A conversation about crisis management with Sharon Greenberger, President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York.
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4 min read
Sharon Greenberger is the 10th President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York, overseeing 24 branches throughout the five boroughs that provide exercise, activity and community meeting facilities for half a million children, adults, and seniors annually.
The YMCA, like all businesses big and small, was severely impacted by the pandemic. In the weeks leading up to the recent re-opening of gyms in New York, we spoke with Greenberger about leading her team and YMCA members through this health crisis. Having worked for the Downtown Alliance during 9/11, served in the Bloomberg administration during the recovery, and worked at NewYork-Presbyterian during Hurricane Sandy, she has extensive experience managing crisis and crisis recovery. Here’s how she applied that experience to the ongoing pandemic.
On leading a legacy institution
“We’ve been around for almost 175 years. We have stuck to the same playbook in many ways, and it has been met with community and organizational success. So getting people to think differently requires some pushing. I’ve tried to do a couple of things to do that. One is I come with what I would call a ‘continuous improvement mindset.’ I’m always asking why. ‘Why do we do this? Why we’ve always done this? Why haven’t we tried this? Why don’t we look at it this way?’
And in some instances, you have to start small, think carefully about one small thing that could have a big impact. When Covid-19 hit, we had a membership model that we used for 30 years. It was an antiquated system that nobody’s ever even heard of, and we just changed to Salesforce. There’s nothing like a crisis to push you to think with speed and creativity. On March 16, we had closed all of our branches, and within a week we had a virtual platform up and running to keep people connected.”
On having a North Star in crisis
“My North Star has always been around building community. I’ve done so many different things across different industries and different sectors, but it’s all connected by this notion of bringing people together and improving community — whether it’s physical or spiritual, for lack of a better word. That has been a driving force for me. When I worked for the Downtown Alliance after 9/11, we established and built a residential community. At the School Construction Authority, we really focused on building new schools that became these beautiful environments for children. At the hospital, it was about making patients feel safer. I don’t come into places anticipating that I’m going to have to oversee moments of crisis, but ‘community’ is what has guided me through them.”
On transparency and optimism
“Transparency during a crisis is critical. You have to be clear on what you do know and what you don’t know. You should maintain a positive outlook, but you can’t be too Pollyannish about it and can’t hide things.
In my book, there’s no such things over communication. People are smart and want to know facts. But I do think that maintaining that optimism is important. People want to believe very much that things will improve. And so it behooves leadership to find the bright lights. The Y is fundamentally an optimistic institution, right? It believes in the potential people. We have a senior team meeting three times a week and they’re really hard and we’re covering a lot of really difficult topics and making some very painful decisions. So I will never end a meeting without saying, ‘OK, let’s come back to something, that’s working something that’s making us happy.'”
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