Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 leadership is a great example of helping to save lives by changing the way we live. Never before have we asked to stay home to help others. To change our behaviors has been a monumental effort by leaders around the world.
It’s rare to see, on national TV, a change initiative in progress. I’ve watched, fascinated as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily COVID-19 conferences have evolved, and how change management techniques were added to increase people’s adoption of staying home to fight this war against a very resilient virus. The goal is simple, by staying away from others, we can stop the spread of the virus and save lives. Leaders can learn a lot from Governor Cuomo and how he has handled the COVID-19 pandemic in the state of New York, USA.
Change management is used to help get people to adopt to change. Did you know 70% of change initiatives fail? Change is hard. Not all leaders know how to lead change. Not everyone, even with the best leadership, will change their behaviors. Will enough people change to save the lives of the people we love, work with and live near? I hope so. We already know that COVID-19 has taken the lives of 280 thousand people throughout the world. This article covers some of the change management techniques observed in Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 leadership. We’ll look at examples, to better learn how to lead change ourselves. We’ll cover:
- New York’s background
- How Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 Leadership created a sense of urgency
- How he created a change coalition
- Tools he used to effectively communicate his vision and messages
- How he managed resistance
- How he used storytelling to connect with people
- How he shared his overall plan
I will also mention my own resistance and how Governor Cuomo was able to get me to change my own behaviors. As this crisis continues, I suggest taking a look at one of his briefings, or, follow a link to one of the briefings used in this article to see change management leadership in action.
How Did Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 Leadership Effectively Manage Getting New Yorkers to Stop the Spread?
- March 2, 2020: New York state’s first COVID-19 positive test was recorded. A 50-year-attorney that lives in New Rochelle, NY tested positive and was hospitalized on March 2. This attorney worked in Manhattan, near Grand Central Station.
- By March 10, there were 108 documented cases in New Rochelle. Prior to testing positive, the lawyer attended religious events at a local synagogue, where more people caught the virus. More than 50 coronavirus cases could be linked to the lawyer. Officials announced the creation of a containment zone that encircled the synagogue, schools were closed, large gatherings were banned and testing sites were set up.
- March 20: Governor Cuomo signed the “New York State on PAUSE” Executive order requiring people to stay at home, which applied to schools and all nonessential businesses and workers.
- On May 2, New York had more than any other state of confirmed cases, over 300,000 cases.
- By changing behavior, it’s estimated over 100,000 people were kept out of hospitals in the state of New York (NY).
Change management, which is applied anytime people need to change the way they do things needs a strong leader to be successful. Over the last 2 months, I’ve watched Governor Cuomo (who is not the governor of my state) lead change management in an amazing way. This article will call out of the ways he has applied change management, in the hopes more people will learn how to help others lead change, especially if we can save lives.
Creating A Sense of Urgency
To get people to change their behaviors, it’s key to create a sense of urgency. Change is hard and is typically resisted.
For example, I supported the Stay At Home rule, but I was resistant to wearing a mask on my bicycle rides. Why?
- First, I didn’t have a mask until April, when a friend was nice enough to make me and my family masks. You couldn’t buy them. We tried and right before the order shipped, it was cancelled.
- Second, I didn’t go to stores. I thought wearing a mask was only if you were interacting with other people outside your home. My trips outside my home was for exercise, mostly bike rides. I didn’t see the value of wearing a mask as I quickly cycled past people.
- Third, it’s really uncomfortable to catch your breath through a mask in the tough parts of the ride, and, often the mask will fog up my sunglasses, forcing me to stop.
It would take facts and storytelling for me to change my behavior. Here’s how he did it.
Cuomo created a sense of urgency by speaking and showing the hospitalizations and death rates. It was clear this was not the normal flu. People were dying. Cuomo created a sense of urgency by a simple vision, to “Save Lives”. Notice his slides, where he emphasizes the impacts of our actions.
- Urgency: “Our actions today determine the number of people sick tomorrow” (we need to change).
- Urgency: “Net change in total hospitalizations” (see the results of our changing).
- Urgency: “It’s gotten to the point that we are bringing in additional Funeral Directors to deal with the number of people who have passed” (never-before-things are being done)
Sharing facts, like total hospitalizations, helps us understand the bigger picture. The more the hospitalization rate increased, the more we understood the urgency to change. The picture below shows how quickly hospitalizations went up daily in March and April.
Understanding projections, based on our actions helps us understand the impacts of changing our behaviors. All projections showed projections curves (below) over what New York hospitals could handle (April 9). Advisors said that if you could get people to comply with all the change measures, the curve could be lower, but it’s never been done before. We can see now, that by changing our behaviors, it made a difference (see above graph as the curve decreases).
Leadership is about making information something we can really understand. Often, just sharing numbers is not relatable. Gov. Cuomo would give the numbers a value we could understand. For example, it’s hard to imagine the number of days or deaths we were going through. See the following example of how he related the number of deaths from COVID-19 to recent events, like 9/11. Notice too, how Gov. Cuomo is an empathetic leader. Showing empathy helps his audience understand the impacts of the numbers.
- “We lost 2,753 lives on 9/11. We’ve lost over 7,000 lives to this crisis. That is so shocking and painful and breathtaking. I can’t — I don’t even have the words for it.” (April 9)
- By April 29, more Americans had died from COVID-19 than were killed in the Vietnam War.
He used past events to show that the pain we are feeling now has only been days, compared to other events that went on over for years.
