Leadership must be organized
How do you make sure Communications is no longer the department of “You ask, we turn”? And how do you keep things together in a crisis? In an open conversation, Chairman of the Board Ingrid Wolf and Head of Communications Anja Haver of Haaglanden Medical Center (HMC) talk about their special collaboration, leadership and “the click.
“After just a few minutes I thought: this feels right. Board chairwoman Ingrid Wolf of Haaglanden Medisch Centrum (HMC) knew immediately in the job interview with Anja Haver that they had a click.
Unhindered by any knowledge of hospitals and the healthcare industry, Anja Haver started as Head of Communications at HMC in 2020. HMC serves patients in the Hague region and beyond, and has three locations: Westeinde and Bronovo in The Hague and Antoniushove in Leidschendam. It is one of 27 top clinical hospitals in the Netherlands. Ingrid Wolf has chaired the board of directors since the end of 2019.
Anja Haver came from the municipality of The Hague. There, her position was Head of Strategy & Corporate Communications. Previously, she was responsible for communications and spokesperson at NPO and was manager of Marketing, Communications and Sponsorship at Het Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam.
Anja, was the transition to healthcare more difficult than your previous jobs?
‘I wouldn’t say that. When I started working at Schiphol, I had no understanding of airplanes or slots. I started at The Maritime Museum with no knowledge of boats. It is important to be curious and connecting, though. The common thread in my resume is that I have always alternated between permanent employment and interim. I can recommend that to everyone. Different competencies are required of an interim worker than of someone in a permanent position. You have to be able to shift gears very quickly and understand how hares run. That was good for my development.
That Anja had no previous experience in the health care sector has been a topic of conversation, says Ingrid Wolf. But it was not a hindrance. ‘Of course every organization considers itself very special, but a hospital has its own challenges and dynamics. We deliberately went looking for someone more all-round. It appealed to me that Anja has worked in different organizations. This also made it clear to me that she would be able to adapt to different dynamics. And that it would not be a big shock to enter a new world.’
‘In addition, I was focused on: what happens if we get into a crisis? How do you respond when things get exciting and how do we know how to find each other? For a director, communication is the most important thing in a crisis. If you have totally different personalities or you don’t understand each other, then you have a problem. So for me, that click and experience with other sectors were decisive.
Anja, you went to work in the middle of corona time. How was that?
‘You would almost forget, but I got to know my co-workers through Teams. Waving to the screen: Dear colleagues, here I am. That was the reality. We adapted and we just did it. A good structure was already in place, though. That gave me the opportunity to manage that and make sure I got in quickly. My staff played a very important role in this, with communication to patients and staff. As a result, I was not immediately sucked into the crisis. Because there was a great assignment.
What did that assignment look like?
Anja: “How can we further professionalize the communications department? Are we doing the right things and are we doing the right things well? And also: look at what innovative ideas we can add. And the team: how do you turn a team of professionals into a top team? That was also an assignment there. So work together a lot more. Breaking down the walls.
Ingrid, how did you experience the arrival of Anja, in that corona time?
‘It has obviously been a bizarre time, especially for the hospital. Throughout the day we had meetings with the crisis policy teams. How do you keep things together, while being the back-office doing as much as possible remotely? How do we arrange communication toward patients and how do we handle our role as HMC in the public debate?
‘I was on 24/7. It’s important then to remember: okay, I’m kind of in crisis mode right now. How do I get someone to help me get out of that from time to time – to reflect for a moment on: are we still doing the right things? Anja brought a kind of peace.
Turns to Anja: ‘You have that about you. When you sit there I feel calm and that helps enormously to be able to have the good conversation.’ That’s also a compliment to Herman Rutgers, thinks Ingrid: ‘You can put together a wonderful profile. That makes for a nice preselection. But you are also somewhat dependent on the consultant. Can he respond well to what is said or felt between the lines, and find the right personalities to match?’
Looking back, could you point out what resonated between the lines in the briefing to Herman Rutgers?
