The Highland Trio: Interim Leadership Presents a United Front
Successful interim leadership in Surgical Services provides more than just a body to sit in the office chair. The purpose is to rebuild a once solid foundation that, for whatever reason, has begun to crack. This was the situation facing Highland Hospital in Oakland, CA. A revolving door of leadership that made superficial changes, eventually overhauled by each new department head, did not help matters.
That began to change when Whitman Partners placed Director of Surgical Services Sheila Grumbach, Manager Diana Potenza, and Educator Tamblyn Johnson in interim roles at Highland. They not only took the wheel but marked a destination and mapped out how to get there.
“The staff had been through several different directors and felt a sense of detachment,” Johnson says, who had been brought on by Whitman in July 2020. “Everything changed every time they got a new leader. From what I understood, they would have their own agenda and not keep their eye on what was in the department’s best interest.”
Johnson brought the department up to speed on perioperative education, then left. In the fall of 2021, she was called back in the same capacity and met Grumbach, the new interim director.
“She let us own our positions, trusted us to know what to do,” Johnson says. “It was the first time we had leadership meetings. She was a breath of fresh air. It has been wonderful.”
It was the first time we had leadership meetings.
When Grumbach had to hire a perioperative manager, she was impressed with Potenza because she had the same level of experience and expertise as herself and Johnson. This meant Grumbach wouldn’t need to manage her every step of the way.
Now a team, Grumbach, Johnson, and Potenza had to show staff that they were vested in the department’s success and were there to support them. While it took little time to win most of them over, some staff did pushback. One of the main issues was understanding hospital policies and procedures. One of the first things Grumbach had to make clear was that everything they were being educated on came from hospital policies. She was not bringing anything new to the table.
One of the first things Grumbach had to make clear was that everything they were being educated on came from hospital policies. She was not bringing anything new to the table.
“The question was, how do we know that we’re doing what we’re supposed to? That’s when we started turning things around,” Grumbach says.
An example of their teamwork relates to the PPE policy due to COVID. Grumbach said they noticed that some staff incorrectly masked when caring for patients. After having reminder discussions, the leadership team decided to put it in writing for the employee to acknowledge so that they had a record. But during these discussions, they discovered that recovery room nurses were doing nasal swabbing on patients. Supervisors told them they needed patients’ COVID status before they were assigned a bed (they would often come from the emergency department). However, the recovery room nurses were not trained to do that. Tamblyn got right on it, engaging the needed resources to get that training done, policy reviewed, and signed by all (which included stopping people from nasal swabbing if they had not been trained). Potenza and Grumbach backed her up by talking to staff one-on-one if they had to.
So they were prepared when someone made an anonymous complaint to California OSHA that someone was exposed to COVID. They investigated the situation, and the hospital had proof that the entire staff had signed documentation that they understood the PPE policy and associated responsibilities. The hospital did its due diligence.
“It’s truly a three-pronged approach,” Grumbach says. “Sometimes we overlap, but for the most part, Tamblyn will tell me, ‘I got this.’ Diana is there in her scrubs, walking about in all the areas, and she knows what’s going on.”
Roles and Responsibilities
“When I first came in, I would walk around, and everybody would scatter,” Potenza says. “One of the things that I’m proud of is the charge nurses. I’m trying to help and develop them so they can take charge and feel confident in what they do. We still have a long way to go, but they are much better than six months ago.”
One of the things that I’m proud of is the charge nurses. I’m trying to help and develop them so they can take charge and feel confident in what they do.
“One of Diana’s goals, when she came in, was to review roles and responsibilities,” Grumbach says. “She began having charge nurse meetings, which did not exist before we came in. This included leadership development, coaching, and mentoring, in addition to things like improving communication between shifts. She brought in this change of shift tool that made a tremendous difference in handing off communication and ensuring continuity of collaboration and coordination between shifts.”
Johnson says that another important element that makes their partnership successful is that they are self-confident in their roles, even though both Potenza and Johnson have director experience.
“I don’t have a problem filling in as a manager or educator. I’m good at whatever position you put me in,” Johnson says. “I think respect towards each other and being able to stay in your lane and do the job you’re called to do now is a big factor for all of us.”
What They Appreciate About One Another
“Tamblyn is a great resource person,” Potenza says. “If I have any doubt on what we should put in a policy or how we should present it to staff, I go to her. She is extremely knowledgeable. We also have good laughs with our team. I think it’s important to be able to laugh because it brings stress down, and you say to yourself, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ Sheila is very calm and cool. She is such a pleasure to work with.”
“Sheila doesn’t let anything ruffle her feathers,” Johnson says. “Her presence speaks volumes. I have never seen her become unglued about anything, and sometimes she has reason to. I’m learning that from her, that calmness. I also like that even though I am the educator, both Diana and Sheila give me a little more of a leadership role with them.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get this kind of collaboration again,” Grumbach says. “There are no hidden agendas. There is honesty and transparency. Tamblyn has that energy and fortitude you need as an educator. That is priceless. I can make a decision and say this is what we’re doing, and Diana is so gracious. All of us have that diversity of backgrounds as directors, managers, and educators, which helps us be better in our roles because we don’t have to have 50 conversations about something. We all have that global, high-level view.”
Interim management is much different from travel nursing. It’s not something we’re trying out. We’re here for as long as the hospital needs us.
“Interim management is much different from travel nursing,” Potenza says. “Even though our contracts might be three months, six months, or a year, we have chosen this as a profession. It’s not something we’re trying out. We’re here for as long as the hospital needs us.”
Does your OR department have a story to share? Contact Carisa Brewster, Staff Writer at Whitman Partners.