To Survive a Crisis, Lean Into Trust—CEOs Share Pandemic Stories


While some businesses are writing their final pandemic chapter, the healthcare and restaurant industries continue to feel the aftershocks of seismic disruption. Nancy MacRae, MS, CEO of the Emergency Nurses Association and Kristine Hillmer, MBA, CAE, and President and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, are leaders who guided their members through the rubble toward solid ground.

Their experiences involved unprecedented social and industry challenges that nothing could have prepared them to meet.

Nancy and Kristine were featured speakers at the .orgCommunity Leadership ColLAB on March 2 at Rolling Hills Country Club in Arlington Heights. Our members were privileged to hear their reflections on a unique time in their organizations’ history and how the pandemic’s impact reshaped their future.

Sharon Rice, .orgSource, Managing Director of Business Strategy, moderated this insightful conversation.

Eroding Trust

Trust was the theme for the ColLAB. Helping members identify challenges and opportunities before they become mainstream is a goal for .orgCommunity. We chose to focus on trust due to the erosion of confidence in long-standing institutions, which was occurring even before the pandemic. This climate of skepticism continues to spread throughout social, cultural, and governmental institutions.

Nancy’s and Kristine’s recollections, highlight the importance of preserving trust among members, their associations, and the public. Their stories explored the value that credibility brings to every relationship and the most stressful situations.


Patrick Dorsey, VP Sales, Impexium, introduces Nancy MacRae, Kristine Hillmer, and Sharon Rice (left to right) at the Leadership ColLAB.

On March 15, 2020, restauranteurs were busy preparing for the usual St. Patrick’s Day weekend crowds. Green beer was on tap, corn beef and cabbage were on the menu, and shamrock-bedecked revelers were primed and planning to enjoy their favorite spots for dining and drinking.

Then, Wisconsin Governor, Tony Evers, delivered the devastating message that bars and restaurants would not be allowed to have customers starting on Thursday. Only delivery or takeout would be an option. Restaurants needed to figure out quickly what to do with the extra inventory they had purchased.

There was no end date for this edict.

Kristine recalls that the additional logistics of the plan were equally unclear. Because the extent of the governor’s legal authority was questionable, the messages were mixed and confusing.

“Lockdown regulations were enforced one way in Dane County, another way in Milwaukee, and yet another way in Northern Wisconsin,” Kristine advised. “Our job at WRA was to help restaurant operators navigate that patchwork of regulations, extensions, and changes. We were committed to finding answers and correctly reporting information.

“That day, all our plans blew out the window. Everything was immediately canceled so that we could help the restaurant community through the crisis at hand,” Kristine noted. Fortunately, because the association already staffed a hotline, an infrastructure was in place. “We quickly pivoted to answering every question, whether callers were members or not.”

“To support our constituents, we created ‘Ready to Serve Safely,’ a website listing restaurants that were going above and beyond to provide safe dining. Publishing that information helped to build confidence in the industry.

“We also established a public/private coalition in Milwaukee to learn how restaurants could apply public health regulations to reopen. That trust building between our members and government officials continues today.”

During 2020, Kristine and her staff contacted every association member to offer support and an opportunity to share their concerns.

“You have to remember,” Kristine noted, “Restaurant owners have multiple responsibilities, which they take extremely seriously. Not only do they worry about their communities and their business interests, but they each have a team who depends on those jobs to support their families. Helping owners through that emotion and grief, as well as all the financial hardships, was a huge undertaking. My job was to ensure that my staff and our members were coping with the stress. It was quite a journey, and we’re still on it, restaurants have not recovered.”

Partnering To Confront Crisis

Nancy MacRae flanked by ENA staffers Bridget Walsh, COO (left) and Daryl Hogg, Sr. Director, Information Technology (right).

Emergency nurses are trained to expect the unexpected, but they weren’t prepared to be stretched beyond their professional and emotional capacity. ENA members met exceptional challenges to their personal health and safety daily while being on the frontlines caring for patients of this indescribable pandemic.

“Our goal was to support our members however we could,” Nancy recalled. “We suspended our rules and didn’t collect dues during that time. We built alliances and partnered with a variety of providers to deliver much-needed resources. Advocating for emergency nurses to receive scarce PPE and be among the first to be vaccinated was our highest priority. There were multiple areas where collaboration helped to ease the hardship. We partnered with restaurants to get meals delivered to our frontline providers and we identified discounts on travel and lodging.

“The mental health needs of our members on the frontlines became our priority early on. Our members were working 10 to 15 hours each day, and they were witnessing terrible sights and experiencing untenable situations.

“Who could have imagined that nurses would be assisting patients to say their final goodbyes on Zoom? To help them decompress, we built online opportunities to come together, share, and relax.

