Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: Q&A with David Hale

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareHuman Resources OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
min Interview
July 07, 2020
15 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareHuman Resources OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
Healthcare Leading Forward:
On and Beyond the Frontlines of COVID-19


David Hale is Group Chief Executive Officer at Guerbet, a global leader in imaging products and solutions based in France. Before becoming CEO in January 2020, David was Guerbet’s Chief Commercial Officer and member of its group Executive Committee.

Recently, David spoke with Dana Krueger, Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader, and Olivier Blin, Managing Director and Senior Consultant in Healthcare France at Russell Reynolds Associates. David shared how COVID-19 has accelerated his transition period as CEO and helped his leaders create better engagement with their teams.


Dana Krueger: David, thank you so much for joining us today. Could you please kick us off by telling a little bit about yourself and the journey you've been on as a new CEO starting at the beginning of 2020?

David Hale: Yes, I have to say I didn't know what I was signing up for when I took the role. The journey we've been on has been very interesting, at least for me personally as a leader, and has obviously had its ups and downs. As a healthcare business, we’re incredibly fortunate from an economic perspective that we have some products that are being used in terms of COVID-19 diagnosis, and we know that mechanically and structurally, healthcare is a market that will not disappear and will grow. While we've definitely been impacted, being able to project a vision of “We will get out of this, and we will get out of this together” has been extremely useful for myself, but also for the team.

The second thing the pandemic forced us to do was to prioritize and focus. From day one, when we realized the impact of what was coming, we said, “Look, we only have two priorities until we get through this: The first one is the health and safety of our colleagues and the second one is business continuity.” And business continuity because we provide products and solutions that are actually being used, so we have a moral responsibility to continue to provide those. Honestly, those two things have been incredibly motivating and we've used them as guardrails, so every time we make a decision of “Are we going to prioritize this?”, “Are we going to go left or go right?”, we are always asking ourselves, “Does it fit in those two priorities?” And if it doesn't, then it's on hold. We'll wait a while.

I think the organization started to see quite quickly that it wasn't just, you know, PowerPoint, blah, blah. We actually were putting actions behind the words. We immediately sent people home and started remote working literally almost from one day to the next. We worked with our different industrial sites to figure out where were the roles that we could have working from home, and how did we protect the people that had to work closely together with masks, with visors, with other things. We had some of our own sites that started making their own hydro alcoholic solution, not just for themselves, and it became an engaging factor in the sense that they started making it and then after work, we had volunteers that would go around and deliver it to the retirement communities or to the local pharmacies in the areas where the factories are located.

In addition, we started having an all-employee call every two weeks. And I know there's no rocket science to that, but that was actually new for Guerbet. Historically, we have had a call with the leadership team once a month, but there was never ever a communication mechanism with all the employees on a regular basis. And we started doing it every two weeks. Guerbet has roughly 3,000 employees and on these calls we have anywhere from 1,500 to 1,700 people that connect. We do one in the morning for Asia Pacific and repeat it around lunchtime in French, because a large part of our population is in France, and then we do it again at the end of the day for the Americas.

Honestly, at a certain point, you think, “My gosh, I'm just rehashing the same messages. How can this possibly be interesting?” You don't have that much to say in two weeks, sometimes. And yet the feedback has been, “Please, after the crisis, whatever you do, don't stop this.” Probably we won't do every two weeks, it will more likely be once a month, but the feedback has been, “Don’t stop this.” 

Dana Krueger: What do you talk about on those calls, how do you define your key messages?

David Hale: In the beginning, it was really around safety and what we were doing to make sure that we kept the business running. From a safety perspective, we were completely, 100% transparent about how many COVID-19 cases we had, where they were, and if the colleagues were safe and okay and were we able to make sure that we quarantined anybody who had been in contact with them. And we just rehashed this message: Please tell us if you have a suspicion that you've been infected, if you're not feeling well, tell your manager. The fact that we were transparent about the number of cases also drove an openness to be able to share that information. As of today, even out of a 3,000-person organization where 1,700 people were in factories that worked the entire time through this crisis, we didn't have to shut down any single factory. They were all running at full steam – and actually better in some cases than they were running pre-crisis. That's something we're trying to learn, why is that? We have had less than 20 cases globally of COVID-19, which out of a population of 3,000 with multiple factories in France, factories in South America and Brazil, in the US, in Canada, means we've been incredibly lucky. But it's not just luck, each of the teams planned and executed; they put safety measures in place quickly and people respected them.

