinctive—and what other health-system leaders might learn from his example.

Military preparedness

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was a make-or-break moment for many healthcare institutions. Fortunately, with nearly 23 years of service in the Air Force, Dr. Edward was no stranger to high-pressure situations.

Even before the pandemic, the skills and rigor he acquired in his military career were always an asset to ECRMC. But after COVID-19 struck, his experience proved to be lifesaving.

“For us in healthcare, the fight against the coronavirus is a war,” Dr. Edward explains.

ECRMC’s community has consistently ranked among the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the country. Faced with punishing volumes of COVID-19 cases, other institutions of ECRMC’s size might have buckled under the pressure.

But Dr. Edward had the foresight to prepare for it. As early as January, when cases were first being detected in New York City, Dr. Edward was already ordering reserve supplies and preparing ECRMC’s emergency rooms with stand-by physicians.

What made Dr. Edward act so quickly? It was something he learned in the military.

“I’ll be frank,” he says. “People who come to the war zone too late—they will fail.”

Knowing that, he did everything in his power to prepare ECRMC for what was coming. He likely saved hundreds of lives in the process.

“The staff felt extremely supported,” says Nikki Wegener, an ECRMC Operations Manager. “When the rest of the nation was crying out about not having PPE, we had an abundance. He was ahead of the game. He taught us to be warriors, together, against this thing.”

Cultivating that kind of solidarity, incidentally, is precisely the approach supported by NRC Health’s employee-research data.

Walking the floor

Of course, not all of Dr. Edward’s work happened on such a combative footing. Before the demands of the pandemic took over the industry, Dr. Edward was renowned as an uncommonly compassionate and conscientious leader.

Wegener, a veteran of multiple healthcare institutions herself, observed that she’s never worked in a place where she’s had so much one-on-one contact with the CEO.

“In large health organizations it’s rare, to see so much of your executive leader,” she says. “But that’s who Dr. Edward is. He’s the one who walks through the hospital and says hi to everyone. He knows your name. He knows about your family. He sees the best in you and genuinely wants everyone to excel.”

For executives, it can be challenging to make the time to be on such intimate terms with staff members. But Dr. Edward believes it’s all part of a leader’s due diligence.

“If you’re behind your computer all day and not walking and talking to staff, then you’re behind the curve,” he explains. “You need to be out there with them and see them as people, and communicate your values, to create a successful culture.”

No doubt, Dr. Edward’s frequent tours of the facility left employees feeling seen, heard, and understood. NRC Health’s research has found that this is essential for maintaining employee engagement—especially during a crisis.

Creating a culture of merit

Dr. Edward has much to say on the topic of workplace culture.

“Years ago, when I first interviewed for this position, I took some time to survey ECRMC’s culture, and I didn’t like what I saw,” he explains.

Dr. Edward observed how employees kept their heads down, not a single person said hi as he walked through the hallways. He saw how the physical environment had degraded, with burnt-out lightbulbs and peeling signs. He felt a level of disengagement and apathy among the staff.

From this stark assessment of ECRMC’s standing, Dr. Edward knew he had a lot of work to do. To begin with, he wanted to implement a comprehensive overhaul of the organization’s culture. This led to his “Blue Star Culture” initiative.

“Blue Star is a value system,” Dr. Edward says. “It’s something I talk about every day, and that we reinforce when we give stand-out employees a Blue Star award. It’s about helping our team believe that they stand for something higher than themselves—that it’s the community we’re here for.”

Anyone—patient, manager, or employee—can nominate a staff member for a Blue Star award. This has been an effective way to maintain engagement, accountability, and mutual support. To any outside observer, the transformation at ECRMC couldn’t have been clearer.

“We walk around with our heads held high,” Wegener says. “We’re proud to be a part of this organization.”

One bedrock practice

None of this happened overnight for Dr. Edward, or for ECRMC. By Dr. Edward’s reckoning, these large-scale achievements were the product of one all-important skill, applied over years: continuous learning.

“We’ve achieved a lot because there’s no way we can stop learning,” he says. “If you stop learning, then you stop improving—and that’s not an option for us.”

And he argues that NRC Health’s data is foundational to this learning process.

“We learn from everything you [at NRC Health] give us,” he says. “Every week in our meetings, we ask ourselves: what would NRC have to say about this data? What can we learn from it? It’s that process that pushes our engagement and our understanding of the patient to the next level—and that’s where I see the real value of a partnership with NRC.”

Dr. Edwards’s commitment to high-quality care is a sentiment we at NRC Health roundly endorse, and are proud to celebrate with an Excellence in Human Understanding Award.

Congratulations to Dr. Edward, to ECRMC, and to all of our other award-winners this year.