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How Clarity of Purpose Turned Crisis Into Opportunity

How Clarity of Purpose Turned Crisis Into Opportunity

by Vibhas Ratanjee and Jake Herway
President of Hologic Diagnostic Solutions Kevin Thornal

Kevin Thornal, Hologic
President, Diagnostic Solutions Division

CliftonStrengths Top 5: Self-Assurance, Woo, Maximizer, Positivity, Achiever

Senior VP of Hologic Global Human Resources and Corporate Communications Lisa Hellmann

Lisa Hellmann, Hologic
SVP, Global HR/Corporate Communications

CliftonStrengths Top 5: Arranger, Ideation, Connectedness, Achiever, Strategic

The COVID-19 crisis tested organizations and leaders. Many responded with new strategies, contingency measures and reengineered business continuity plans. Some used a defensive approach, focusing on saving costs or minimizing damage or preparing for future risks.

Others reacted by seizing opportunities inherent in the crisis. Hologic is a prime example.

A U.S.-based medical technology company focused on women's health, Hologic is known for its diagnostic, surgical and medical imaging solutions. For years, Hologic had been growing, adding capability and becoming a world-class place to work. But the day the novel coronavirus's genetic sequence became public, Hologic switched gears.

"Our team looked at [the gene sequence] and said, 'We know how to create a test for this.' Our molecular diagnostics and chemistries were perfect for it," says Kevin Thornal, president of Hologic's Diagnostic Solutions division. "Our public health experts and microbiologists -- who are often the people that you see on TV talking about epidemiology -- were uniquely positioned to do something about this crisis."

That did not mean Hologic was certain to succeed -- an uncomfortable position for a company that defines itself as "The Science of Sure" -- but Hologic was well-equipped for the challenge.

Years ago, Hologic leaders recognized that employee engagement and individual growth accelerate business and mission outcomes. They have been building teams around managers developed to coach talent, not boss it, ever since. The company has also invested in focus groups, surveys and workshops to define exactly who it is, what it stands for and its purpose. As a result, employees identify with Hologic's purpose -- "We empower people to live healthier lives everywhere, every day" -- to an extraordinarily high degree.

So, Hologic had no guarantees, but it did have highly engaged employees, a clear identity and a remarkably motivating purpose. That gave Hologic a wellspring of confidence, commitment and agility that enabled it to pivot from business as usual to business in crisis. And two days after its scientists got the virus's genetic sequence, Hologic began making COVID-19 tests.

Leading With Purpose

Meanwhile, the virus was gaining lethal momentum. "The first positive COVID tests arrived before anybody was wearing masks, before anybody knew how it spread," says Lisa Hellmann, senior vice president of Hologic's Global Human Resources and Corporate Communications. Even as the team poured themselves into advanced testing, diagnostics, clinical trials and validation -- which Hologic employees saw as a mission-critical reflection of their purpose -- leaders were scrambling to get the necessary resources and personal protective equipment. "We wanted our employees to know we were not risking their lives," Hellmann says. "And that we were not asking them to take a risk that [leaders] were not willing to take as well."

But leaders were taking a risk. At the time, no one knew how broadly the coronavirus would spread, or how serious the outcome would be. "We spent a ton of money, we stopped working on almost everything else, and we put the entire division's focus on this," Thornal says. "But Lisa knows all about our business and how it works from a scientific perspective, and [CEO] Steve MacMillan and our leadership team said, 'Let's go do it.' Now it seems like 'well, duh' … but at the time we were taking a calculated risk. And that's perfect for us."

"Perfect" may seem an incongruous word. Hologic's leaders aren't the type to roll the dice. Hellmann describes the company as "very fact-based" -- it even measures employees' alignment to purpose to hold itself accountable to its mission and the world. But Hologic is a highly mission-oriented company, and its employees connect extraordinarily well with the organization's purpose. So taking a calculated risk on tests that might help curb a global disaster truly is perfect for Hologic because it's perfect for Hologic's purpose.

That purpose is the Diagnostic Solutions division's raison d'etre, and team members rallied around it in their daily meetings. The group spans the globe and job roles -- from researchers and operations personnel in the lab to home-based administrative staff -- and Thornal incorporated Gallup's advisory work on the core needs of followers into each meeting and with each employee. "I've been a believer in Gallup principles for 18 years, so I know it's not just the execution level of tasks that's important," Thornal says. "It's the softer things that really make an impact."

