On a dark, rainy but surprisingly warm March 10th morning, I pulled into Western’s parking lot in time for our weekly 7am leadership team meeting at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
Apparently, early meeting start times have been long standing tradition at Schulich so that the Physicians can cover their hospital rounds and/or get a head start on the day. At the time, I was into my fourth month serving as Chief Administrative Officer for the School, a complex but impressive organization comprised some 6,700 clinicians, scientists, staffers and learners all at various stages of their medical and dental training, and some of the smartest health care talent in Canada.
March 10th was particularly remarkable because it was the day the School’s leaders made the very difficult decision to shut down its international student exchanges. It was also the first step in a massive undertaking to transform the institution in a matter of weeks from one focused on diverse experiential learning, broad cutting-edge research and extensive international engagement, to one offering its full roster of courses online, re-directing its resources to COVID-19 intensive research and running the entire operation remotely.
For better or worse, the demands of my new role have rightly consumed much of my attention, leaving little time to focus on other matters of public interest, much less write about them. Fortunately, I anticipate my personal bandwidth will soon increase, leaving more time to write about such matters as our astronomical debt levels, our troubling employment situation and (a majority of) this Council’s unquenchable thirst for spending.
While the role has been challenging, it has also been incredibly rewarding. The reward comes not just from the work, but the privilege of leading a team of dedicated directors, managers, administrators, and staff who have all stepped up to support our students, our faculty, and most notably our clinicians who work the front lines to keep us safe.
That warm morning in March also marked the start of amazing two-month period where I have had a front row seat and witnessed one of the most amazing organizational responses to a crisis in my 30-year business career.
And what makes this journey all the more impressive is that individuals and organizations throughout our community are finding similar ways to ‘lean in’ and respond to the crisis. There is so much that we have learned and can still learn from this experience.
By now, I know many of you personally. We met on your doorstep in 2018. We have spoken on the phone or on Facebook Messenger. We have debated issues in the comment section.
I have heard your stories. You might be a former employee of Kellogg’s or Electro-Motive Diesel still trying to get back on your feet. You might be a parent trying to figure out the best way to help your son or daughter recover from addiction. You might be a victim of domestic violence suffering in silence. You might be a school teacher who wants to see your students again. You might be a retiree (or close to it) worried about the security of your nest-egg, if you’re lucky enough to have one at all. You might be a new immigrant trying to establish yourself in your new home. You might be a lawyer or doctor wanting to do more to help your neighbours, but unsure about the best way to do so.
I have heard your story. You are working hard. You are grinding through it, and you want to be a part of the solution.
On that note, it’s not my first rodeo. I have had to work through some difficult times as a corporate leader and business owner during some not so pleasant global financial crises. In fact, it was a corporate crisis that brought me to London 21 years ago. What I have garnered through that experience is the following:
- There is a proven recipe to any successful recovery that if followed with speed and precision will always lead to better times – quickly assess, prioritize, stabilize, maintain, plan, reinvest, revitalize and above all communicate.
- There are no short cuts to a successful recovery. It has to be endured and earned.
- Good times will return – guaranteed.
- We will all be better for this experience.
What makes the Western and Schulich response so impressive is that:
- It was a seismic undertaking for the institution that involved the managed transition of 30,000 staff and students to a new virtual campus over a 2-week period. It felt like making 90-degree turn with an aircraft carrier.
- After years of sound fiscal governance and management, Western is well positioned financially to weather the crisis, retain its top talent, and maintain its research and education mandate.
- Western’s leaders have never stopped communicating to its constituents – digitally, in print, through virtual town halls, and personal email. They continually demonstrate a level of honesty, empathy and decisiveness that is both reassuring and informative.
- Since stabilizing the operation in late March, Western and Schulich leaders have been focused on the recovery process, planning for various scenarios, and preparing the institution for the fall wave of students and possible return of COVID-19.
As a result of this hard work, I have also witnessed some very positive and promising changes now appearing throughout our virtual campus, and especially at Schulich.
For example, I have noticed that trust and teamwork are on the rise, with everyone looking for a way to contribute to the protection and health of our community – from the front-line health care workers to the food service and hoteliers providing shelter to those seeking isolation, to the many organizations that contributed PPE, to the numerous essential workers who have ‘leaned into’ the pandemic so that everyone can be fed, protected, and supported. I’ve also sensed our health care team is working more collaboratively, sharing information and pooling their expertise to become more innovative in the delivery of our programs or the pursuit of our research ambitions. They include the school itself, our hospital and industry partners, our senior levels of government and generous donors. Everyone is pitching in to both seek a potential solution or find a way for us to live and work in our new normal.
Obviously, much uncertainty remains, and it will likely take some time before our lifestyles return to what we knew before. There will also be plenty of time to revisit our city’s response and consider its plans going forward. There may be 903 days until the next election, but we cannot afford to wait that long to act. When election time comes, we will reward the leaders who rise to the occasion with another term in office, and we will replace those who did not.
Until then, we have to come together – right now – and work with the leaders we have in order to stabilize our community and set the table for a strong recovery.
Good times will return. We will do it together. We will emerge from this crisis better, smarter, more respectful, more united, and much more appreciative of our world around us.
And that’s not a bad outcome.