Alison Bennett Richardson: “Self-care is important to being a good leader”

Self-care is important to being a good leader because — if nothing else — exhaustion is counter-productive to productivity. To this end, it is important to disconnect from work at least one day a weekend. I have learned the hard way if I go into a weekend with a big list of To Dos for work, I am not […]

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Self-care is important to being a good leader because — if nothing else — exhaustion is counter-productive to productivity. To this end, it is important to disconnect from work at least one day a weekend. I have learned the hard way if I go into a weekend with a big list of To Dos for work, I am not nearly as productive the next week.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Bennett Richardson.

Alison Bennett Richardson is CEO and Owner of BrightStar Care of Frisco / Carrollton, an award-winning and nationally recognized healthcare agency. Alison started her career as a Congressional Aide and has spent the balance of her career as a business executive and as a trial consultant. Alison has Masters in Human Development and Psychology, along with a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. She currently serves on the Texas Tech Rawls College of Business Advisory Council and has served her community on the boards of the Texas Healthcare Advisory Council, the Northwest Dallas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and on various committee boards with the Frisco Chamber of Commerce. Alison is married and has three daughters.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, Goodwin described Theodore Roosevelt’s core philosophy as, “All one can do is to prepare oneself, to wait in readiness for what might come.” This quote resonates with me because we cannot control the events in our lives, as evidenced by the last year in particular. When I was in college, I was taught to control my destiny by planning my path and setting goals to achieve my vision for my future. I have lived a very different life than I imagined at that time. Perhaps the best we can do is to prepare ourselves — our character and our skills, and then apply our best to life’s opportunities or challenges that become opportunities. The Pandemic has been a great and terrible teacher, testing and refining us, maybe to either reset some unhealthy areas of our culture or prepare our society for future challenges.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Secretariat, the movie based on Bill Nack’s Secretariat — The Making of a Champion, is a personal favorite that I have watched many times. Penny Chenery’s business acumen, her strong will and willingness to take risks to see her vision through in a business environment hostile to women, are admirable and motivating. Secretariat’s sheer competitive drive and desire to win on his own terms — running at his own pace, never fails to inspire me as well.

Over the last year, I have gravitated towards many movies highlighting raw personal courage, including such as Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, and numerous biographical movies about Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and other leaders. Watching other people draw on and grow their courage is a great counter to the feelings of powerlessness and lack of control inherent in the “historical event” we’ve experienced this year.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

I started my career as a Congressional Staff Aide, worked as an executive in our family business until we sold it, then returned to school for my Master’s and became a trial consultant. As a trial consultant, I consulted on over 200 trials and learned how to take complex legal arguments and fact patterns and create winning strategies that could be communicated well to juries or judges. Being a trial consultant was intellectually challenging and rewarding, but so is running your own healthcare business and helping people and families who are experiencing a health challenge or crisis.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

By the second week of March in 2020, our core lines of business, especially skilled nursing and private care in the home, began to change drastically. Despite spending hours on the phone reassuring clients who were frightened about the possibility of someone with COVID entering their homes, roughly half of our clients decided to postpone services for an indefinite time. This, and a decrease in our skilled nursing clients because of the cancellation of elective surgeries, led us to seek new opportunities, particularly in the third area of our business, medical staffing.

During this time, I began each day reading extensively about healthcare business changes and COVID-related operational strategies, looking for ways to pivot our business and survive the Pandemic. So when the call came to provide healthcare screenings for Southwest Airlines through a BrightStar Care national account, we were familiar with the concept and ready to take a chance and devote our resources to the opportunity. We immediately began procuring PPE (personal protective equipment), such as masks, gloves, gowns, and forehead thermometers, that would allow us to expand this service to other businesses — and we did. We marketed to manufacturing companies who needed healthcare screenings to safely operate their business and, in the end, provided thousands of hours of service to several large businesses. The PPE loan we received not only allowed us to keep operating, but it saved and created jobs as we ventured into this new line of service. When those opportunities began to decrease at the end of the summer, we pivoted to staff COVID clinical trials, while returning our focus to growing our core skilled nursing and private in-home care business.

