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A letter to the next Deschutes County Public Health Director

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

Dear Public Health Director,

Today is my last day as the Public Health Director for Deschutes County. It was an extremely difficult (and painful) decision to step down as I had the fortune of leading and working with many incredible professionals.

It was an honor to be in this role during the most challenging time in recent history. I landed in Bend literally on the day when we had the first reported case of COVID-19 on March 11, 2020. One week later I was at the County’s 911 building and definitely not prepared for what would transpire.

To start off, the County, comprising our officials, administration, partners and communities, was very good to me (and my team). It wasn’t always pretty, especially during the weekly COVID-19 updates, but overall I am convinced that our elected officials and County did their best to help our communities navigate this unprecedented period in our history.

Admittedly the last 2 years felt like I was enrolled (though never graduated) in multiple doctoral degrees in emerging infectious diseases, social and political sciences, and management and leadership. I learned so much about myself, my shortcomings and strengths, and many lessons that I will cherish for the remainder of my years.

In this context and while acknowledging that you will have your unique narrative and lived experiences in this role, I humbly offer a few thoughts, observations and lessons from my short tenure.

Staff come first

We simply cannot protect the health and safety of our communities and clients before we genuinely take care of our staff. In our line of work, one could lose sight of our teams’ wellbeing, take them for granted and try to squeeze one more drop out of them for the broader good.

Instead focus on the marginal gains and losses of any option, take a rational stance and make those potentially difficult decisions, such as pulling back an extra community event or two so that, for example, our COVID-19 response team could have a weekend or evening with family.

There is definitely a tradeoff, and you might pay a perception or political price, but when staff experience sincere care that go beyond platitudes, they will be better positioned and more motivated to serve our great County.

Align culture and values

I realize that you are inheriting organizational and divisional cultures (partly from me). In the early months, I made the mistake of talking about culture change. Instead, I should have explicitly honored what I had inherited and I hope you consider doing the same as your teams have worked hard to create a values/ culture playbook already.

My hope is that your values are already well-aligned with the culture of the organization. I am sure you will learn about and adjust to your new role and environment. Some differences, however, are inevitable and it’s ok to be ‘unreasonable’ and expect the County and your peers and teams to adapt to you as well.

Devote yourself to creating and maintaining a culture where everyone can be seen, heard, and respected. This may mean confronting norms and self-serving behaviors that exclude or derail the mission and vision of the organization.

If you are part of the non-dominant culture, first examine the system-wide privileges afforded to you. For example, even though I am a Middle Eastern, Muslim immigrant, I have had unearned advantages as a non-disabled, straight, cisgender man.

At the same time, work hard to find your voice among the deafening noises. Be proud and curious and don’t ever let fragility, outrage or disingenuous allyship[1] guilt you into either silence or accommodating toxic behaviors. Also, you are not responsible for others’ personal journeys.

Bring your lens and perspectives to this role

Having worked and lived in over 50 countries, I can say with confidence that there are at least 50 different definitions of management and leadership, and there is no one person, race or culture which has a monopoly over understanding and practicing them.

Trust that you are making decisions based on your multi-layered vision of what a leader should be and do. Allow your rich and varied life and professional experiences shape and influence how best to create value for our communities with and through your teams.

Also, remember that for every meaningless loud voice, there are dozens that truly want (and will help) you to succeed. I can imagine that you and your lens, definitions and values could be perceived by many as a breath of fresh air.

I truly wish you all the best, especially as my family and I will be the beneficiaries of your (and your teams’) visionary work.

Thank you Deschutes County, Health Services and Public Health. Every day you inspired me to be a better of version of myself and for that I will always be indebted to you.

Truly yours,

Nahad Sadr-Azodi

Public Health Director, March 2020 – July 2022

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