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Team Building by Storm

Hiring and culture dictate the success or failure of an organization. As a founding team, you do your best to hire great people, set the right tone, and then you wait and see how these decisions play out in the months that follow. Unless, of course, you’re hit with a natural disaster. Below is the story of how a hurricane turned two teams into one overnight. 

We launched Blue Circle Health in Florida because there was a diabetes coaching program there that was also funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. That research program was set to finish in September, nine months after the inception of Blue Circle Health. Hiring the people involved in the coaching program almost doubled the Blue Circle Health team with expert personnel, a small pool of patients, and established relationships with clinical partners. 

There was one potential risk to the move. While all involved are exceptional individuals, the sudden merging of two teams with different backgrounds and perspectives is always precarious. We believed that through careful planning and a series of small victories, we’d eventually arrive at a shared culture and way of operating that all felt ownership in.   

Just two weeks after the teams were merged, it became clear that Hurricane Ian would run right through the heart of our newly launched program. Our focus was on onboarding coaching and patients. There was no emergency management plan. What happened next laid to rest any concerns about the team’s ability to operate as a single cohesive unit. 

Below is the text of an email that I sent the Blue Circle Health Board of Directors the day Hurricane Ian hit.  

Hurricane Ian is expected to have a significant impact across the state of Florida. As such, Blue Circle Health is responding to the needs of our Diabetes Support Coaches, our partner clinics, and the people we serve in the following ways: 

As people living with T1D, our Diabetes Support Coaches and the people we serve are facing heightened risks and anxiety related to loss of power (and refrigeration for insulin), gas shortages, flooding and possible evacuations. 

Our COO, Robin Jensen opened our all-staff daily check-in call with full assurances to the coaches that their safety is of the utmost importance to BCH. This was promptly corroborated by Director of HR, Lillie Hughes, who explained to coaches and Florida personnel that an Emergency Weather Policy was in place, covering any time away from work that resulted from Hurricane Ian. 

Dr. Sarah Westen (psychologist) and Eleni Sheehan (APRN, CDCES) held a 1.5 hour session with the coaches to talk through hurricane-related fears, establish a plan for hurricane preparedness, and to provide hurricane-related resources. The session also provided coaches with resources and guidance on supporting BCH patients through Hurricane Ian. Dr. Sarah Westen met with the coaches in individual sessions as needed and Dr. Ashby Walker & Eleni Sheehan will continue checking in with all coaches to ensure they have places to evacuate, access to supplies, etc.

Each coach who is safe from the storm is proactively reaching out to their patients to remind them of the steps to take in an emergency. This includes taking advantage of the Florida Emergency Plan to refill prescriptions early, setting up a small cooler for an evacuation, freezing gel packs, packing snacks for potential lows, etc. Coaches are escalating any emerging patient needs so the team can move quickly to try to address them. 

Yesterday, Kristi Holmes, our Director of Marketing & Communications, assembled and overnighted each coach a T1D emergency care package including backpack coolers, flashlights, phone jump chargers, snacks for potential lows, and other items. When that was done, she and our CMO, Dr. Anne Peters, prepared a communication that will be sent today to all of our FQHC partners affirming BCH’s support through Hurricane Ian. The communication provides information on how Health Centers can best support their communities with T1D. It includes links to local and national resources for patients as well as important information on Florida’s Emergency Plan that allows for early prescription refills. 

A Hurricane Support channel was created in Slack to keep everyone informed. The first communication in that channel was an offer by someone on the team to contribute their own money to coaches that might need it. By the end of the day $900 had been collected and $500 distributed to a coach in Tampa under emergency evacuation orders that had to relocate herself and her beagle to an AirBnB in Georgia. 

Until the storm subsides, our morning meetings will remain repurposed to keep everyone informed and so that we can respond to emergent needs as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I’ve never experienced an entire team move with such a combination of speed, efficiency, and genuine care for one another. The priorities of the organization had shifted suddenly – a normally disruptive act. Yet everyone adjusted instantly and with purpose. 

Each morning meeting that week was filled with updates, words of encouragement and support, and expressions of appreciation. It felt as though the culture we hoped would emerge eventually was forged overnight. In hindsight, American novelist James Lane Allen probably described our situation more accurately when he said, “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” With so many important challenges ahead of us, I’m grateful that it was revealed so quickly.