The Importance of Team Agility in Uncertain Times: Karen Wish ’94, VP and CMO of Mount Sinai Hospital Group and Network

During the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians and scientists quickly became the world’s most trusted sources of information on the pandemic. In this talk at the Future of Marketing Leadership Conference, learn how Karen Wish ’94 (VP and CMO, Mount Sinai Hospital Group and Network) led her team at Mount Sinai to get the truth and consistent messaging across to patients, staff, and the general public when they needed it most.

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At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just about every team in every industry had to pivot in some way—whether it was moving to a work-from-home model instead of the office, or rapidly spinning out new products and services to accommodate our locked-down reality. For Karen Wish ’94, VP and CMO of Mount Sinai Hospital Group and Network, facing a once-in-a-century pandemic meant leading her marketing team through a pivot from their normal healthcare marketing activities to leveraging Mount Sinai’s unique position as a world-renowned hospital system to get credible, lifesaving information about COVID-19 out to the public. 

At the Future of Marketing Leadership Conference, which was presented in November 2020 by the Center on Global Brand Leadership and the ANA Educational Foundation in partnership with the Marketing Association of Columbia, Wish described how team agility was central to the Mount Sinai marketing department’s ability to carry out its important, public health-shaping work—and why it should also be a central focus of aspiring marketing leaders. 

“Since March 7, when we saw our first COVID patient, we have seen over 10,000 COVID patients,” said Wish. “So this dramatically impacted our organization and our marketing and communications team’s workflow practically overnight. What happened was we shifted our focus from normal marketing activities to really providing up-to-date, realtime information to our patients and staff and communities that we serve.”

To be able to accomplish this, Wish, as the leader of Mount Sinai Hospital Group and Network’s marketing team, had to remain clear-headed and strategic during the chaotic early days of the pandemic. She noted that amid this crisis situation, she was inspired by the way that her colleague at Mount Sinai, Don Boyce, framed this unprecedented crisis for the team: “When in your professional life will you all be working at the same time, on the same issue, with the same purpose?”

With that, Wish got to work energizing her team for the task at hand. Her method: define, align, and design. Wish said, “Working with our emergency command center leadership and our cross-functional teams, we defined our marketing and communications team’s role in the crisis, and we quickly determined how we could rally around what needed to be done. Really what we did was we created an integrated effort around the different tools of marketing that we have.”

Alignment was also key. “We had to align around the organization to support those information needs, and so this really wasn’t just about our marketing and comms team,” said Wish. “It was also about our partners. We really value the strength of our partners—specifically, our advertising agency, our digital agency [...] and it wasn’t only that, we had signage needs, we had translation needs, we had marketing research needs, on and on and on. [...] And we as a team were vigilant about what we needed, from whom we needed it, how we needed it, why we needed it, and the best way to get it to the people who needed that information.”

Design was the third key ingredient. “Our organizational design had to be nimble and interconnected,” said Wish. “That’s really summed up in the word ‘agility.’ Incredibly, incredibly important.”

As a team working with these three key organizing principles, Mount Sinai’s marketing department was able to accomplish impressive results as they worked to get clear, trustworthy, science-backed COVID-19 information out to the public during a critical time in the first several months of the pandemic. Their website saw 16.6 million total visits during the period from January to August 2020—a 31% increase over the same period in 2019. They also achieved the distinction of being the number one hospital system in the nation for total engagements and social media views, with 14.2 million video views and 7.2 million engagements on social media. “Social media was another way for us to really promote messaging around telehealth, safety, and not putting our health on hold,” said Wish.

As a marketing leader speaking to future marketing leaders, Wish was also candid about the fact that her team’s rapid adaptation and high work output during the crisis had a side effect: burnout. Asked about how to manage the burnout that often comes from handling a crisis, Wish noted that the team meets in daily huddles and provides space during these huddles to be open and honest about the stresses that people are facing. Additionally, said Wish, “Mount Sinai has set up a center that is actually dedicated to resilience, and the idea of leaning into mental health and wellness. So we have made it very clear that we will take care of our employees—this was from very early on in the crisis. So not only are we studying the effects of the stress, and the challenges, but we’re providing resources in a very, very accessible way to everyone.” Some of these resources include guided meditation and “calm workshops” for employees. Addressing mental health and wellbeing has become an integral part of the culture at Mount Sinai, Wish noted. “It’s part of recognizing the fact that this is very real and also providing solutions to address it.”

Wish noted that in addition to addressing employee burnout, there are still many other things that she is tackling and that future marketing leaders will need to tackle. One notable issue in the world of healthcare marketing that was brought up by the conference’s audience is the longstanding issue of racial minorities’ distrust of the healthcare system due to historical and contemporary mistreatment. Wish noted that this was a critical area where there was still much work to be done, and she was recently inspired by something she learned at a “Chats for Change” event hosted by Mount Sinai’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion: “What is within three feet of your control? What can you touch? What can you actually do to make a difference?” Some of the actions Wish and her team will take in 2021 are to expand diversity and representation on their own team and to take a deeper look at how well their marketing and communications materials are serving diverse audiences. “We are looking at the marketing and communications that we are putting out into the market, and saying, ‘Are we truly addressing the communities that really need to hear what we have to say, and are we helping them, or just doing the minimal?’ So we are being very self-reflective, along with the entire institution, to address this very important issue.”

Wish ended her talk on what makes her hopeful about the future of marketing leadership. “I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of marketing leadership because I’m incredibly optimistic about the future,” said Wish. “And the reason that I say that is because of the people—the people that are in my world, professionally and personally. From a professional perspective, I am so beyond incredibly fortunate to work with such a talented team, and I’ve now firsthand witnessed the idea of people putting forth all their energy, their grit, their relentless drive, to just make a difference. And when you drive all in that same direction, change is going to happen.” Lastly, Wish had some special words for the students in the audience: “You, as future marketing leaders, will be part of that energy. And you will help bring us forward, through the pandemic—which is still going on—and beyond the pandemic, and we are really all in this together. So I’m very optimistic.”

Check out the video of Wish’s talk at the conference to hear more of her thoughts on advancing your marketing career and leading through a crisis. For even more great insights on marketing leadership and innovation, read about and watch our other videos from the 2020 Future of Marketing Leadership conference:

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