Ingrid: “Well, I heard myself say it: the peace that Anja brings, knowing that she has the experience to manage a crisis. That includes thinking the situation through. Planning things well, substantiating them well. In retrospect, I think that combination was the deciding factor for me.
What does your work structure look like?
Anja: “I report directly to Ingrid. That is, of course, very nice for a Head of Communications. We have a work meeting once a month. I work in a very structured way, so I always make lists. “There she is again with her lists,” Ingrid jokes. Overview is very important to me; it calms me down. For the rest, it’s just really fast switching on the app. Ingrid is extremely busy, but I can function well because I have a response in no time when I get on the app. That’s the piece of trust we’ve built together.’
‘And very important: the humor. We share the same humor. We also have tough times – that is inherent in the environment in which we work. That is precisely why it is golden that we can put things into perspective together.
There are never times when it goes hard against hard?
Ingrid: “Definitely not that. I can sometimes be short-tempered. That is my strength, but it can also be a pitfall. Sometimes I realize that my idea is not quite right, but then I think: I have little time and I just want to continue. But Anja is firm and explains why it is unwise. Then I sometimes get irritated. The good thing is that she always remains calm. Eventually something better comes out of it. That’s what makes it so much fun. You need people around you who keep calm and who pull you back just in time. If Anja didn’t do that I might do really stupid things.’
Anja: “This shows Ingrid’s leadership. Leadership also means that as a top woman you gather people around you who dare to contradict or counterbalance. I have worked in many different organizations and I can tell you from experience: that is not always the case…’
Have you been very intentional about this, Ingrid?
Ingrid: “I think I also had to learn it. On the other hand: I was a vascular surgeon and there teamwork in the operating room was already important. The difference is: as a director you have to organize it very consciously. You have to make sure that you don’t just hire people who are always laughing with you.’
What is your definition of strong leadership?
Ingrid: “I want people to look at me as someone who is part of the team. We are all equally important and everyone has their own role. It doesn’t help me if people say all day long that I do everything fantastic. That doesn’t help HMC move forward. We do it together – that is my vision of leadership.’
Have you had an example in this area?
‘I have seen directors who did that very well and people who made a mess of it. You learn from that, too. For example, when someone leaves the room and you see how others react. At the same time, you can’t always be friends with everyone. Occasionally you have to be sharp or name what is not going well. I realize that sometimes I will also walk out of a room where people think, did that have to happen? Then I have to push myself not to think at night: should I have said it that way? I have learned not to stay preoccupied with whether someone has accidentally been hurt when the goal has not yet been achieved. Our goal is to provide the best patient care for our residents.’
Is that the time-honored adage: tough on the message, soft on the person?
Ingrid, laughing, “Honestly: I don’t have an adage. I just try to do the best I can for HMC.’
Everyone is responsible for good communication
Anja Haver and her staff focus on five pillars, she says: patient education, internal communications, marketing communications, media relations and stakeholder management
And that with a team of fourteen people.
Anja: “Yes… When I came they said: you have one employee for internal communications. At the municipality of The Hague, I had fifteen. That is why it is so important that we help the organization become more communicative and that everyone, from their role, remains responsible for good communication. The communications department is not a holy grail for all your problems. Before my arrival, it was the “you ask, we turn” department. My staff said, ‘We are of everything and we should never say no.’
‘Communications often got the question, “We have a message; would you please put it on the intranet?” When I came in, I sometimes said no. But I did offer to think together about: what is your message? Who is it intended for? And for next time: bring me to the table a little earlier, because then I can think along at the front about how to bring people along and how to create support.
‘That coaching role is what makes it interesting for us communications professionals. Anyone can post a message on intranet. Now we are almost two years on and sometimes I think: don’t call me for a while. But so that’s the beauty: they know how to find our department. I am very proud of that. That’s because I have a team that can do this.’
What did you have to do to get the organization to go along with this?
Anja: “Above all, engage with management and start small. You have to throw that little stone into that pond. Then something happens and others say: I want that too. And it is important to connect. Everyone is extremely busy within our organization, but I still try to catch people; make time for a cup of coffee and show them how it can also work. You have to plant seeds, I always say.’