Meanwhile, Hellmann and other Hologic leaders were stepping up communication (especially about mission), helping managers connect with their teams and helping everyone connect with leadership. The emphasis on communication signaled that Hologic employees were seen, heard and cared for -- emotionally and practically. Leaders in administrative roles came in every day to lend moral support, Hologic's cafeteria made meals for workers to take home, and Hellmann's team kept a close eye on burnout symptoms. "There is absolutely no substitute for communication and there's no risk [to] saying the same things," Hellmann says. "We met each individual where they were and reminded our managers how often those conversations make a difference. You don't have to have an answer; you just have to ask the question."

Hologic is a highly mission-oriented company, and its employees connect extraordinarily well with the organization's purpose.

Probably not coincidentally, Hologic's workplace engagement was rising -- it's now as or more engaged than 86% of all the companies Gallup has studied. And the highest-ranking metrics of its Gallup Q12 engagement survey involve recognition and purpose.

Using a Strengths-Based Approach

A frequent topic of leaders' communication was the importance of leveraging individual strengths. Hologic is a strengths-based organization and analyzes the impact of employees' CliftonStrengths -- the most common of which are, unsurprisingly, Achiever, Responsibility, Learner and Analytical -- on the company's leadership, culture and performance. Even at the peak of the pandemic, leaders met with Gallup experts to discuss the most effective use of employees' strengths. "We took the time to feed what makes us strong," Hellmann says. "We needed to give the team the chance to celebrate that strength and to recharge it. And by doing it before the well ran dry, we were able to continue the acceleration."

Thornal was intentional about deploying employee strengths and connecting those strengths to the team's goals and the organization's identity. Achiever, for instance, motivates the hard work necessary to accomplish difficult objectives, which made his department's enormous workload a challenge, not a burden. Responsibility inspires employees to take personal ownership of mission-oriented work -- as defeating this virus certainly is -- and Hologic's COVID-19 tests achieved FDA emergency use authorization and were designated the most analytically sensitive fully automated tests on the market. Learner helped Hologic track the rapidly mutating virus. Analytical drove the rigorous, evidence-based testing and validation Hologic's standards demand, even as pressure mounted.

"It was like our strengths themes were perfect for what was needed during this time," Thornal says.

Perhaps, but it's a certainty that good coaching brought out the best in each theme -- it always does -- and each person. And Hellmann believes that Thornal's dominant CliftonStrengths, which tend toward influencing and relationship building, allowed Hologic to catalyze a response quickly and with little friction. "Without analyzing it to death," she says, "Kevin was able to inspire the confidence that ignited everybody else to say, 'OK, we'll do it.'"

In any case, Hologic's brand promise is "The Science of Sure," and its collective strengths fulfilled that promise with purpose guiding the work.

Focusing on What Followers Need

By now, everyone knows the end of the story. Hologic's risky decision resulted in the Panther Fusion® SARS-CoV-2 assay, which the FDA approved within 48 hours, and the Aptima® SARS-CoV-2/Flu assay. They totaled almost 135 million tests in 50 countries, which helped slow contagion and saved countless lives. Hologic is now planning the delivery of over 10 million more COVID-19 tests to their laboratory partners every month.

"We took the time to feed what makes us strong," Hellmann says. "We needed to give the team the chance to celebrate that strength and to recharge it. And by doing it before the well ran dry, we were able to continue the acceleration."

But even as Hologic worked around the clock to create, produce and distribute tests, it continued growing all of its capabilities. Thornal says that's a moral obligation, as it "means people get access to the best tests that are there." And there is no shortage of maladies -- from STIs to breast cancer to cervical cancer to, probably, more coronaviruses -- that require Hologic's work. To that end, Thornal's team acquired three new companies after a careful analysis of their talent, strengths and cultural DNA, which will vastly expand Diagnostic Solutions' capacities. And in collaboration with Gallup, Hologic recently launched the Global Women's Health Index. It's the first global study of women's health and will undoubtedly reveal yet more opportunities for Hologic to "empower people to live healthier lives everywhere, every day."

It's a happy outcome of Hologic's big risk. But perhaps not a surprising one. When its mission moment arrived, Hologic's clear identity and long-term investment in people allowed it to rise to the challenge. Hologic didn't have to decide between a strategic or defensive response. It could choose to follow its purpose, like it has always done.

"Crisis takes all the layers away, and you get to know people to their core," Thornal says. "Crisis showed us the basis of who we are. We put our chips on the table and took a calculated risk. That's about our strengths and how we lead. It's about our purpose. It's about who we are."

Give your organization the purpose it needs to thrive:


Vibhas Ratanjee is Senior Practice Expert, Organizational and Leadership Development, at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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