Spontaneous Synergistic Magic (SSM)

Whenever you put people together who share a deep, abiding passion to change the world in ways large or small, something magical is bound to happen. Such was the case once when I conducted a phlebotomy conference in Indianapolis.

This is not an essay extolling how grand our event was. This is the inside story of an event that turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. Yet we take no credit for what transpired. Because you are in my inner circle, I want to share with you the awe and wonder of what can happen when the passion in a room reaches critical mass.

Forty or so healthcare managers and educators from some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S. gathered at my company’s Phlebotomy Supervisor’s Boot Camp. We knew it would be a powerful event, it always has been. But we didn’t know it would be the seismic event it was for so many, and in ways we never anticipated.

I’m calling it SSM, spontaneous synergistic magic. There’s no other way to put it. Regardless of the passion, when it’s concentrated in one place you should prepare to be amazed. I wasn’t so prepared.

First, some background. We designed the 3-day event to be a watershed moment for those who teach and manage personnel performing the most common invasive procedure in healthcare: drawing blood samples for laboratory testing.

In too many healthcare facilities, phlebotomy is a procedure plagued by random adherence to standards, lax attitudes, tolerance of renegades, and a pernicious underestimation of how easy it is for a patient to be treated, medicated, and managed according to a lab result changed by those who draw and handle the blood sample before it’s even tested. Those who attend Boot Camp know that. That’s why they come.

Those who attend Boot Camp are already performing on a world-class level, but are frustrated in their inability to get the same performance from their existing staff or students. Our intent with the Boot Camp is to empower those assembled with the courage, confidence, and strategies to change the culture where they work and teach. To make healthcare a better place for people to work and patients to get well. To stop tolerating mediocrity, incivility, substandard performance, and the status quo. Phlebotomy is just the backdrop; Boot Camp is a seminar on nurturing healthcare professionals to be world-class.

Those who come to Boot Camp come with fire in the belly and leave in a total inferno, on fire with hope and a plan. That all happened by design at every Boot Camp. What isn’t planned is the spontaneous synergistic magic. It just happens, and it happened more profoundly in Indianapolis than at any of the four previous Boot Camps.

After my keynote, we launched into a day of themed lectures all having to do with team-building and professionalism. Topics included handling employee errors using “Just Culture” techniques, delivering world-class customer service, techniques to create team unity, and hiring the right people. Because it is so pervasive in any workplace, bullying was discussed at length on Day 1. You can’t build a team with a bully in the house. Forget about it. It isn’t going to happen. The bully won’t let it. Bullies hate teams because they know they can’t intimidate a cohesive unit. They can only win when it’s one-on-one. Mano e’ mano. Not discussing it would be doing our attendees a tremendous disservice.

Dennis Ernst lecturing

As the event unfolded, it became clear that this group was connecting, really connecting, with us as faculty and with each other. Sure, every Boot Camp connects and every group engages, but there was something deeper going on here. Something palpable. The banter between sessions was upbeat, the feedback during the sessions was positive and vibrant, and the atmosphere throughout was as if these professionals had just entered the Promised Land.

Attendees singled out presenters to express their surprise at the caliber of the event and the usefulness of the information so far provided. Their evaluations at the end of the day were off the charts positive without exception. That’s never happened. With past Boot Camps, there’s always one or two discouraging words. You expect that. You learn from it, vow to fix it and move on. Not this time. Nothing went wrong, nothing needed fixing, and nothing disappointed anyone. We knew this event had something going that the others didn’t, and we had no idea what it was. We were humbled and ecstatic at the same time.

Then came Renee’s revelation.

Renee graduated from our School of Phlebotomy a few years prior and was an outstanding student, so we invited her to come to Boot Camp with us to assist. She accepted with one caveat: she wouldn’t have to stand up in front of people and say anything. We assured he that was not required.

After completing our phlebotomy program, Renee was hired by the same hospital where she did her clinicals. But after one year of employment, she quit, explaining to her manager she needed to be at home more with her kids. The hospital lost a world-class phlebotomist when Renee walked out the door.

When Day 1 was over, Renee approached Lisa, one of our presenters and our classroom instructor who shepherded Renee through the program. Renee confessed to Lisa that when we first asked her to help us at Boot Camp, she wasn’t sure. She prayed about it and felt strongly that she was being told to accept the invitation. It wasn’t until she sat through the lecture about bullying that she felt she was being called to be there.
Renee didn’t leave the profession to take care of her kids. She left because she was bullied. Bullied hard and bullied bad. Bullied not just out of her job, but out of her career. She never told anyone, not even her manager, who would have been mortified. Instead, she internalized it, convincing herself that she was at fault, that she was the one who was broken, not the bully.