Dana Krueger: I want to switch gears just slightly here and go back in time, as you were preparing to become the CEO of Guerbet. I'm sure you were crafting your 90-day plan. And then once you arrived, it probably wasn't too long before you were starting to revise what that plan might look like. I’m interested in the piece of the plan that referred to your leadership and how you were going to approach the CEO role and leading this team to the strategic objectives that were in that plan. Tell us about how you might have modified, or reflected on, your own leadership style as you've gone through this crisis.

David Hale:  One of the challenges if you're coming up internally, from within the organization, which was my case, is the question of, “How do I become the legitimate leader in front of my peers?” – or people who were previously my peers, who are now are my direct reports. How do you become a legitimate leader in their eyes?

I would say before the crisis, you have your plans of “Okay, I'm going to continue to empower them and delegate the right things to them, but we’re going to bring together the team, so that we all have the same vision. We're going to sit down and discuss the vision and create that new vision together.” We actually had that first meeting at the end of January; we had an offsite with the Executive Committee before the crisis really hit in Europe. We had a great session, and then we left from there saying, “Now we're going to go start to build that out.”

And then two weeks later, suddenly the crisis hits, from a European perspective, and you're the leader, you don't have a choice now. To some extent, it provided two advantages. The first advantage was, “Well, you're the leader and now you have no choice. And everybody is going to look to you whether that was their original intention or not. They're now going to look to you for leadership, because we have to get through this.” And I think that also forced me to maybe step up faster than I would have done before, which meant probably making a few decisions quicker and on my own. But also quickly recognizing which ones needed to be made as a team for us to be able to move forward. That prioritization and that process in fact helped us gel very quickly as a team.

One of the first things we did was institute a daily stand up call. It’s not rocket science, I'm sure every other leader who's gone through this crisis has done the same thing. Every day, 5pm, the Executive Committee and three or four other people were on the call – every single day at 5pm for February, March, April, and most of May. Of course, at the beginning, it was 99.9% focused on: Are there any new cases? Do we have enough masks? How are we going to get gel? How much absenteeism do we have in the factories? All of the kind of basic stuff.

But then you evolve to other subjects and you create a relationship because everyone on the planet is suffering through the exact same thing. For the first time I would say in my lifetime, there's a crisis that is impacting everyone, everywhere. It doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what social class you are, it doesn't matter what part of the organization you're in. Everyone is impacted and that is an incredibly powerful binding function. And honestly, it's given us the opportunity to form, you know, if you think back to the storming, forming, norming and performing, it's given us the opportunity to form probably much faster than would have naturally happened.

The second thing that forced us was to figure out how to communicate differently, not only among ourselves but with our teams. I saw that our leaders and the leaders inside their teams really occupied the field and their space as a leader. They were walking the floors, they were 10 times more in touch with their teams from a frequency perspective than we probably were before and this has started to create engagement. That's one of the things that we're learning as to why the factories worked so well during this time period. It's an engagement that we've never seen before. And if you think about it, of course if I communicate with you clearly on a regular basis what our objectives are, and where we are versus those objectives – we're doing well here; we're not doing so well here – everybody knows where to run. Everybody is aligned.

Those two things are what stand out most from this period. It forced me to step into the role which helped us to form faster and it forced us to communicate and interact with our teams differently and that drove an engagement that I think we would not have accomplished otherwise.

Dana Krueger:  Sounds like you've been very successful, and your team is lucky to have you, David. What does the future look like for Guerbet? How are you thinking about leading into this new reality?

David Hale:  One of the things that we did early on was set up what we call the “next normal teams.”

The first week was complete panic, everybody's working from home, you're working from seven in the morning until midnight, because the space between work and home has suddenly disappeared. The second week, you kind of start to get organized and you realize, “I actually have to plan to stop and eat lunch.” And then the third week, now that you get that organized, you start to say, “Okay, there's definitely going to be a pre- and post-COVID-19.” Either we're going to start with the assumption that post-COVID, it is going to look like it was pre-COVID and it will just go back to normal, or we say “Some things are going to change dramatically, and we want to be ahead of the curve.”

