Leading with Empathy: Q&A with Vafa Jamali

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareHuman Resources OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
min Interview
May 11, 2020
7 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareHuman Resources OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
Healthcare Leading Forward Podcast Series:
On and Beyond the Frontlines of Covid-19


Vafa Jamali is Senior VP and President of Respiratory, Gastrointestinal & Informatics business at Medtronic. Recently, he has been working extensively with the White House Coronavirus Task Force on managing ventilator supply for healthcare providers and facilities.

Recently, Vafa spoke with Russell Reynolds Associates’ Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader, Dana Krueger, and David Krahe, Senior Consultant in Russell Reynolds Associates’ Global Medical Device and Diagnostics Practice. Vafa shared his experience of the current leadership challenges arising amid the current pandemic and offered his perspective on the future.



David Krahe: Vafa, you have responsibility for the ventilator business at Medtronic – a device that has been front and center during this global crisis. What has been the impact on the company?

Vafa Jamali: As with many companies, the non-essential aspects of our business had to shut down, so a portion of our business really stalled. At the same time, we had another portion that was facing unprecedented demand and very limited supply. Half of my business is greatly impacted negatively, and the other half has never worked this hard before. We had to learn how to manage these two things.

In addition to the business challenge, we’ve had to balance professional demands with the reality that we have colleagues who are working parents and are now part-time teachers of their own children. It really tests a whole lot of assumptions of how work has to be done. This has required us to show more empathy and compromise than normal. It has also tested our definition of what constitutes a victory. Single battles are less relevant when you look at the long term. Playing for the long term has been really critical for both our people strategy and our work strategy – whether you’re in the respiratory business or in a business that was impacted in a different way because it is associated with elective surgeries.

Dana Krueger: Has the current crisis had an effect on your leadership approach?

Vafa Jamali: This situation has made me focus on what it means to lead through ambiguity. There’s never been a more ambiguous time than right now. How do you continue to be decisive when so much is uncertain? How do you continue to make decisions both for the immediate needs of the respiratory portfolio as well as for when we come out of this? How do we emerge even stronger?

Dana Krueger: How have you adjusted your leadership style – and what is the magic answer to those questions you are asking yourself?

Vafa Jamali: When I look back, I see a few things around leadership. First, I think those who are able to control their egos are going to get better results. You think about the complexity and ambiguity of a global crisis, and nobody really understands all the elements of the situation. Nobody understands exactly what people are going through, how severe it’s going to be, or when we’re going to come out of it. There’s much more uncertainty than normal. Second, I would say that influencing skills are much more valuable than exerting direct control via traditional reporting lines. Leaders with listening skills and empathy are really critical right now.

Now is also not the time for kneejerk reactions, which could over-index or miss the mark entirely. At the same time, decisiveness is more important than likability. People are looking for decisions one way or the other. You’re probably not going to be right, but that’s when the ability to adjust and tack quickly comes into play. Finally, I think we have to be very kind during this, whether we’re talking about the caregivers on the front line who are treating patients or the colleagues with kids who are teaching them while working from home. These are some of the attributes of a kinder, more empathetic leadership style. And these attributes are here to stay after the crisis, I believe.

David Krahe: How is your organization thinking about the business going forward and how are you preparing teams for the post-COVID-19 reality?

Vafa Jamali:  We’re thinking about how this pandemic is changing the approach to in-person contact in healthcare, such as the impact on the intimacy of the doctor-patient interaction, and thinking about how that might change our place as medical device professionals in the hospital setting. For instance, the doctors, nurses, and technologists in the hospital are the ones most susceptible to contracting the virus, so how do we support them better? We also have to think about how our work should take into consideration this new reluctance on the part of patients to visit a hospital. Can we find ways to triage reluctant patients that get them into care when their conditions warrant a visit to the hospital? How can we help triage this group, so that they don’t become even more vulnerable because now they are skipping check-ups and no longer managing a chronic disease? How do we innovate to develop technologies that support a more minimal-touch environment, creating technologies that naturally allow for a little more space? We’re educating our teams on why it is important to stop going into hospital settings as frequently as before. We’re preparing them to manage relationships remotely.

Dana Krueger: Beyond your direct clients, how have your relationships with other organizations throughout the healthcare ecosystem changed?

One of the things we saw right away was the importance of coordination among all companies that were making ventilators. The demand was so high, and each company was only able to make a fraction of the very large number that was required. So, we quickly realized that unless we got everybody together and allocated ventilators accordingly, it wouldn’t happen. What I presented to FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was an allocation model based on severity of disease as well as on ICU capacity. This way of working threw out the door the old method of shipping product based on where the first invoice gets sent to or who paid the most. We [at Medtronic] completely changed that to a needs-based model, and also made pricing standard across the board. We suggested that FEMA do the same thing, so they would have all these different suppliers who also used the same model and pooled their resources, ensuring that the product got to the right place. We would typically go after our own orders and our own customers, but in this case we threw all of that out, instead focusing on where the need is.

Dana Krueger: Do you see a model of cooperation or coordination continuing even after this immediate crisis is behind us?

David Krahe: I think it is possible, but I think there are complexities that come with this way of working that the crisis sort of allows us to work around. The complexities of in-servicing different types of products, making sure they're used accurately and properly, and making sure you have the right product for the right need would all need to be woven into a new model. I think that because of the pace that we're moving at, we’ve been willing to work on some technologies like a manufacturer-agnostic app-based training module. In a post-crisis environment, however, I still think that you would probably want to maintain some sort of brand uniformity.

David Krahe: Is there anything you know now – 6 or 7 weeks into this crisis response – that you wish you had known at the beginning?

David Krahe: I certainly learned a lot around managing through ambiguity and the creativity of teams when pressed with this kind of condition. Our innovation cycle just tightened so quickly, and we came up with so many new technologies in a portfolio that really hadn't seen tons of innovation for years. I just can't say enough how proud I am of these engineers that stayed up and created these new platforms to help caregivers and patients. So, if I could deliver a message to myself 6 weeks ago, I would tell myself to just move ahead, and if you make a mistake, you can easily tack. Just don't get married to a particular path. Ultimately, the lessons learned will make us stronger, and caregivers and patients safer.