To meet the demand of the new COVID-related business, we also had to reimagine our onboarding process and clinical operations. Due to the rapidly changing nature of the healthcare environment at the time, we found ways to expedite our hiring process, and to do it in a way that would require as little personal contact as possible. We also had to transform our operations, often on a daily basis, to adhere to updated CDC and OSHA guidelines, including numerous communications with our clients and employees. One of the ways we handled the changes was to enact a one-to-two-hour daily Zoom call solely devoted to COVID-related operational changes, to be able to incorporate and enact the various infection control and other changes that needed to be made based on updated information. We found information from healthcare organizations, such as the Texas Healthcare Advisory Council, and almost daily informational webinars and communications from BrightStar Care, to be invaluable.

Our business made the choice to pivot and adapt during the Pandemic out of the necessity to survive, but fortunately we already had the operational systems in place needed to reimagine our processes and utilized them to change our present and future.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

I received a phone call asking if we could provide nurses to do healthcare screenings at an airport. It was a vague request, but our team discussed it and our nurses were eager to serve the public, so we said “Yes.” I asked for more details and learned Southwest Airlines needed nurses to start the next morning at 4am for 24/7 service. At that time, we didn’t have 24/7 teams of nurses — not even close, but we did have an executive team that was willing to work hard to make it happen and some terrific nurses who were willing to work overtime to start service.

Looking back, my “Aha” moment was that we had been preparing for that moment for over two years when we first started putting electronic onboarding systems in place. Whenever a new technology became available to help us be more efficient, we tried to put it into place, and that paid off last year in a way we could not have imagined. With those systems, we were able to hire nurses and train them quickly so we could meet the demand. Also, we could not have foreseen it at the time, but saying yes to this one healthcare screening opportunity — a new line of business that we had to accept or decline within minutes — opened the door to additional similar opportunities and laid the foundation for 76% growth in a year that could have been disastrous.

How are things going with this new initiative?

The opportunities for Covid-related service have changed over the past year, but we have changed with it. The healthcare screening opportunities started curtailing at the end of the summer, but then we were able to start staffing for a number of clinical trials, and now we have a new opportunity to staff for vaccine administration. We are working on these initiatives while continuing to grow our core skilled nursing and private duty business.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents have always believed in me and supported my interests, along my husband.

My parents sacrificed their retirement funds to pay for college for me, my sister, and two brothers, and constantly communicated high expectations for us. After years of therapy, I have finally been able to resolve my bitterness from not getting paid for good grades, as my friends often did. That’s not true — no bitterness, but it is true that they set high standards and instilled a strong work ethic in me, beginning with giving me my first job changing irrigation pipe on our farm when I was 9 years old, for 1 dollar a day. This was big money in the 70s for a 9-year-old, although I was not too thrilled about the work at the time. Because of this job and my other job, raising two pigs for 4H, I was able to open a checking account when I was 10, which made me feel important even though my checks were pink and had smiley faces on them. It was a humble beginning but a great learning experience, for which I am grateful.

My husband, an investment banker, and I first met in the small town where we lived when we had pictures made for the local newspaper as runners up of our respective 6th and 7th grade spelling bees. My mother found this picture when we started dating about eleven years ago, surprisingly. So Mike and I have been geeks from the start and continue that proud tradition today, often unwinding at night by watching YouTube reviews about the latest Apple and Android hardware and software. True story.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

As a BrightStar Care owner, my biggest concern when the Pandemic started was the safety of our team members and our clients. However, we could not get any masks. After spending many, many hours, trying to buy masks online or find them in stores, I reached out with a personal plea for help on Facebook and NextDoor. To my surprise, several friends immediately volunteered to sew masks and made over 300 masks for our nurses and caregivers, most with their own fabric because we couldn’t get that either. This was before people were sewing masks and they had to make their own patterns, so it was a lot of effort for them but made a world of difference for our team. Additionally, a local nail salon owner donated several boxes of surgical masks, and then one of my neighbors even donated the plastic face shields he and his sons used to play with (Nerf wars), which was a sacrifice for them — but everyone just wanted to do something to help. I was so grateful and proud to be of a community eager to help our team and the community at large.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. BrightStar Care encourages us to follow the EOS system of management. This system, by Gino Wickman, teaches the GWC principle for hiring key team members: Team members need to Get their jobs, Want their jobs, and have the Capacity to do their jobs. I wish someone had impressed on me the extent to which hiring one wrong team member can upset the productivity and spirit of the whole team. The mantra of “right person, right seat” is critical to the functioning of your team. We have built an excellent team now, but there have been avoidable setbacks to this process — and the business — because we tried to make someone into a great team member when they didn’t get, want, or have the capacity to do their jobs.
  2. The change management process should be taken seriously. It is not wise to announce a change in systems or policy and expect people to immediately adopt the change. You have to prepare your team for the change, address why the change is good for them and the company, teach and implement the change, and then hold them accountable to the change. We started using a new system for our caregivers to record their activity. We did a great job of teaching the change, but not in preparing the team for the change or addressing why the change would be beneficial. As a result, the adoption level was lower than expected and employees were resistant to the change. As we hired new caregivers, we took time to explain the “whys” of certain aspects of the system when we taught them how to use it, and the adoption rate for them was higher.
  3. Manage your mental energy. For example, don’t start your day by reading email. Start your day with something uplifting or even neutral, and don’t even think about looking at your email until you are ready to start working, because it can drain you and set a different course for your day.
  4. Self-care is important to being a good leader because — if nothing else — exhaustion is counter-productive to productivity. To this end, it is important to disconnect from work at least one day a weekend. I have learned the hard way if I go into a weekend with a big list of To Dos for work, I am not nearly as productive the next week.
  5. Your pets can punish you if you work too much. If I work too late at the office, despite the fact that my husband works from home and they are with him during the day, our dogs will find paper somewhere in the house and chew it to bits in the den. One of our dogs has learned to open doors — even ones on which we installed child locks to keep him out and will break into a room and take paper to shred with our other dog. If I walk in the door and they look guilty, I know the den floor is going to be a wreck.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

