We have all heard of them--managers who make a "critical error" and it appears their career is over and done for. This can include a financial error involving reimbursement or budgets, a personnel issue or a dropping of the proverbial ball in any one of many precarious situations EMS managers deal with every day.
So what do you do? A. Try to hide your mistakes? B. Deny they exist? C. Blame them on others? The answer is D--none of the above.
However, the right answer depends a great deal on the specific situation. For example, how forgiving is the organization willing to be? How seriously were others hurt/impacted? How early in the career did the mistake occur? Historically, managers who come back from a major error have been the ones who have owned up to their mistakes. They have forewarned colleagues and tried to solve the resulting problems, and after the lessons have been learned, they moved on to think about something else.
Before we go into depth about the healing process (for lack of a better term), understand there are a lot of areas you, as an EMS manager, need to be very careful walking into. These situations include sexual harassment, various areas of employment law, the disciplinary process and how it is meted out, age and racial discrimination, as well as others. Also, understand that you, as a manager, will be looked at under a microscope by those around you, so all policies must be followed. And if there isn't a policy that covers this specific area or action, make sure your actions have been approved by someone higher up the food chain and make sure you have proof of this approval.
Template for Moving Forward
If there is such a thing as making amends for things that go wrong in your professional life, the following steps outline a template for moving forward:
Step 1: Admit to the mistake and focus on how to fix or blunt the results. Use the experience to reassure yourself about your ability to cope with adversity. Use the failure as an opportunity for self-examination and try to gain an understanding of what occurred and why. Although difficult (OK, extremely difficult) to see right now, over the long term this experience is likely to give you a keener sense of your own strengths and weaknesses. It also may actually make you a better manager since you've blown it once yourself.
Step 2: Take control of any part of the problem you can and try to figure out how you were responsible. This can include revising policies and procedures as well as closing any loopholes that allowed things to go off track. If necessary, warn others, including your boss. Talk to others about what you can learn from the circumstances, especially what you should learn about yourself. Initiating such conversations isn't easy, but the payoff may be more enduring than the crisis itself.
Step 3: When you find yourself in the same, or a similar situation as the one you were in when the critical error was made, take a moment to think about what went wrong the first time and what measures have been put into place since then. Consciously do not make that mistake again. Don't rush into action, even if it entails asking for assistance (and it may).
What Do You Do Next?
One of the most important elements to implement after following these steps is transparency. The foundation of our business is trust. Whether it is in regard to the public allowing our EMS providers into their homes or whether it is the public trusting our managers to effectively utilize public funds, the public has a certain image it expects EMS agencies to live up to.
When a mistake occurs, advise the community in a professional manner. The overall message should express accountability and transparency in regard to what occurred, what type of punishment will be handed out (if any) and what you, as the EMS agency, are doing to ensure this mistake does not occur again. Additionally, use this as an opportunity to remind the community of your mission and some of your past accomplishments. In a nutshell, give as much relevant and accurate information as possible about how the company is responding. We live in a time of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. If you do not get in front of a crisis, chances are you will see the results of it on the Internet in moments.
Everybody trips, and some even fall. As an EMS manager, the key is not to focus on the fall, but rather on what will get you back on your feet afterwards. If you need an example from real life, look at Martha Stewart. One moment she was on top of the world with literally an empire of her own. The next moment she was embroiled in a stock market scandal that ended with her in jail. She also had to pay hefty fines and was publicly embarrassed in mocking headlines in some of the world's most viewed media. But that wasn't the end of her story. Martha did her time, paid her fines and held her head high. She learned from her mistakes, assuring they would not happen again as she scratched her way back to the top. Today, the debacle that could have ruined her career is a mere footnote to any discussions that involve her. Martha understood the steps outlined above, and she implemented them in her own way to assure her mistakes were not fatal.
Failure can be a powerful teacher. The lessons learned stay with you forever. The trick seems to be understanding what went wrong, constructively using what you've learned by owning up to mistakes and bouncing back.
Raphael M. Barishansky, MPH, is chief of public health emergency preparedness for Prince George's County (MD) Health Department. A frequent contributor to and editorial advisory board member of EMS World Magazine, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.