Three things any leader can learn from the emergency room


By Louis Venezia

Most people hate hospitals. They hate the smell. They hate waiting in the emergency room to splint a broken finger. They hate visiting sick relatives. They hate gathering for the last moments of a loved one’s life. They hate being told what to do by a gaggle of nurses and doctors. I, on the other hand, love hospitals. 

I grew up across the street from Morristown Memorial Hospital in historic Morristown, New Jersey. It’s the hospital where my mother worked for 52 years as a nurse. The hospital where I was born. And the hospital whose emergency room I worked at during high school and college. 

To me, hospitals are the ultimate safe place. They have emergency rooms. They have heart attack paddles. They have teams of nurses and doctors who can literally bring you back to life. But I think my real love of hospitals came simply from knowing that as a kid, my mother was there and it was another safe place—a second home. Working in the hospital and getting to see my mother work there, too, created in me an anomaly in perspective that allowed me to have an alternative point of view—loving hospitals—which I have brought as a helpful guide to how I run my business. 

Here are three things any leader can learn from an emergency room: 

1. Grace during difficult times 

The pressure can be intense when you’re running your own business. My business, a creative agency, is no different. Financial strain, human resources conflicts, and client demands are just the tip of the iceberg when you’re running a profitable agency for 15 years. Though we’ve had plenty of serious moments of great intensity during our time in business, my experience in the emergency room gave me the resilience and perspective needed to deal with just about anything that comes our way.

First, having seen life and death decisions made before my eyes in the emergency room, I know that nothing in my business will ever rise to that level. No matter how stressed anyone gets at our office, it’s easy to bring everyone down to earth with a quick bit of perspective

Three things any leader can learn from the emergency room

Second, when you’re used to seeing people die in front of you and have to interact with their families, you know that human emotions can run high, so in my business I aim to honor everyone’s concerns and meet employees where they are at, then bring them to a place of understanding that nothing that happens at our agency could ever rise to the level of a life or death situation.

2. The power of triage 

As a registration attendant in a busy trauma center, I was seated beside the triage nurses’ station and would work with the triage nurses to quickly determine the order of who would get seen when. Notwithstanding the obvious cases of trauma—heart attacks, gunshot wounds, major car accidents—that would bypass the triage nurse and go right into the emergency unit arriving in ambulances, we were the front lines of everyone else walking into the emergency rooms.

This is a lesson I brought straight into my business. As a busy agency with multiple clients and dozens of open projects all on their own timeline, it’s important to be able to prioritize and re-prioritize in the moment based on different circumstances. We not only triage to filter our current workload, we also use it as a device to field incoming jobs and calls, to prioritize client notes and the actions taken to address them, to sort through issues with our staff, and, perhaps most importantly, to sort through pending financial needs on regular weekly, monthly, and quarterly cadences.  

3. How to diagnose problems 

The other job I had at the hospital was working as a registration attendant in the back of the emergency unit where the nurses and doctors take care of the patients. Part of my job was taking the requests for lab work and preparing the paperwork. In that job I was able to see my mother in her role as a charge nurse, basically the quarterback of the emergency department. It was the first time I saw my mother in action as a hard-working nurse as opposed to just looking up to her as a hard worker in the abstract. Her presence in my life as a role model changed dramatically as I saw her not just running defense for a busy emergency room, but actually diagnosing problems and coming up with treatment plans with the doctors she worked alongside.

I’ve used my experience shadowing my mother to diagnose diverse problems in my business: everything from whether or not to switch accounting firms to whether or not to purchase an expensive piece of equipment. In the case of the equipment—a special digital recording deck—it was a difficult decision about timing, especially given how quickly the technology could go obsolete. Diagnosing the need for the equipment was the one of the most important decisions I made for my business. The short-term need and revenue potential trumped the eroding timeline toward technological obsoletion.  

Everyone brings attributes and examples from their life experiences to their businesses to help form their business philosophy. The time I spent in the emergency room of a busy trauma center shaped my take on how to run a creative agency. While it’s just one of the parts of my life that guides me, it’s the one I hold most dear. 

Louis Venezia is the CEO and CCO of Pilot Content, a media consultancy servicing entertainment clients FX, USA, AMC, Amazon Studios, and corporate clients Instagram, Spotify, JP Morgan Bank, and Yahoo Finance. 

Fast Company