During the beginning of the Pandemic, we had numerous clinical and legal conference calls almost daily. I started picking one call a day and rode my bike while listening to the call. Just getting outside and doing something physical, especially since we were working remotely by then, was helpful.

Focusing on my faith and meditating on favorite scriptures has become a vital part of my daily routine. I often reflect on a particular scripture in the Bible, Joshua 1:9: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. I have found a renewed focus on my faith to be effective at dismantling fear surrounding the Pandemic and political events.

I hosted a number of social Zoom calls with family members and my tribe of close women friends. We did this weekly for a couple of months, and it was always a boost to everyone’s spirits.

As a healthcare business owner, I follow the news closely, especially announcements from the CDC and Joint Commission. I also track Covid rates in our area to make business decisions and keep my family and team safe. However, I have learned to limit my social media and news intake to once or twice daily to encourage mental health. I found other ways to disconnect from the world, including being present with my family, reading books for pleasure, and watching the entire West Wing series about 3 times.

Finally, I learned to safeguard my sleep. Even though I experienced stress-related dreams, a little extra sleep went a long way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It is my view that much of the division in our society could be resolved by making an extra effort to get to know people in our community on a personal level, and to have regular, meaningful interactions and conversations with them. This sounds overly simplistic, but I believe when we stopped doing socializing as a society on a personal level — in neighborhoods, at community events, at houses of worship, and other places, people became isolated socially and increasingly hostile to different viewpoints.

One specific way to effect this change is to require our national legislative leaders to live in Washington, D.C. when they are elected. In Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, Doris Kearns Goodwin observed that: “Legislators in Lyndon Johnson’s Washington did not vacate the capital every weekend to raise money. They played poker together, they drank together, their families knew one another. The stunning achievements of the Great Society are testament to not only Johnson’s leadership skills and his ability to recognize a window for action, but also manifest an unparalleled teamwork between the President and the Congress. Such enabling civility is rarely found today. Extreme partisanship is damaging our democracy; our identity as Americans.” I think this is a profound observation and merits discussion.

Here’s why: If you are a leader in Washington and attend an informal social event on Friday night with leaders of the opposite party, in theory it should be more difficult for you to eviscerate them publicly on Monday. Many Presidents hosted regular — sometimes daily — informal gatherings with a variety of leaders of both parties, which resulted in a depth of understanding between them and more cooperation and compromise which benefitted the American people. The difference today is that those informal gatherings would include everyone of different ethnicities, cultures, and genders. But the principle is the same: if our leaders can set that example and make it a priority to make personal connections with leaders with different viewpoints, I believe it would encourage leaders to find ways to work together for the betterment of our society.

Yes, I am an optimist, but my pragmatic side believes we cannot heal the division in our country until we find a way to get to know each other better on a personal level and have better discussions with regular socializing, in a civil manner.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Given my interest in biographies and politics, I would cherish the opportunity to meet Doris Kearns Goodwin or Peggy Noonan. Both are brilliant women with a wealth of insight and wisdom. I have many questions I would like to ask them.

How can our readers follow you online?


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