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Mikhail Shneyder of Nightingale College: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

Intentional transparency is essential in building trust and, consequently, strong relationships with internal teams and customers alike. When it is built into the regular, day-to-day life of a company, which even in good times is subject to periodic ups and downs, intentional transparency preconditions the thinking and responses of all stakeholders away from panic toward finding constructive solutions.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mikhail Shneyder.

Mikhail Shneyder has served as Nightingale College’s chief executive officer and president since 2012. As a registered nurse for more than 25 years, Mikhail has a wealth of management experience in education and healthcare areas. He earned his nursing degree prior to immigrating to the United States from Belarus, and subsequently earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of your backstory and how you got started?

It is absolutely my pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

I immigrated to the US from Belarus as a refugee at the age of 19, speaking no English but having earned a nursing degree right before. I worked in a myriad of minimum wage jobs for about four years while learning the language and preparing to take the RN licensure exam. I passed the NCLEX exam the second time around, 30 days after failing on the first attempt due to extreme anxiety. Then, I spent several years working in direct patient care in nephrology and dialysis.

During this time, I realized that some of my nursing colleagues weren’t as passionate about care outcomes as I was. I decided to push for a supervisory role, then continued in the management career progression. A few years later, I was hired as a clinic director in a failing dialysis facility. I quickly realized that I needed more knowledge to be successful, so I enrolled in an undergraduate program at the University of Phoenix, taking business administration core classes and earning my first American degree. This education enabled me to lead a successful turnaround of the clinic. Over the next several years, I successfully transformed three more outpatient dialysis facilities clinically, operationally, and financially.

However, I wanted to have a much bigger impact and positively affect health and patient care everywhere. So, I decided to continue my business education at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. It took three attempts to be admitted into its highly competitive part-time MBA program. Immediately upon enrollment, I sought career counseling to help me figure out how to translate my passion for health into a reality of elevating it on a large scale.

To my surprise, a career in higher education was suggested to me as being highly aligned with my professional aspirations. After more than 15 years in the industry with progressively higher leadership responsibilities, I am very grateful for that suggestion. For almost 10 years now, I have had the privilege of envisioning and leading the development and scaling of Nightingale College, an innovative, nationwide provider of nursing education dedicated to improving geographic, demographic, and socioeconomic access to the profession, solving nursing shortages, and elevating health.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that?

Like many young, aspiring leaders in their mid-20s, I naively thought that all I needed for success was to get into a role with a title of authority and then tell everyone around me what to do, assuming they would immediately and eagerly comply with and execute on my directions. Obviously, that did not happen.

Along my leadership journey, I learned that chasing the realization and impact of my purpose and vision is so much more powerful than merely aspiring to a title. Connecting with and inspiring the hearts and imaginations of my fellow collaborators is the only pathway to our collective success.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

You are right: None of us can do it in a vacuum. For me, there are countless people who supported, mentored, and coached me along the way, in addition to those who inadvertently pushed me to learn and elevate myself by being a negative force in my life. And, of course, building a successful company is a collaborative sport!

Special thanks, however, go to my husband, Jim, who has been my biggest cheerleader and supporter for almost 22 years, ensuring that I never starve during a long day of meetings, always look presentable, and do not give up hope however tough the going gets at times. Without him, I wouldn’t be speaking to you now. He is the cornerstone of my success!

Extensive research suggests that purpose-driven businesses are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision? What was its purpose?

The research, indeed, is right on point. Nightingale College is a prime example of a purpose-driven business, and its success is grounded in the organizational vision and mission. The college was envisioned and built as a solution to the ongoing unsustainability of the US healthcare system. Our mission is focused on addressing nursing shortages as well as diversifying and pivoting the largest healthcare profession in the country toward health promotion, disease prevention, and effective chronic conditions management, all by revolutionizing professional nursing education.

At the heart of its vision, the company aspires to improve the world through better health and better humanity. These are not just fancy words on computer screensavers and office walls: They are fundamental frameworks that inform both our business strategy and day-to-day operational execution.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the focus of our discussion: Is there a number one principle that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

I think Louis Pasteur was correct when he proclaimed that chance favors the prepared mind. Hence, merely hoping to weather a storm isn’t a good strategy. At the very onset of the latest global pandemic, I told our collaborators, the board, and our investors that, while I did not know for what exactly we had been preparing all along, the company was absolutely ready to not only survive but also to continue flourishing through the crisis. It is the timeless universality of our fundamental organizational frameworks that allows Nightingale to remain steady and on course during the rough times. Therefore, my advice to all leaders is to define and build the all-sustaining why, what, and how of their organizations well ahead of any menacing circumstances.

Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

Realizing that uncertain times bring to the surface a slew of human emotions, such as fear, doubt, and even anger, I instituted a weekly reflection update to the entire Nightingale team at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remembering that human beings are at the core of the company and, therefore, drive its success or failure, I stayed mindful of and acknowledged the feelings brought on by difficult times, focused on empathizing with these normal human reactions, and continually reassured our people.

Here’s the bottom line: Relentless communication and leadership visibility, even in a remote work environment, are the keys to keeping teams moving forward against all odds.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

As you may have noticed already, I am fiercely resilient. Hence, no, I never considered giving up. If you as a leader have a strong purpose, it’s that purpose, the why, that makes you continue to push forward. As the saying goes, “Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” In strong leadership cultures, nothing fundamentally changes during turbulent times. It is everything that has been built prior to a crisis arising that allows an organization to succeed.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Authentic visibility during difficult times matters. Authenticity and integrity lie in showing your own vulnerability and publicly acknowledging your humanity, allowing a leader to better connect with and inspire their team to continue forward with the collective mission and purpose. A leader cannot simply defer leadership to the PR or human resources department; communications must come directly from the leader’s heart, and they must remain at the forefront of the company. They must persevere even through the toughest of situations as the model for those who follow.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?