And, he reminds us that this is not our first pandemic. The slide below shows what happened in the deadly 1918 Flu, where there were three peaks, with the second wave being the deadliest.
Creating A Change Coalition (May 3, 2020 Briefing)
Great leaders know they can’t do it alone. Creating a “Change Coalition” or Change Champion Team, helps keep messages aligned, reaches more people, reinforces key messages and, in this case, can create a powerful economic network to getting/sharing supplies. The coalition members on May 3rd’s briefing included Governor Phil Murphy (New Jersey), Governor Ned Lamont (Connecticut), Governor Tom Wolf (Pennsylvania), and Governor John Carney of Delaware.
Communication & Training on Behavioral Change Plan for Wearing Masks
Governor Cuomo shares that his plan is to change personal behavior through facts, his own experience in human behavior and communication. He shares how he uses data, teaches other leaders how to use the data and then applies his experience leading people.
I couldn’t help but notice his consistent messaging through slides as he speaks and have included them for reference. For example, by listening and seeing the slides , it was very clear that his vision was to Save Lives. He stays on point and speaks to the challenges, hardships and the future plan to save lives. For example, every one of his slides say “Stay Home.” “Stop the Spread.” “Saves Lives.”
Governor Cuomo clearly planned for resistance. Let’s look at how he motivates people on the use of wearing masks.
- While he speaks about the importance of wearing masks, his slide reinforces it.
- He believes educating New Yorkers will build a coalition of enforcers that will encourage others “the best enforcers to using a mask are other New Yorkers”.
- He knows from experience that wearing a mask will be resisted by people for a number of reasons (warmer weather, numbers going down, people will take false comfort).
Examples of Addressing Resistance To Wearing A Mask:
- “I don’t think it’s too much to ask to wear a mask”
- I’ve heard people say “I heard it’s over” or “I heard other states are opening.”
He also manages resistance by describing some potential points of resistance and brings it back to the urgency of saving lives. If “you want to honor the health care workers and, the people who literally gave their lives, wear a mask.”
- “Act responsibly for yourself, your family and your community.”
- “It’s not the most attractive garment ever created, so what?”
- Not wearing a mask “is not only wrong and a public health risk, it’s such a little think to ask people to do, when people are doing so much”:
- The transit workers are disinfecting trains
- Going from train to train
- On their hands and knees
- Wearing hazmat suits
- Blowing disinfectant under and over the seats
- Wiping down all the ceilings
- People are doing unprecedented work, and you can’t wear a mask?
- He reminds us that people brought the numbers down-the virus didn’t slow by itself.
- “If you go back to your old behavior, the numbers will go back up”
- “It’s disrespectful to other people to not wear a mask.” If you make me sick, I risk other people getting sick because you didn’t wear a mask (transit workers, ambulance driver, nurse, doctor).
- “If you want to make their lives easier, than don’t get sick and don’t make someone else sick.”
- “You put so many people at risk because you didn’t want to wear a mask”
Storytelling to Manage Resistance
The power of storytelling is a great way to connect with people. Cuomo uses storytelling to not only engage his audience, he teaches as well.
For example the story he told about the value of using a mask was simple, yet powerful:
- I, not wearing a mask, sneeze on a park bench
- You sit down half an hour later
- Put your hand on the bench and then touch your face
- You get sick because of me
After that story, I started wearing a mask on my bicycle rides.
To help bring about change it helps to understand the plan. Often, leaders forget this part. They will say share the vision, but not the milestones on how to get there. In the below slide, we are given the plan (four areas to expect before we move from staying at home to back to work). When a leader shares the plan, people are more likely to change because they understand why it’s important and the milestones to reach:
- “Do No Harm”. Stay home, wear a mask when out and stay at least six feet apart from others.
- The best case for a vaccine is 18 months.
- While waiting for a vaccine, testing will be important. This shows who has the virus and must be quarantined. Tracing will enable us to find the source of the virus to stop the spread.
- Phased Re-opening means that there won’t be a certain day that everyone goes back to work. It will be a gradual process until there is a vaccine.
Conclusion on Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 Leadership
In conclusion, the leadership style and strategy Gov. Cuomo and team used has been very effective. The key important steps he applies are:
- Creating a sense of urgency
- Getting a coalition of change leaders
- Planning for resistance (people won’t wear masks)
- Showing how adoption saves lives (decreasing number of cases)
- Sharing the vision and the plan
- Following the numbers by using facts and measuring performance (how fast the virus will spread, rate of transmission, number of deaths, etc.)
- Reviewing history (1918 Flu’s second wave was worse than the first)
- Using consistent and repetitive messaging helps people remember (Stay Home, Stop the Spread, Save Lives)
- Storytelling helps to drive messages, train others and change behavior
- Being an empathetic leader
My change journey wearing a mask started by watching last Sunday’s briefing. By the end of the briefing I committed to myself that I would wear my mask on my bicycle rides. At first, I did forget to wear my mask. Then, I started storing my mask with my bike equipment. Within days, I was wearing a mask every day. Since I still lower my mask to catch my breath and to defog my glasses, I take quieter routes with fewer people and I don’t remove my mask in areas I suspect others have been recently. I hope I will eventually be able to ride with a mask on all the time, though I have no idea how I will figure out how exactly I will do that, especially in the summer.
As a change manager, I respect a leader who can change my behavior. It’s worth it if it saves lives. Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 Leadership is something we can all learn from.