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Gina Williamson Of Health and Related Services at Anderson Center for Autism: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

Author Fotis Georgiadis
Date February 6, 2022

Leaders are most effective when they operate from a place of integrity and see things through. Team members respect strong character, loyalty, open communication, and follow-through. There have been numerous occasions where policies or processes have been confusing or outdated. When reported to me by a team member, I always explore the concerns and then follow through in a timely fashion. This has helped me build trusting relationships with the team members I directly lead, as well with the interdisciplinary teams who work with me on a regular basis.

Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Gina Williamson.

Gina Williamson RN, BSN, is the Director of Health and Related Services at Anderson Center for Autism. A graduate of Purdue University with a Bachelor’s in Nursing Science, Williamson received an Associate’s Degree from Dutchess Community College and worked as a dialysis nurse for the early part of her career. With an extensive background in human services, six years ago Williamson joined Anderson Center for Autism’s team as the Children’s Nurse Supervisor, which led to a role as Health Services Coordinator, and ultimately a well-deserved promotion to her current position as Director of Health and Related Services. She believes in transformational leadership, inspiring and motivating her team as they work together to develop and carry out services that support well-being for people with autism. Williamson is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Leadership and Administration at Capella University. Learn more at andersoncenterforautism.org.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Myinitial plan was to become a social worker. When I was in school to pursue that degree, I wanted to gain experience. When I had just about completed my education in social work, I was interning at Vassar Brothers Medical Center, sitting with one of the social workers who worked on the pediatric floor. Her office was a tiny closet, and I kept watching the nurses working around us, scurrying through the halls to help various patients. I was so intrigued with what those nurses were doing — and had been for some time — and I found myself asking my fellow social worker: “Don’t you want to do what they’re doing?” She replied with a quick “no”, but I realized at that moment that I was really asking myself a question I already knew the answer to, and needed to make a change. So I went to my college registrar and changed my major and began the nursing curriculum. It took an additional 3 years to graduate because I needed all kinds of sciences that I hadn’t taken, but I knew it was worth it. The experience was not easy at all, of course — I had a 5-year-old and 2-year-old and became pregnant again when I was still in nursing school — but when you’re passionate about something, somehow you make it all work. My mother had passed away from medical malpractice and I think that really kept me going; I knew I wanted to work in the medical field as opposed to doing social work. I wanted to work directly with patients like her, people who I could help. So I earned my Associate’s from Dutchess Community College, and then went to Purdue University, where I completed my Bachelor’s degree online. Upon graduation I got designation as a Registered Nurse, and specialized in dialysis. I then got into management, at which point I became the charge nurse for an entire clinic. Eventually, I landed here at Anderson Center for Autism, where my background in case management and my personal family history has inspired me to make an impact. The scenery at Anderson is breathtaking, but I also felt beauty in the immediate sense of being at home and having purpose here. It’s the perfect place for me to share my own gifts, and I love doing so to make a difference in the lives of people with autism and their families.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I don’t know that any mistake is funny in nursing — and this one isn’t necessarily funny, and wasn’t even a mistake of mine at all, but the experience made a mark and is worth sharing. In dialysis nursing, you have what is known as lab day, during which you do lab draws and once a month, you do tissue typing. Tissue typing goes to different hospitals for transplant, so it’s a very serious responsibility. Typically, there are technicians on staff who do the draws and send them away — and in my case, I oversaw the process for a team on my side of the clinic, along with another leader on the other side of the clinic who was overseeing her own team of technicians. Thankfully, this didn’t happen within those I was supervising, but we were told that a technician had missed a tissue typing, which led to a patient missing out on a much-needed transplant. About 18 months later, we learned that the supervisor had used this as a mere example and it hadn’t actually been true, which wasn’t funny at all — but it did send a lesson about the fact that when we make mistakes, the impact of those mistakes could be awful for someone else. That lesson really hit home with me, and helped me become more meticulous about tissue typing and everything else I do — I would never want to be the person who creates a missed opportunity for someone else because of my mistake. That supervisor taught us to become even more accountable than ever before.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Without question, I am so grateful to both my mother and my sister. As mentioned previously, my mother died from medical malpractice, and my sister had died 11 months before my mother. My mother’s situation has driven my success in the sense that it keeps me inspired to give everything I have to my patients and to stay closely involved with every case to ensure that all steps are being taken to protect health and well-being. And my sister had lived in Cardinal Hayes home, so it was through her that I began feeling a deep connection to people with developmental disabilities, which of course has shaped my entire experience at Anderson Center for Autism. So I became a nurse because of my mom, and found my professional home at Anderson because of my sister. I feel I can carry on their light through my work, and I can communicate with parents and family members in a special way because of my family history. I remember hearing my mom talk to nurses and case managers and my sister’s entire team of helpers; I recall the fear she’d experience at times, and the complete happiness she felt when something good happened for my sister. Those moments have always resonated with me, and the importance of the personality who is there for each family through the good times and the tougher ones; it’s made me want to be as compassionate and caring as I can possibly be. I know what it means to really show up to those you serve, but also to the family members, because I’ve been one of those family members.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Anderson Center for Autism is not a business, but rather a nonprofit organization that was founded almost 100 years ago to serve people with disabilities. It has evolved and grown dramatically over the years, especially in recent decades as it has become totally focused on its mission of optimizing the quality of life for people with autism. The incidence rates for autism are now 1 in 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control, so there is tremendous need for agencies like ours, and it will continue to expand its footprint but already attracts families from all over the country, and fellows who train with Anderson from all corners of the globe. But because Anderson is driven by its mission, each and every day is full of a sense of purpose for everyone who is part of this organization — and there is no question that it has driven success. It has made countless people want to support the agency and get involved in our cause. And our hope is to continue to connect others who may not yet understand autism or the importance of our mission. In fact, the truth is that there isn’t a lot of formal education developed yet as part of schooling for medical providers when it comes to autism. I don’t believe the subject is really taught in a deep way in nursing school or medical school (at least it wasn’t when I was a nursing student) — and that has led to unnecessary issues coming up with providers who simply don’t know how to handle or treat the neurodiverse population. It’s starting to develop as a result of our Anderson Consulting team’s efforts, but I hope to see even more training for nurses, doctors, businesses, and community members so that we can all work together to create a greater sense of belonging and community for people with autism. There’s definitely more that needs to be done out there, and Anderson’s mission is one that is beginning to make its way into our broader society; I think our impact will grow more and more significant as time goes on.

