What has been your biggest learning curve as a leader over the last 12 months?
Prior to the pandemic, Health Data Analytics Institute (HDAI) was almost 100% in person and overnight we went to 100% remote. We have been growing and almost a third of the company have never met in person with their colleagues. To adapt and thrive, we made quite a few changes, but for me there were three lessons we learned early on.
The need for the leadership team to stay in sync on the strategy. As a start-up we are nimble and responsive. So, pre-pandemic, ideas would bubble up during an impromptu encounter or a quick huddle. Now remote, we had to create the methods and the opportunities to have those strategic touch points and encourage ways to feed fresh ideas into the mix without the face time we had in the office. We meet as a leadership team every week for two hours which is both a structured review of our goals as well as baked-in time for free-wheeling discussions. We use shared online platforms such as Teams and Confluence to track progress and document fresh thinking so that everyone is up to speed.
Back to basics – set clear expectations with staff and track progress together. Working remotely removes any semblance of managing by face time. While I hope we’re well beyond that concept, it can still be tempting. “I always see them here first thing in the morning and last thing at night” is not a good management strategy at any time. But even more so now, when being clear about expectations, giving immediate, actionable feedback and staying focused on what are we trying to achieve is our only path to success. This is what good managers and leaders have done for a long time.
Balancing work-related communication with “how are you doing” chats. Without the informal interactions at the office, I’ve found a need to be more intentional about balancing the social and the business side of our video meetings. Leaving time for sharing has been key – from silly topics like the last haircut or the dog eating the birthday cake to more serious concerns about isolation and illness.
Have you found any unique challenges keeping your employees engaged in the vision of the company during this period?
Because we are a young startup with big challenges ahead of us, every single person is essential to what happens next. There are no large departments where people can get lost. We have a “roll up your sleeves” culture like many startups where you do what needs to be done. And we hire for commitment to our mission to improve healthcare. All in all, we are trying to create an environment where employees feel like their contributions really matter.
What’s been the most significant way the pandemic has affected the business?
The pandemic had a major impact on our strategy. We had to flip our priorities. We are focused on predictive analytics for the healthcare industry with a focus on healthcare providers, population health, and value-based care.
We had initiated several pilot partnerships to build out our product suite. But once the pandemic hit, our partners became extremely busy caring for COVID-19 patients, and those projects were put on hold.
So, we asked ourselves, what can we do to contribute during this time? We had conceptualized a consumer-facing product that would help seniors and their loved ones manage and understand their healthcare. We shifted gears and re-ordered our product roadmap.
In three months, we created the free web application called Health Picture which is available now at healthpicture.com. It provides an organized view of personal health data and AI-driven insights about their health risks.
Our experience as a company pre-pandemic was B2B, so shifting to a B2C world was a learning experience. It taught us how to engage with seniors and how to connect with consumers. Our strategy has shifted back to serving the provider community, and we are continuing to refine Health Picture, expanding to new audiences such as Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.
What’s been your biggest challenge in terms of finding top talent for the business?
We’re in Boston which is both a blessing and a curse.
We have a lot of amazing healthcare organizations and startups in the area. We’ve got lots of educational institutions graduating highly credentialed workers. But there’s also a lot of hunger for top healthcare talent, so it’s a very hot market.
I have found one of the most challenging positions to fill has been software product managers.
They are difficult to find because the successful candidate has a rare mix of characteristics. It requires attention to detail, high levels of emotional intelligence and disciplined thinking, outward facing curiosity about end user needs, and the ability to synthesize disparate inputs to build product stickiness through multi-disciplinary coordination. And, on top of all of that, we are looking for people with healthcare experience. No wonder it’s a challenge.
How have you found the market when you’re competing for talent against the “healthcare giants?”
I’ve worked in large organizations and I’ve worked in startups. For me, there is something very special about working in a smaller company and especially in a company that’s revving up with the latest technology and amazing ideas that are solving long-standing problems in healthcare.
A candidate I recently interviewed told me “I want to see my work in the product. Right now, working at [large company] it just gets absorbed, and I just feel like a cog in the machine.” I think the desire for acknowledgement is baked into the human psyche and startups enable employees to feel that sense of personal contribution.
There’s also the advantage of spending less time in meetings, less forms to fill out to get something done, fewer bureaucratic steps to go through to make an idea a reality. Large companies need that structure to run effectively, being a smaller company gives us the advantage of being nimble.
What advice would you give to someone making that transition into a startup?
I think it’s important to understand what it is about the current role you’re in and the kind of goals you have that you really love and wouldn’t want to lose. If part of that is having a predictable road ahead for you with a well-established structure, then maybe it isn’t a good time to go into an environment that is rich in ambiguity.
Another question to ask is how important status is to a person. When you’re from a startup a lot of people don’t answer your calls or respond to your emails. At my first start-up I learned this the hard way. I went from being a VP in a hospital with a $140 million budget to being the fourth person on a startup team pleading for partnership with companies who had never heard of us. That was back in 2004 and I’ve learned a lot since then. But this is not everyone’s cup of tea.
What developments within the field are you most excited about?
They say data is the new oil in terms of where the money is, but it’s not just more data. Data needs to be mined. We are building better and better tools to dig through the unthinkably vast amounts of data to find the keys to better treatments, lower costs, and improved health.
What would your advice be to somebody who’s considering a career in this field?
Predictive analytics is a rapidly growing field and there are tons of opportunities now and in the future. In healthcare, specifically, I see a great opportunity for clinicians who are looking for a career change. Their clinical insight and experience can add tremendous value and relevance to the algorithms and statistical analyses derived from AI and ML.
Any last words of general career advice?
I’ve never had a job someone had before me. I’ve created every job I’ve ever held. This isn’t for everyone, but I would encourage people to think outside the box. Start by seeing the problem and how you can uniquely contribute to solving it. If the role that you are looking for isn’t there, maybe you can create it. I think it’s about being passionate about a goal and willing to do what it takes to get there.