9 questions with AMN Healthcare CEO Susan Salka

Susan Salka became president of AMN Healthcare, the nation's largest workforce solutions and healthcare staffing company, in 2003 and CEO in 2005, but her tenure with the company exceeds 25 years. At the helm, Ms. Salka expanded AMN Healthcare's offerings to include managed services programs, recruitment process outsourcing, vendor management systems, predictive analytics for patient demand and staffing need, executive and interim leadership placement, and advanced digital processes for sourcing healthcare professionals. These services help its hospital and health system clients to reduce complexity, increase efficiency and improve patient outcomes.

Unlike many other workforce solutions and staffing providers, AMN Healthcare focuses exclusively on healthcare.

Ms. Salka first joined the company in 1990. Prior to becoming president and CEO, she served in several other executive positions at AMN Healthcare, including CFO, COO and senior vice president of business development. She currently serves on the board of directors for McKesson and The Campanile Foundation at San Diego State University, and she serves on the editorial advisory board of Directors & Boards magazine.

Here, Ms. Salka took the time to answer our nine questions.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What leadership traits do you think are most important in healthcare organizations today? How does this Susan Salkacompare to even five or 10 years ago?

Susan Salka: Considering the amount of change and transformation healthcare is going through, any company in the industry needs leaders that possess strong transformation management skills — knowing how to evolve their organization, people and processes, and how to change their interactions with patients and clients.

Leaders today must have a strong vision and embrace that vision to guide the organization through change. It's a whole new world for healthcare compared with 10 years ago. The environment today requires all of us — those who work with healthcare clients and those who deliver the care — to increase financial and business acumen. And while it's wonderful to have tenure within healthcare, it's becoming increasingly important to recruit individuals with different experiences outside of healthcare.

I've been fortunate to be with AMN for 26 years — I have experienced a lot and am extremely passionate about doing our part to ensure every patient has a quality clinician when and where they are needed most. But we need to look outside of our industry at other companies and think about adopting other approaches and business models. For example, we can look at how they interact with a multi-generational workforce.

Q: When it comes to recruiting new clinicians, what are the most important traits to look for? 

SS: Baseline of experience is always important, particularly in this environment. You must have relevant experience and a good track record. However, what is far more important to your success and long-term career is an aptitude for learning, critical thinking, attitude, behavior and willingness to put in effort.

For clinicians, having a strong emotional IQ is very important, as well as for any leader or anyone at all who interacts with internal and external customers. Having a strong EQ means you are able to adapt your approach and communication style to the individual you are communicating with while truly empathizing and seeing their point of view.

Q: What is at stake for hospitals and health systems with a disengaged workforce? 

SS: Ultimately, the quality of patient care is at stake. Patient and family satisfaction — as well as brand reputation — are also on the line, and now there are greater financial implications tied to outcomes and satisfaction. Secondary implications include attrition, or worse yet, people who stay but no longer contribute. High attrition and lower productivity result in higher costs, as turnover increases the cost of recruitment.

Q: What must leaders do to reinvigorate clinicians' and other staff members' level of engagement, especially during periods of change?

SS: The most important thing a leader can do is make the work personal for each individual team member. It's important to spend one-on-one time with team members so you can understand their personal and professional goals and truly help them achieve these goals through their work. Another thing is to show them how the work they do impacts others — how every person matters to the success of the organization. While clinicians see their purpose every day, it is important to show how they fit in with the broader team, and to connect everyone as a unit. There is a lot of pride that comes with being part of a successful unit within a hospital. It sounds like obvious Leadership 101, but during times of transformation and chaos, these things are often the first to fall to the wayside.

Q: How can interim leaders be a strategic asset to healthcare organizations?

SS: There is a huge shortage of leaders within healthcare organizations, which is one of the reasons we chose to acquire companies that allow us to build this capability and be an important part of helping our clients.

The silver tsunami of aging clinical providers exists within hospital leadership. Another reason there are fewer leaders is because many organizations have tried to become as lean as possible in their management structures. For many hospitals, it is too hard to find people to fill certain roles. That's why interim leaders are so helpful. They are far more experienced, come in and help with significant transformations or initiatives, and are a great asset to other leaders.

Q: A lot of companies offer executive leadership search and placement services for a range of industries. What makes AMN different? 

SS: There are other organizations similar to ours, but where healthcare is only one of many industries they work with. On the other hand, all we eat, sleep, breathe and do is healthcare. It gives us a much better perspective, and we also have better contacts and relationships that we can pull from to find the right leaders for our clients.

The other differentiating factor is we have former C-suite executives who provide oversight for the appointed leader to ensure we are achieving the hospital's goals. These advisors work with the client and interim leader to ensure everyone agrees on priorities, measuring progress and accomplishing goals.

Q: How does AMN's expansion into executive leadership align with its other healthcare workforce services?

SS: Our workforce solutions are all about being a more strategic partner and recognizing our clients are going through a tremendous amount of transformation. We help them think about how to run the organization from a quality of care and cost-containment perspective, and provide advisory, leadership and other workforce solutions that help them in various ways.

Q: Women are underrepresented in every level of the corporate workforce, with the greatest disparity in senior leadership positions. As an accomplished female CEO, what do you feel must be done to further reduce this disparity? 

SS: There needs to be more public dialogue and exposure on the issue to force leaders within the industry to pay attention to the problem. The more you do this, the more you will see some level of movement.

Boards and trustees also need to get involved and make sure they understand what the diversity levels are within the organizations they oversee. It's not the board's job to micromanage, but it is their job to make sure management is paying attention and has the right perspective on gender equality. Often, the drive to make change permeates from the top. Leaders running an organization should be seeking to improve gender and ethnic diversity so they are more reflective of their workforce and the patients they care for.

Finally, it is so important to encourage women at younger levels. We as a country and as individuals and companies must do all we can to encourage young girls in elementary school, high school and college to show them what's possible. It takes a young girl seeing and meeting with other women that are doing things beyond what they thought were possible to be encouraged.

Q: Related to your last point, what do you do with young professionals to encourage their growth? 

SS: While mentorship can be very helpful for talking through what's happening in someone's professional life, I believe sponsorship is more impactful. I look for opportunities to help individuals really stretch themselves beyond what they would normally feel comfortable doing. I had the opportunity to step into new roles and try new things because a few people believed in me. They pushed me and opened doors that otherwise wouldn't have been opened to me. As a leader now, I look for opportunities to sponsor young women to open up doors for them and be their advocate.

I also hold our leaders accountable for diversity in hiring and promotion. As we look at new talent to bring in, we are looking at talent diversity in potential candidates — not a narrow mold of the predecessor.

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