I have to say that working for a mission-oriented organization is really a privilege for me. I’m very mission-oriented myself — I see the enormous potential in terms of how we can support humanity, and what Anderson has already achieved to that end. The organization is a well-respected leader in the field — and I can see the vision for the future and I’m excited to be a part of that. In my role, I’m overseeing health and related services, which has of course become extra-critical throughout the pandemic and staying focused on our mission and purpose has helped me remain inspired even on our toughest days. I’m going for my Master’s degree now, which isn’t just about building my career in nursing or related services — it’s about supporting Anderson as a whole by ensuring that I have the leadership skills and knowledge to really make a difference. So even my degree feels like it has a great purpose. Our team opened up a preschool and there are some other things in the works too; they’ve also built relationships with colleges, which have opened so many doors — not just for staff but for the world to see institutions creating atmospheres that are inclusive and full of opportunity. In my department, we have tried to intertwine with other components of the agency, building teams to make a more far-reaching impact and gathering data that allows us to operate from an evidence-based perspective. Getting out there and advocating and creating resources that we can use for people at Anderson and can help families too, even those who don’t receive services through Anderson — to have connections and help the entire community and broaden the understanding of autism is definitely something I want to do.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

The pandemic is the story; these have been the most turbulent times I could have ever imagined, and it has tested all of us. I think I’ve always been a strong leader, but when you have no knowledge of something that is completely brand new like COVID-19, and everyone is looking for guidance and direction, it feels like the weight of the world on your shoulders. You have to dig deep to find the strength to lead with the confidence and the can-do spirit that will inspire everyone else. So I buckled down, gathered information from credible sources, and did all the research I could — because I felt that information was power for all of us. While doing so, I tried to help the team maintain a shared sense of purpose and ensure that everyone felt safe and appreciated as they continued to care for the people we serve. There was very little information at all in the beginning; we often had to make determinations about the health and well-being of those we serve — based on our own intuition in the context of guidance that was changing moment to moment. And we also had to develop plans and protocols that were in some cases completely brand new, such as our need to really deliver health-related services to our staff, which we hadn’t previously provided to them but that became essential. As a leader, I had to focus on those types of details and new developments while keeping my eye on the whole picture — managing broader topics like infection control as we went about our day-to-day trying to keep morale strong and deal with details and with staffing challenges when people would get exposed and have to be quarantined. Thankfully, Anderson has always been a top-notch agency in terms of having medical resources — many agencies can’t do EKGs or draw blood — but we could — so we may not have had testing at that time for COVID-19, but I was grateful for all of the resources that helped all of us, and I think staying focused on that sense of gratitude also helped. Our team worked together to put the resources we had to use, and came up with processes and procedures that would protect everyone as much as possible. But even with all of that, things continued to come up — just recently we had to deal with a shortage of tests, so when those types of situations seem to get in the way, we just have to work together to figure it all out. There were many times where I saw my team feeling overwhelmed or anxious — and when I’d look into someone’s eyes and notice that, I had to just take a step back and focus on what that person most needed from me. Being a leader, especially during difficult times, has connected me in a deeper way to the importance of building real connections. Leading with our shared purpose guiding the way and understanding the power of collaboration has helped all of us work together to carry out our mission. Communicating clearly, listening actively to make everyone feel heard, cooperating, and always coming from a place of compassion are the things that will keep everyone engaged even in the toughest of times.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

