The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Athena Award was created in 1989 to recognize professional excellence, community service and assistance to women for helping attain professional leadership skills. This year’s winner is Tasha Blackmon, who has served three years as president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Cherry Health, the largest Federally Qualified Health Center in Michigan that provides care in underserved areas.
Blackmon, who’s been with Cherry Health for nearly 16 years and started as a site manager at the Westside Health Center, spoke with MiBiz about managing through the COVID-19 pandemic — a period she calls “a time for decisive leadership.”
When leading an organization through a crisis, what’s the first thing you need to keep in mind?
I walk into every situation knowing that it can be solved. The solution is either within you, above you or around you. I always approach crisis situations as if there is a solution. You just have to figure out how to get to that solution. I’m a spiritual person, so I often will pray for guidance. But I also have a team around me and they are amazing, so I don’t have to feel that I’m alone in dealing with a crisis.
What was the moment in the early days of the pandemic that told you this was going to become a major crisis lasting for a while?
It was really the ears to the ground in Detroit. I started to feel it more with my colleagues in the Detroit area (saying) that people were dying. Every day there were multiple people who were in the hospital or who had died. The third week of March was when I realized ‘this is significant.’ I felt it before the governor’s order just because of what was happening in Detroit. And we have sites in Detroit.
How do you describe your leadership style?
It is a hybrid approach. There is some servant leadership in there, there’s some transformational leadership in there, and I would say some situational leadership. One of the things I am thankful for is being able to really adjust my leadership to the circumstance I’m dealing with in the moment. That requires a lot of patience, a lot of creativity, and it requires having people around you that may not always agree, but they understand why decisions are being made.
How do you as a leader get people to understand even if they disagree with a decision?
There are times I say to my staff, ‘Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean you don’t understand.’ I work toward them gaining understanding even if they don’t agree.
You first start with the big picture. You talk about where the mission alignment is, and look at that first. Then you talk from the standpoint: ‘What is our obligation as a FQHC? What is our obligation as a community partner?’ Then you start to look at, ‘How does this impact our staff and our patients?’ You kind of go through this rubric that’s in your head and you work your way down. There are times you get to the end and your staff may say, ‘You know, I do understand but I don’t agree.’ My next step is to ask them, ‘If you were making this decision, how would you have made the decision and why?’ I want to understand their thought process. That’s where we’re able to really get to the root of where their issue is.
How has the pandemic changed you as a leader? What have you learned?
I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned the power of resilience. Just when you think your team has had enough and that you can’t push them any more — we worked steady 15- or 17-hour days, and it was consistent for months — you see the sheer will of your team, and I think my team is so courageous, too.
At one point we didn’t know what was going to happen if you tested positive for COVID-19. We didn’t know if it was an immediate death sentence for most people or what, but we had staff that were like, ‘I joined Cherry Health because I wanted to make sure the underserved population of our community had access to quality care and this is why I’m here.’ They came to work courageous. I’ve always known our staff was really passionate, but just the level of courage that they displayed during this time — it makes me misty just thinking about it. They were risking their own lives and the lives of their family to come to work every day. Some of them were probably fearful on some level, but their courage outweighed their fear. They’re cemented as heroes in my mind.
What will stay with you from that?
I’ve learned that when courage outweighs fear, anything is possible because of some of the things they pulled off. We stood up telehealth in days and shifted our whole business model overnight. It doesn’t mean that the fear isn’t there because you have to acknowledge the way you really feel and fear is a real feeling, but our staff just showed up.