Our assumption – and the whole team was aligned around this – was to say there will definitely be a pre- and post-COVID, so we built what we call “next normal teams” focused on how we interact with customers, how we engage and motivate our employees, and what is our purpose, our raison d’etre? We have another team focused on how does it change how we work? Today we have a policy where you have to be in the office four days a week at minimum. Do we want to re-look our remote working policy and if we want to re-look that, what does it look like and what does it mean about what we learned during this time?

And we took not Executive Committee leaders, but one level below that leaders to lead those initiatives. Why? Because we want to embark the whole organization with us on this journey. To give you a concrete example, even if our sales suffered during this period, we still had quite a bit of sales. We're in an industry where you have pharma sales reps go out every day and do “milk runs” and they go see all of their customers. Interestingly enough, we're actually selling without being able to do “milk runs”. And the salespeople, how were they doing it? Well, they're calling, talking with the radiologist on the phone. They're trying to build new leads by connecting with their resources digitally. We're doing webinars to try and stay in contact. And guess what, it works. So, the team is looking at “What is the new model of sales and engaging your customers post-COVID?” There have been quite a few studies that have done by several of the McKinseys, the Bains, the BCGs, the Accentures of the world that look at “How did I buy before, and how do I plan to buy after?” and I think you're going to see a dramatic difference. Our goal is to say, “We don't want to come out of this being the one who's waiting. We want to come out of this leading.” We have the advantage of being a smaller organization as Guerbet that we can be a little bit more agile than some of our bigger competitors. So we've organized these teams to take on this challenge and help us define what post-COVID is going to look like for Guerbet across our different parts of the organization, and look at how we really take advantage of it to get ahead.

Dana Krueger: This is fascinating. And I love how forward-looking it is, as you mentioned that you have assigned next-generation leaders to these different initiatives. As you think about your Executive Committee of the future, are you thinking differently about what leadership skills you'd like to help these next-generation leaders develop?

David Hale: That is actually something I had thought about before I took the role. One of the things that has not changed, but has maybe been accentuated in importance, is the ability to really engage. Guerbet is in the process of going through a transformation as a company, and to be able to go through that transformation, you need the entire company coming with you. It can't just be the Executive Committee sitting at the top. But if you want to bring the company along, that means the Executive Committee has to have authentic leaders who are able to be open, engage their teams, be comfortable with communicating regularly and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. When I was preparing to take the role, that was already in my mind to kind of evolve Guerbet in that direction, and this situation has reinforced my belief that we need to do that 1,000 times. And any doubters that I had on the Executive Committee before COVID-19 are not doubters anymore. We've kind of joked among ourselves because we said, “You know, these calls every two weeks, honestly, it feels like we're saying the same thing.” At a certain point, we ask ourselves, “Can we switch to, like, once a month or something?” And we mentioned on one of the calls about a month ago that we would definitely want to keep the calls up but we were thinking of slowing them down to probably once a quarter once we get through this. And we got many comments on the chat section saying “No, you have to keep doing this, please don't stop. Okay, maybe you go to once a month, but please don't stop doing this.” And so then we started asking our teams if this was just a few people who cared. Even they were saying, “No, it's so much better.” Each leader used to spend so much time with their teams just re-communicating messages. We would have a call with our leaders, the leaders would have a call with their leaders, their leaders would have a call with their leaders, and it's a little bit like that game Telephone, where I whisper something in your ear, and it has to go down the line, and the last person has to try and say what the first one said. It's never the same thing. Now that we're communicating these messages from the Executive Committee throughout the entire organization, the efficacy of the leaders is 10 times better, because they don't spend the first part of their meetings explaining what our decision was. They spend their time focusing on, “How do we as a team align and drive and deliver our part of helping the organization achieve that and drive that transformation? We know what the message is, we all heard it, so I don't need to spend a lot of time on it.”

Dana Krueger: Communication, communication, communication. Like you say, it sounds so simple but like most leadership challenges, hard to do. Thank you, David, for all of your insights. We wish you and the team at Guerbet all the best.

David Hale:  Thank you.