No, I would never give up or even consider it; that’s not in my DNA. What sustained me was the fact that I wanted so desperately to do all I could to protect the health and safety of my team, all the people we serve, and our entire staff. This is my job, but it’s also my life’s work. I knew everyone was looking to me for answers and I feel an ongoing responsibility to them. At home, I am a mother to six children. I have a similar responsibility for my team and everyone at Anderson — we are a family and my role is somewhat maternal in nature. We service 900 staff and about 121 adults and 132 children; and we also take care of the parents and community members too. For example, the fear that families experienced when they were unable to see their loved ones with autism because of restrictions — I felt that fear they were experiencing, and I wanted to do all I could to provide them with comfort. Those are the human interactions that keep me going and make me never give up.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

I would say the most critical role is to stay strong and to have an open door policy. Burnout is a real thing, and as a leader, it’s important to acknowledge what might be happening and to empathize. And then, to take that next step of reminding everyone on a regular basis why we’re here, why we went to school, what our goal is, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that they’ve been successful and can do this too — and that I’m here for them every step of the way. Clear, constant communication that is grounded but positive — providing information but focusing on what the team has achieved, the history they’re making, and the fact that I care about them — I think all of this helps everyone face the challenges with purpose.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Open communication and recognition — and the simple art of saying “thank you.’’ If I saw someone suited up to go down to a house where we knew there were positive cases, and it was the beginning of a pandemic when we really knew nothing about this virus, and I knew that nurse was to return home to family members that evening after work potentially exposing others to it, I made it a point to express my gratitude for what they were doing. Acknowledging the sacrifices my team has gone a long way — everyone needs and deserves to feel recognized for what they bring to their work.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

I’m a firm believer in speaking to someone face to face, whether the news is good or bad. Unfortunately, the pandemic has required us to meet mostly over zoom or by phone — so overall, I’ve made it a point to communicate clearly what needs to be shared, and then to make myself completely available to answer questions and address concerns immediately. I also try to convey that I’m always open to any feedback and insight — whether it’s in that moment or after the person has had time to process everything. I try to stay away from email as things can so easily be misconstrued. Tone of voice is important, facial expressions are important, and body language is important — so face-to-face is always ideal — and some of this can even be done by teleconference.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

The key is to always be forward-thinking. Maybe plans won’t transpire exactly as we put them together, but we can come up with a Plan B, and we should also be focused on bettering our services and figuring out how to do that with the tools we have in the situation we are in. I try to remind myself and my team, too, that it’s key to keep plans fluid and to be flexible as needed. This is not new for anyone in the nursing field — we deal with unexpected developments all the time, so I think our nature is to know how to pivot which is helpful when the future is, indeed, uncertain.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

I think that cultivating strong relationships with others is the number one principle. Make sure people feel heard if they have ideas and opinions — and even if those ideas are not completely implemented, it’s important to open the lines of communication so that everyone feels like there’s a space where they can share. By listening, being authentic and transparent, and empathizing, individuals become teams — and teams can work together to get through the ups and downs of turbulent times. There’s power in numbers!

