Pandemic Lessons on Leadership: Be Who You Are

As the burgeoning pandemic quietly and quickly encompassed the globe, it was clear that the future was going to be anything but business as usual.

One of my first conversations about pivoting Vivent Health’s direction was with Eric Conley, a member of our Board of Directors who offered sage advice: “No matter what, be true to who you are.” As two health care leaders, neither of us could have predicted what was in store for us, our organizations, community, and world. Eric’s words were timely and timeless as a steadfast guide throughout the tumult of the next 15 months. The pandemic gave us time to reflect and taught us some powerful lessons on leadership.

How Vivent Health Met the Moment

Vivent Health’s leadership began to focus on transitioning our high touch, nationally renowned model of care—America’s only HIV Medical Home—into a high-quality remote operation. Heeding Eric’s advice, we looked to our Culture and Values for guidance and never turned back. At Vivent Health, our Principles emanate through all we do:

We’re Champions passionately committed to ending the HIV pandemic, providing unfettered access to care in pursuit of the highest quality outcomes known to humankind, assuring financial strength so our patients can rely on us until the very final day of AIDS.

We refer to our associates as Champions because in the fight against HIV, nothing less will do. Little did we know that same calling would be true as we prepared to combat another pandemic.

Bolstering our Culture are our Core Values, the guideposts by which we would outlast the pandemic: All-In, Aligned, Accountable, Agile, and Action.

Working tirelessly over a weekend, our leadership team crafted a plan that would protect the health and wellbeing of our Champions while assuring our patients received all the essential care they needed to thrive in the face of Covid-19.

As our plan emerged, the group agreed to four primary goals that would need to be achieved to realize our successful transformation:

  1. Champions will continue to receive their full salary and benefits, and no one will be laid off or lose their job because of the pandemic.
  2. Patients and clients will have access to the essential care and support they need.
  3.  Our commitment to quality will be sustained.
  4. Our financial strength will be leveraged and remain intact to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

We are in the business of health care and public health. We need to lead from the front.

Communication is the Key to Success

The first Monday morning after the United States began a lockdown, the leadership team launched our first weekly all Champion meetings via Zoom. The objective was clear: we were going to get an A+ in internal communication. By the afternoon, everyone knew the plan and their role in it. We would remain focused on meeting our patients’ and clients’ needs with all essential services, albeit in a very different way. Tuesday, we closed to transition to our Radical Response, and by Wednesday, we ‘reopened’ in a new, never before tested virtual and home delivery model of care.

Champions never missed a beat because of our frequent and accurate communication. Our strategies were diverse and effective: weekly all-Champion meetings, near-daily emails, a special email where Champions could ask questions. During this time, Champions were getting personal, one-on-one calls checking in on how they were doing and how we could help.

Simultaneously, we needed to address the three ways in which the pandemic was impacting the quality of lives of our thousands of patients and clients: illness, isolation, and financial hardship. It was imperative to reach out to them each week and ask them about their health, job loss, stress, or changes to their living situation. We made thousands of calls. Often, we were the only outside contact our patients had that week.

This personal approach differentiated Vivent Health from other health care and social services providers and fueled our success amidst the worsening pandemic.

Achieving Success Against All Odds

Vivent Health did not slow down our efforts amidst the pandemic. We developed new ways to deliver services, cared for a record of nearly 11,000 patients and clients, and extended our partnerships. We protected the health and wellbeing of our Champions.

Our team completed seven mergers or acquisitions during the pandemic, growing more deeply into Colorado and opening new HIV Medical Homes in Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri. Our board and leadership team become more diverse—each reaching the level of 40% of members being African American, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, or from other racial backgrounds. And our financial strength grew as we emerged as a $200 million organization.

These are all markers of success, of course, but symbolism is equally important. The symbolism of our entire leadership team delivering food to the homes of our patients, the symbolism of each of our 500 Champions receiving a handwritten note of gratitude and encouragement from me, the symbolism of continuing the years-long tradition of buying ‘Thanks A Lot’ Girl Scout cookies for every member of the team (just this year they got delivered to everyone’s home).  We also created a National Champions Day—a paid holiday to honor the work of our Champions.

Pandemic Lessons on Leadership

Leaders must lead. And there is never a more critical time to model outstanding leadership than in a time of crisis when it will set the tone for the entire organization. You achieve this through communication, listening, and responding. You achieve it by having a clear vision and holding to it. So, as you look at your organization and the leadership challenges you face, remember:

  • Make your brand’s principles and core values your North Star and allow those values to guide you through your challenges. When in doubt, be true to yourself.
  • Remember that leadership is a team sport, and engage and empower your lieutenants to drive the message through the organization. Also, communicate directly with employees to build confidence, minimize speculation and create a culture of inclusion.
  • Demonstrate your values and leadership through action. Even symbolic action has the power to galvanize those around you.
  • Finally, look in the mirror and don’t ask your employees or clients to take actions you wouldn’t take yourself.

By staying true to who we are as an organization, we were able to meet the moment and come back even stronger than before. Better yet, we were able to serve our patients and ensure that everyone stayed connected during this national crisis.

The Worst Of Times Brought Out The Best In Us

We increased service 10% during the COVID era
2019 – 10,000 patients and clients served
2020 – 11,000 patients and clients served


Of the Vivent Health board and leadership is comprised of African American, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian or from other non-Caucasian backgrounds.

Mike Gifford
President and Chief Executive Officer

Michael J. Gifford has been a leading force in the fight against AIDS in the United States for three decades. He currently serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Vivent Health. During…