This is a limited series of Q&As by Fairfield County Business Journal Bureau Chief Kevin Zimmerman with leaders in various business sectors and industries. It is designed to illustrate how they’re navigating the COVID-19 era, what past experiences they’ve drawn upon, and suggestions they have for those planning for a career in leadership.
THE CHOICE FOR THE FINAL ENTRY IN OUR “LEADERSHIP IN A TIME OF CRISIS” series was an obvious one. Ned Lamont’s first term as Connecticut’s 89th governor was about 14 months old when the state confirmed its first COVID-19 case. As of this writing, Connecticut has recorded nearly 38,000 cases and well over 3,400 deaths; Fairfield County has accounted for over 14,000 of the former and about 1,200 of the latter.
Here Lamont talks about how his background has helped him address the crisis; how he has tried to design a collaborative approach to move the state forward; and what he expects Connecticut to look like on the other side of the pandemic.
This obviously isn’t what you anticipated when you ran for governor. Has it changed what your definition of “a leader” is?
“What makes a leader is an incredibly complex subject. I’m learning every day, on the fly. I was a sociology major, so I’m learning from our scientists and then have to explain to our people why we’re doing what we’re doing — which is about how to keep yourself and your family safe.
“I give a lot of the credit to what other people have done. I think the people of Connecticut have really rallied for the most part and taken social distancing seriously. Our retail merchants have given up a heck of a lot.
“We’d heard about this virus originating in China, of all places, and we started trying to get prepared for it. Now we’re at a pivot point (the May 20 soft reopening) — we’re evidently past the peak of the COVID crisis and done pretty well, I think.
“I think what has really helped is bringing our hospitals together. We weren’t even talking to the state hospitals a few months ago. (A lawsuit filed against the state by a number of hospitals under the Connecticut Hospital Association banner was settled in December, bringing an end to a years-long dispute.) They all agreed to step up to work together and collaborate with each other and with us.
“And the state government has been operating in over 30 silos for probably the last 30 years. Now their commissioners are all on the phone every day at 11. Public Health is talking to Corrections, which you wouldn’t normally see.”
What was your first reaction when COVID-19 appeared on your radar screen?
“I had been talking with our emergency operations center, saying, ‘What do you think is the most unexpected kind of attack we could face and how are we preparing for it now?’ I came out of the world of IT (in the cable television industry) and was thinking about cyberattacks — what something like that could do to our utilities and our water.
“Then I found out that we were under a very different kind of attack, from Europe and Asia, that ended up affecting the greater New York area, including us, so I had to find every good scientific mind I could — and thankfully they responded.”
Are there any specific lessons or experiences from your past you’ve been able to draw upon as you navigate the crisis?
“I came up more from business than from government or the political sector. So I started looking for answers from the top infectious disease experts at places like Jackson Lab and UConn, as well as our Public Health and Economic Development departments.
“In February and March we were focused like a laser beam on the real potential of a surge that could have overwhelmed us — we were in real crisis mode. The house was on fire, and we needed to put it out.
“After we had it reasonably controlled, about six weeks ago, we started thinking about the day after and the year after. We got going with May 20 in mind, got all our educators together, Rick Levin (former president of Yale University and with Linda Lorimer, former vice president of global and strategic initiatives at Yale, author of recommendations for a phased reopening of colleges and universities) and (Connecticut State Department of Education Commissioner) Miguel Cardona to start thinking about how to approach schools at the end of the year, how we should have summer school.”
Obviously collaboration has been one of your key tenets in this environment. Are there others in your administration who have really stepped up?
“David Lehman, who’s the commissioner of our Department of Economic and Community Development, has been great. And Deidre Gifford (Department of Social Services commissioner, recently named acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health) and Bryan Hurlburt, our Agriculture commissioner, have really stepped up by putting together a supply chain of food, basically starting it up from scratch.
“Josh Geballe (the state’s COO), he’s sort of taken on our pandemic response, working very closely with the hospitals and the folks who are helping us ramp up testing. (Chief of Staff) Paul Mounds is always talking with the legislature, he’s on the phone every day with the leadership to make sure they understand what we’re trying to do, and to continue that collaboration.”
Speaking of the legislature: Do you know when the special session might be called?
“Probably in June, if they can. That’s their call. We have to make some tweaks to the 2021 budget. If they can’t do it, then let me handle it (in June) and maybe they can come back in July.”
We’ve mentioned “collaboration” several times. Obviously that hasn’t been limited to just Connecticut, as evidenced by your joining with New York, New Jersey and others to formulate a regional approach to addressing the pandemic.
“It really started just a few months ago at Danbury Hospital, where we had our first coronavirus infection — somebody from Westchester County who was working at Danbury Hospital. All of us know this is a virus that knows no borders.
“I’d gone fishing with (New York Gov. Andrew) Cuomo about eight months ago, and I said, ‘Andrew, you know that at least in part, we share the same workforce.’ Then after the virus hit, I said, ‘What good is it to shut down our bars and restaurants if he kept them open in Rye?’ That’s when we started talking about the regional approach.”
I’ve posed this question to some of our other subjects, and would like to get your thoughts. Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Do you share that view?
“The first opportunity is what we’re doing now — reopening Connecticut, which will probably take us more or less through the fall, unless there’s a flare-up. We’re going to morph from the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group to the Reimagine Connecticut Group. Telecommuting, telehealth, telelearning — we’re going to find everything different in terms of how we used to work and learn as well. And I think those can be enormous positives for Connecticut, by the way.
“With the millennials, you heard how you had to be in New York or Boston five days a week. We’re going to be in a very different place over the next 10 years than we were the last 10 years.
“And we’ve become much more aware of the health disparities over the past weeks — how African Americans are two times likely to get infected or suffer complications from COVID.
“These are lessons we’re taking to heart. Rather than just putting more and more people into nursing homes and acute care facilities, I think we’ll see more aging taking place at home. That’s less expensive and it’s better for grandma.”
Do you have any advice for those looking to become leaders?
“Find the right people and put them around you, and make sure they know things you don’t know. Have big ears.
“I know a lot of people in the private sector, in the academic and the health care sectors. I asked them what they knew, and tried like hell to take advantage of that.”
How do you envision the reopening going?
“First, I didn’t shut down the economy — COVID shut down the economy. Most of the stores and restaurants were already pretty much closed before I signed that executive order, and 90% of the schools were closed before I said they had to close.
“It’s the same thing with the reopening — I am saying they can open, not that they have to.
“Look, consumers are going to vote with their feet. I think it could be months before most consumers feel confident enough to go back in. And it’s the same with employees, especially the older, more vulnerable ones. It will probably be the end of 2020 before I think we’ll be back to normal again.”
Are there any particular businesses you’re looking forward to patronizing again?
“I have to be careful not to make a thousand other restaurant owners mad by being specific, but I’m looking forward to being able to dine outside at one that’s really close to home, with a couple of friends.”