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

I can’t think of any common mistakes that they’re making, but I think that some do overlook the importance of networking and building community partnerships. We pooled our own resources with a local hospital because we saw a need and realized that collaborating with them would help us address that need. You have to handle what’s in the moment but always have to be thinking down the road — think 10 steps ahead of everyone else — and look for opportunities to work with others. That way, when something comes up, we are already there and prepared and ready to take action immediately. Some organizations were not ready for this pandemic. We had been watching what was happening in China and realized we needed to get things in place. So I think that while I haven’t seen specific mistakes per se, I have realized that some organizations seem to be thinking ahead more than others and getting ready for what might happen; Anderson has done so and it’s made all the difference.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

As a nonprofit organization, we are always focused on maintaining financial stability as an agency, and I am definitely keenly aware of that within my own department. We have to be practical with all that we do, and not utilize resources unnecessarily. We are very careful with our spending, and are always thinking about ways to prevent any financial burdens to the agency. Telehealth has helped us forge ahead in our efforts to maximize resources and prevent financial strain through the pandemic, and will definitely shape some of our long-term strategies. We also look at overtime — we want to be sure we use that as needed but that we’re mindful of it too so we don’t overstretch people or the pool of funds available to pay for it.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Most importantly: a leader should lead by example — especially during times of uncertainty. A few weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I heard my text alert on my phone. One of the nurses had texted the following: “I’m doing homework today and I’m writing about transformational leadership, and I keep thinking of you! It is so corny, but I get tears in my eyes just thinking about the fierceness, integrity, and commitment that you bring to our department. I feel so fortunate that you are the captain of this ship even though it’s been a crazy, rocky ride the last couple of years. Thank you.” This nurse has been with the agency for over 6 years. She is in school studying for her Bachelor’s degree in nursing and has appreciated and replicated the examples set. It meant the world to me.
  2. A leader should share their vision. For a vision to come to fruition, a leader must have buy-in from the team and stakeholders. Communicating a vision also gives the team a chance to participate, offer feedback, and share helpful opinions. Team members may have valuable feedback that could enhance the vision and I find that when a team has a hand in developing a plan or a vision, the outcomes are always successful, and this empowers the team as well. A few years back, it was decided we needed to revamp our medication administration class. I formulated a team of nurses to assess, formulate, and implement an updated training. Not only was the revamp successful for its intended purpose, but the staff saw a vision come to fruition and they felt empowered because their efforts and ideas made that possible. It was a win for everyone.
  3. A leader should possess the tools to communicate effectively. A good leader is transparent and facilitates and promotes information sharing. Communication also inspires and encourages team members, as they can bring forth questions, concerns, and valuable input to any circumstance. As an example: I was recently in a meeting with team members from related services discussing an initiative for our aging population. During this meeting, a team member expressed a great deal of interest in the committee and began expressing concerns she has had for our aging population and what areas of support her profession could bring to the committee. It helped her get engaged and will ultimately help the group who will be served by this initiative.
  4. A leader recognizes the success of team members, and says “thank you”. Acknowledging achievements and saying a simple “thank you” can go a long way, not only within your own department, but throughout the organization. Over the last two years, one of the agency’s treatment coordinators was tasked with rolling out a new electronic health record. Her dedication, precision, and organization were extraordinary. She developed training programs and processes, and worked with every department to make the transition as seamless as possible. This was no minor feat. Although I do not oversee her department, as a leader with whom she worked on a regular basis during this roll out, I found it imperative to recognize her for all her hard work, so I reached out to her supervisor to give praise for a job well done. We all feel better when people recognize our efforts; it motivates us and lifts our spirits.
  5. Leaders are most effective when they operate from a place of integrity and see things through. Team members respect strong character, loyalty, open communication, and follow-through. There have been numerous occasions where policies or processes have been confusing or outdated. When reported to me by a team member, I always explore the concerns and then follow through in a timely fashion. This has helped me build trusting relationships with the team members I directly lead, as well with the interdisciplinary teams who work with me on a regular basis.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s not necessarily a quote — but I love the ant and the grasshopper story, which I was taught at a young age. The grasshopper was under a tree and the ants were working hard preparing for winter and they were ready for it when it came, but the grasshopper had not prepared and thus was not ready at all. The ants welcomed him into their den, which showed their kindness — but the grasshopper hadn’t worked for that as they did. It’s a reminder that although people will be helpful to you in times of need, it’s up to you to build for the future. The world does NOT owe you a living. You have to work for everything you get or want.

How can our readers further follow your work?

They can learn more on our website: andersoncenterforautism.org, or follow us on social media. Our Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/AndersonCenterforAutism; Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndersonAutism; Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/andersoncenterforautism/; YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/AndersonCenterAutism/videos; and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/anderson-center-for-autism/.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!