“The trauma took a toll that we are still experiencing and continue to address. But knowing that we were making a difference became a strong rallying cry.”

Maintaining Community

The abrupt switch to remote work was a global challenge. But, the dire straits of the restaurant and healthcare industries were particularly hard on their association champions. Employees empathized deeply with the distress volunteers experienced. They willingly, and repeatedly, moved outside their comfort zones to discover solutions.

Sharon asked Nancy and Kristine to share their strategies for helping the staff to cope in these extreme situations.

Association professionals at the leadership ColLAB.

“We were in the office full-time pre-COVID, so we had a strong internal culture,” Kristine noted. “Some of our employees have over 30-years tenure. Trusting relationships and a family atmosphere already existed. When we went virtual, losing those connections was difficult. We organized the usual Zoom happy hours. But we also paid special attention to looking after each other.

“To help our operators survive, people worked 15-hour days. We had to ensure that the team cared for themselves and that we were caring for them. Otherwise, we would not have been able to sustain that degree of support.

“The shared challenge bonded a lot of folks. ‘How are you doing? How can I help you? Do you have the resources you need?’ became part of our call to action.

“When it was clear that we weren’t going back to a full-time in-office schedule, we adopted a new plan. Today we ask people to be in the office for a minimum of two days. We’ve also added greater flexibility to the working hours. It feels good to offer options. Our plan isn’t perfect. But it makes sense for our team.”

“We’ve landed on a similar mix,” Nancy replied. “We’re continuing to learn and adapt. Now we’ve moved to a hybrid work structure, requiring that everyone be in the office at least two days per week.

Building Trusting Relationships

“During the pandemic, we saw the decline in trust of government agencies and officials,” Sharon observed. “Both your organizations depend heavily on those partnerships. Explain how those relationships unfolded. Did they grow more trusting throughout the crisis, or did you begin with trust and continue to build on that confidence?”

“Working with public institutions was especially important during the early days,” Nancy recalled. “We advocated fiercely for our members to get protective resources. Fortunately, our professional reputation was already established. We were invited to the White House and sought out for forums and opportunities to make new partnerships. As the pandemic continued, the focus evolved. But the relationships we cultivated over years were critical in the early days.”

“I’ve always understood the importance of relationships,” Kristine responded. “But COVID reinforced that lesson. Here’s an example from my experience. Pre-COVID, we had a program called the Milwaukee Kitchen Cabinet. The goals were to talk about the great things that restaurants do in their communities. And, through those stories, to develop relationships with the media and elected officials in that market. We leveraged our connections during COVID by organizing a weekly call to convene the key players. When the Public Health Department was looking at how to reopen safely, they had a sounding board and we were able to collaborate to develop successful solutions. This exchange of ideas is a powerful partnership for everyone involved.

“On the other hand, in Madison, where we didn’t have a Kitchen Cabinet, collaboration on reopening was much more challenging. There was no working partnership with industry and public health. That hammered home the connection between relationship building and trust.

“Today, in Milwaukee, the group has gone on to consider public safety, another issue that’s critical for restaurants. I never imagined that as the President of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, I would be on a first-name basis with the Milwaukee Police Department Chief, the Milwaukee Fire Department chiefs, and public health officials. The relationships built pre and during the pandemic have strengthened and solidified those partnerships.”

Leaning Into the Future

“COVID forced shifts in perspective. I wonder how your vision has changed and what you are doing differently today?” Sharon asked.

“The crisis is not over for our members or our profession,” Nancy replied. “We are seeing record levels of violence against healthcare workers and high staff burnout. It was almost easier to rally around the immediacy of the COVID pandemic crisis. Now, the long-term issues related to the broken healthcare system are at the crisis level. We need to challenge our leaders in emergency nursing specifically, and in healthcare overall,  to proactively build for the future.

“On the other hand, we’re more agile and adaptive. We know that the days of reliably working from a 5-year-plan are over. Exploring new strategies tied to market demands and the ever-changing environment is critical. We’re building for the future by analyzing how we want to develop and build on the culture that we have created.”

“We lost 15 percent of restaurants during COVID,” Kristine observed. “Businesses used their savings and the loans are coming due. Restaurants are having difficulty finding and retaining staff. Pre-COVID, the profit margin was three to five percent. Now it’s less. The public wants us to snap back, but restaurants are not ready.

“Associations typically have been reluctant to change, but we’ve demonstrated that we can manage uncertainty. I am more intentional than ever about building the relationships we need for success, with my team, our members, and throughout the community.”

Kristine is right, ENA and WRA may have yet to close the book on their pandemic experiences, but they continue to make and grow productive alliances. They have learned that trust is cumulative, and the more you gather the better prepared you will be to meet the future.


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