But as she sat in the back of the room listening to the bullying lecture, she said God put it in her heart that she must tell her story to the managers and educators present so that they understand how bullies work and how they get away with it. She knew her aversion to speaking in public was an argument she would not win with He who was moving her. She succumbed to obedience. That’s Renee.

Until that moment, she thought she had the dark episode in her brief professional life nicely tucked away in her mind where she wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. That’s how God works, though. You think you have a festering sliver from a destructive experience isolated somewhere, and along He comes to relieve you from something you don’t even know is still rotting inside you. You don’t even see the tweezers behind His back. He moves you to do something or go somewhere and, if you’re like Renee, you obey.  Even when you don’t know why He’s telling you to assist at a conference, you just go.

Normally, conference schedules are fixed, rigid, and set in granite. Ours is, too. Day 2’s agenda was already packed to the gills from 8:30 to 5:00. To me, we were hard-pressed to keep to the schedule. We were already abbreviating that which could not be abbreviated, but then our Boot Camps are nothing if not ambitious.

When Lisa told Catherine and I that Renee had to tell her story, it wasn’t our place to argue. We well know you don’t obstruct the path of the one who brought you where you are, the one who breathed life into your lungs, your livelihood, and your company and can just as easily take it away. You step aside and allow the passage, not out of fear but of the same thing that brought Renee to this precipice: obedience. Good is the only thing that comes out of obedience. We like good.

When Renee took the mic at 8:30, it was more than good. It was magic. Spontaneous synergistic magic. For a person who abhors the thought of speaking in front of people, her story came out smoothly, confidently and as compelling as any I’ve heard. The violet who would shrink at the mere passing of a mean-spirited coworker now stood blossoming before a room of total strangers. The burden was being lifted, you could almost see it fall off her shoulders. She would later admit the words were not her own. They issued from her lips, but they were not hers. Hers would have quivered; hers would have hesitated; hers would have babbled. These had origins from some other source.

She told attendees how the bully would physically intimidate her, invade her personal space, threaten her with body language, humiliate her in front of patients, follow her. The bully had everyone at her facility buffaloed into thinking that she herself was an exceptional employee. Plaques with her name hung all over the hospital proclaiming her as Employee of the Year, year after year.

Renee liked her manager a lot and knew that the bully would be handled promptly and resoundingly if she only knew. Renee also knew the bully would probably follow her home and physically harm her and her kids.

Renee’s story and her message was delivered clearly, quickly and with impact. Attendee’s eyes reddened and tears streamed as Renee delivered her message. Several attendees approached her during the break thanking her for having the courage to say what she had to say. One even confided in Renee how she, too, had prayed about whether or not to register for the Boot Camp, and how she was ultimately moved to do so. She said it was now clear to her that Renee’s testimony was the reason she had to come. She, too, was bullied, and suffering emotionally.

Spontaneous, synergistic magic.

Day 2 evaluations were even more glowing, as were Day 3’s. As conference organizers and presenters, we were way beyond Cloud 9 for how well we were being received. The standing ovation after the closing comments brought humility and tears of joy, and took our spirits to the stratosphere. I don’t know if it gets any better than that. We all truly entered the Promised Land that week, presenters and attendees alike.

There are many ways to measure the success of a seminar. Profit, outreach, impact, post-conference application of the information, new relationships, networking, and more. Although we’re convinced the only one who profits financially from a conference is the hotel that hosts it, there’s no question who raked in the intangible profits. We and our attendees are sitting on so much personal and professional satisfaction, I think we’re all set for life. We are wealthy beyond our wildest dreams.

I think I speak for the attendees when I say, even though we’re suddenly rich, we’re all going back to work anyway. People who have the fire in the belly don’t work because they have to, they work because they want to. They work because of the satisfaction that comes from being part of something bigger than themselves. They work because they know there’s always the potential for someone like Renee to come along, face her fear, and change your life while she’s changing hers. They work because of the potential for SSM.

Until this event, I thought our company was in the education business. We weren’t. We made change possible. Education is just how we do it and our mission apparently was bigger than we thought.

I like that.

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