I am going to sound like a broken record here. However, a leader’s ability to maintain the team’s focus on the organizational purpose while carrying a sense of unyielding optimism is critical in keeping up morale through crises. We tend to revert to our ego’s fears when major barriers or obstacles appear, especially when the future is unknown and difficult to predict. Hence, encouraging everyone to elevate above self and keep sight of the collective vision and mission must be at the core of leading through a difficult time.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Intentional transparency is essential in building trust and, consequently, strong relationships with internal teams and customers alike. When it is built into the regular, day-to-day life of a company, which even in good times is subject to periodic ups and downs, intentional transparency preconditions the thinking and responses of all stakeholders away from panic toward finding constructive solutions.

In addition, if failure is understood throughout a company as an opportunity to learn and grow both individually and collectively and is not approached punitively, it not only unleashes human creativity and innovation but also prevents shockwaves from being sent through the system when it actually happens. Of course, communicating difficult news must always carry with it a strong plan for course correction and recovery and, as appropriate, the necessary apologies and reassurances.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

This might sound like a cliché, but actively building the future is, indeed, the best way to predict it. Therefore, strong performance and adaptation cultures are grounded in a broad understanding of and engagement with the organizational why, what, and how frameworks among all employees. These fundamental company pillars remain very stable over time, allowing for focused planning. When unexpected circumstances arise, they guide the organization in pivoting quickly.

At Nightingale, all strategic and institutional effectiveness planning stems from our mission, whereas our execution is grounded in innovative design, collaboration, and alignment. Combined, these frameworks virtually “future-proof” the company, minimizing the risk of unpredictability.

Can you share three or four of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

1. I think the top mistake leaders often make is forgetting that real people are at the heart of their organizations and wishing that expressions of their humanity wouldn’t show up at work alongside the briefcase of skills and knowledge. Deliberately developmental organizations solve this by putting the personal and professional elevation of their employees — thereby facilitating meeting individual deficiency and growth needs — at the center of business strategy. Elevated human beings act differently during crises: They aren’t focused on the fears of their personal egos but rather on constructively collaborating with and supporting others through the difficult periods.

2. Not having clearly defined and widely implemented why, what, and how frameworks, speaking to the organization’s vision, mission, and operational execution, long before a crisis occurs makes it more likely a leader will lose track of the bigger picture and react in a shortsighted way. I cannot stress enough the importance of this for the long-term stability and success of any enterprise.

3. Not being visible and not communicating relentlessly through the tough times robs the leader of the opportunity to actually lead when it is most critical. Rather than retreat into your own shell and cross your fingers that a crisis blows over quickly, you must address things head-on. This positions leaders and their companies to weather any storm.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times — even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Higher education expansions are generally counter-cyclical to the macroeconomic downturns, as people lose jobs and choose to either pivot in their careers or go back to school for graduate degrees. The COVID-19 pandemic was different, however, as many colleges and universities were not prepared and, consequently, temporarily shut down and/or lost enrollment.

In contrast, Nightingale College was able to pivot quickly by leveraging technology and, most importantly, utilizing its innovative design and collaboration frameworks. Within a span of four days in March 2020, the college adjusted its education delivery model to not only continue serving its existing learners and allow them to progress academically but also expand enrollment opportunities to residents of all 50 states while continuing to provide the college with extensive wraparound student support services. Indeed, fortune smiles on those who are prepared.

Here is the primary question of our discussion: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Over my career, I have learned to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times by doing the following:

  1. Embracing the difficulties as opportunities to grow personally and professionally while resiliently pushing forward through any and all obstacles
  2. Being visible to the organization and communicating relentlessly and transparently
  3. Believing that nothing is impossible and being radically optimistic
  4. Being crystal clear about my personal purpose and proactively establishing and living the company’s vision, mission, and execution frameworks
  5. Recognizing and accepting humanity in myself and others

An example of living these principles came at the very onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When we were all dealing with so much uncertainty, I wrote and sent this reflection to our collaborators:

What a week this has been. These are trying times, indeed. However, I firmly believe that as dark as it may feel right now, the light will always breakthrough, and each one of us has the power to bring it about! That is the power of radical optimism: the power of holding an unyielding belief that out of the entire universe of possible outcomes, the best will be . . . and then doing your best to make it happen.

So, now more than ever, let’s allow ourselves to be radically optimistic. Let’s celebrate and be grateful for everything that is good in each of our lives today, right now! Let’s learn from this common global experience and elevate our health and our humanity! Let’s believe that, together, there is nothing we cannot overcome and that nothing is impossible!

I, for one, stand in awe of Nightingale College and our collective strength to not only ensure that none of our collaborators become unemployed, while the economy around us seems to crumble by the minute but also our ability to quickly mobilize and deliver nearly uninterrupted service for our learners, when hundreds of thousands of students have been sidelined across the country. We didn’t even realize how prepared we were for an unprecedented situation like this, but we are!

Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Walt Disney believed, “There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow / And tomorrow’s just a dream away.” I was fortunate to hear this early on in my life and career. It gave me the permission to dream up and dream big, the power to believe that nothing is impossible, and the motivation to continue learning, elevating and doing my best to make those dreams a reality.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Visit www.nightingale.edu.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Tyler Gallagher

Tyler Gallagher

CEO and Founder of Regal Assets

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