Leadership mentality: a gold medal mindset for lab leaders

Contributing lab leader: Shannon MiIller

Lab managers and directors manage a team that delivers vital information to clinical care teams and patients. Each healthcare executive and lab leader can develop a leadership mentality that will trickle down throughout the organization, boosting worker morale and productivity and, helping to improve patient outcomes.

In the second of this 2-part interview, we continue our discussion with Shannon Miller, a 7-time Olympic medalist in gymnast, women’s health and fitness advocate, and cancer survivor, on the gold medal mindset, seamless productivity, and continual progress, and how lab leaders can tackle unexpected challenges.

Article highlights:
  • To optimize patient outcomes, lab leaders can work with their team to employ the gold medal mindset: goal setting, teamwork, a positive attitude and commitment to excellence.
  • By practicing personal accountability, like admitting failure or mistakes, leadership can ensure effective buy-in, seamless productivity and continual progress from their team.
  • When unexpected obstacles arise, lab leaders need to focus on flexibility, communication and transparency to help the entire organization move forward.
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Four ways to achieve the gold medal mindset

Q: You often talk about this “Gold Medal Mindset.” What is this, and how can healthcare and lab leadership integrate this into their daily lives?

Shannon Miller:

The lessons I learned through sports have helped me in every area of life, whether it's business, family, or my cancer journey. Anyone in any industry can use these lessons — no cartwheels or leotards involved. The gold medal mindset is an attitude of going out and winning the day, no matter what life or work throws at you.

The gold medal mindset includes four different parameters:

  1. Goal setting lays the foundation: It's the foundation and critical component to achieving what we want, whether big or small. It paves the way for change, growth, and improvement. It helps us close the distance between where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow.
    We all understand the need to set both short-term and long-term goals, with those short-term goals we gain a sense of achievement along the way. However, the importance of following through must be included in that goal-setting conversation. It's not enough to know what we need to do, we also have to do what we need to do. It’s not enough to simply write it on a list. We need to actively work on the list, our goals, every single day.
  2. Teamwork is essential. I talk a lot about understanding who is on your team. Who are the people you can lean on in any given phase of life, in your times of need? Who is it that inspires you to do and be your very best? On the flip side, how will you be a team player, an outstanding, positive team player? How will you hold up your end?
  3. You can never go wrong with a positive attitude. That doesn't mean it's easy. It doesn't mean it will always be there, but people notice when you are the yay-sayer, the go-getter, and the can-do person in the room. It can be a very powerful thing to be the one person in the room who sees barriers as opportunities; someone who finds their way around obstacles with a smile or a sense of humor, or the one who focuses on the solutions rather than just the problems. 
  4. Remain committed to excellence. Commitment to excellence was initially quite challenging for me growing up. I didn't always understand what this meant. Does it mean I have to be perfect, never make a mistake, or never have a bad day? That seems impossible. However, I don’t really think that’s what it means. Commitment to excellence boils down to giving one hundred percent, no matter how big or small the task. It’s all about giving your very best effort in the moment. 

My parents and coaches instilled in me the idea that it didn't matter what the task was; you go out and give it one hundred percent. Not be perfect, not win. If you're going to do something, try your best. 

It's easy to give one hundred percent for the big tasks. For example, on the day of competition at the Olympic Games. Yes, of course, I'm going to give one hundred percent. But did I give one hundred percent back in that hot, sweaty, smelly, chalky gym doing push-up after push-up after push-up? Did I dedicate myself to doing each pushup one hundred percent, as perfectly as I could? All of those small moments add up to those big moments. We have to be able to give one hundred percent when the cameras aren't on, and people aren't watching. You can’t control many things, but you can control your effort. 

These four points are the things that I love to talk about concerning the gold medal mindset. In the lab, activities are highly process-driven and standardized. They follow a set and rigid approach. Much like my training schedule in the gym, it's incredibly repetitive. It is about the little things, like ensuring one hundred compliance around the process and standardization, which is crucial to realizing excellence every step of the way.

Improving productivity in the lab through accountability

Q: Management staff within laboratories often work interdependently within teams toward success. What leadership/teamwork best practices would you recommend for seamless productivity and continual progress?


Shannon Miller:

Gymnastics is both an individual and a team sport. I found it's very similar in almost every area of work and life. When we do our best as individuals, we're helping the team the most. If I go out and get as close to a 10.0 on every routine, I'm assisting the team the most.

Now to do our best as a team, we have to understand how to communicate. We have to keep each other motivated to do our best each day. We need to be in charge of setting an excellent example for others. There is a level of trust and accountability to being a part of a high-performing team. People need to nurture trusted accountability, meaning that someone should feel comfortable raising their hand, acknowledging a mistake, an error, or a variance, and allowing a structured process improvement to help prevent future issues.

A mistake in my world of sports could be human error, but there are times when the mistake is attributed to equipment failure or process-type issues. The most important thing is to figure out why it happened, learn from it, and move forward positively. Only through that level of personal accountability can an organization enjoy that process improvement. 


Q: In leadership, what are the core tenets you live by now and recommend to other leaders to achieve excellence?


Shannon Miller:

By default, my leadership style is leading by example. This style was probably born out of my younger years when I was timid as a child. I wouldn't be the one giving pep talks or cheering from the sidelines. I tended to be more reserved. I was more focused on leading by example through work ethic and discipline, goal setting, making mistakes, and getting back up. These techniques I employ as a leader came from what I learned by watching other successful people and how they led by example. I tried my best to follow suit.

Leading by example is such a reliable way to influence others. Also, it's not the only way to lead. Culture, environment, and providing encouragement and support are also important.

Along those same lines, personal accountability is critical and compliments leading by example. Others need to know that you’ve looked into the mirror first. While offering advice or help, those you support need to know that your actions are rooted in personal accountability. It makes you better as a person, and it makes your message more effective.

More specifically, if you're not looking at yourself first, don't expect someone else to follow suit based on what you say. Admitting that you made a mistake and reflecting on your actions will help create more buy-in from the people you're leading because they know you’ve had that personal accountability first.

Be as authentic as you can with your co-workers. It's not always about perfection but about how you handle those mistakes along the way.

How successful leaders overcome unexpected challenges

Q: Given your experience, what advice would you give to leaders overcoming unexpected challenges, such as COVID-19, that still have to lead a team to success? 


Shannon Miller:

While leaders foresee most challenges, there are always surprise challenges that they can never anticipate. It's the obstacle that seems too massive to overcome. The most important thing about addressing these unexpected challenges is taking them one step at a time. If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, we stop moving forward.

We need to have a plan to take that obstacle, learn as much as we can, and figure out our next step forward. We don't want to be in that frozen state. For leaders, your team wants to know you've got a plan. However, your plans may need to evolve based on new objective information. You need flexibility.

Communication and transparency are also critical. Give your team all the information necessary, and communicate clearly and purposefully, so everyone is on the same page. 

Overcoming obstacles is a skill honed by repetition. The more we practice on small roadblocks, the more prepared we’ll be when those more significant, unexpected challenges arrive.