'Cream rises to the top': How 5 hospital executives identify budding talent

With CEO exits at an all-time high, succession planning is top-of-mind for many hospital C-suites. 

Becker's recently connected with five hospital executives from across the country to learn more about their leadership identification and development strategies:

Question: How do you identify the leaders of tomorrow amongst your employees? What traits and qualities stand out to you and indicate potential? Furthermore, how do you aim to recognize and develop that talent?

Daniel Barchi. Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer of CommonSpirit Health (Chicago): One of our greatest responsibilities as leaders is to identify the next generation of management talent. Tomorrow's leaders serve among today's nurses, financial analysts, cyber experts, and others who do the work of providing care and running our health systems every day. What makes them the leaders of tomorrow is not their clinical or operational skill, but their ability to make connections, take responsibility and solve problems.  

It is not hard to identify them — they are already informal leaders among their colleagues.  They know and support their peers personally and professionally, they are unafraid to question processes, their peers bring them issues for resolution, they go out of their way to improve processes, and they reach outside of their teams to understand and use shared resources. Our job as healthcare executives is to challenge these future leaders with projects and initiatives that force them to grow beyond their assigned roles and to use their nascent leadership skills in larger environments. When they demonstrate their ability to do so, they are ready to assume formal executive roles. 

Gina Calder. President of Barnes Jewish St. Peters (Mo.) Hospital and Progress West Hospital (O'Fallon, Mo.): Leadership is an art of experience that takes practice and time to develop. It starts with identifying people who have the ability, flexibility and drive to do a great job in their current role, and then you look for the intangibles. Do they show the empathy to see the work we do through our patients', employees' and providers' eyes? Do they have the humility to know they don't have all the answers and seek answers wherever they may be found? Do they have the courage to forge ahead even in the face of uncertainty? And do they have the clarity and confidence to clearly define their values and set the tone for the culture for others to follow?

It takes all of those elements to make a great leader, but very few people come into the workforce with all of those abilities developed. It's up to us as executives to be intentional and open minded in how we identify the people who have those qualities, especially when they come from non-traditional paths or backgrounds, and then give them the experiences, guidance, support and sponsorship to develop and grow.

Kenneth Altman, MD, PhD. Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery and Director of Laryngology Voice and Swallowing at Geisinger Health System (Danville, Pa.), and Professor at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (Scranton, Pa.): When we consider leadership in healthcare, we tend to think of top leaders creating a vision, operationalizing a mission, and their talents with engagement and communication. But recognizing leaders at the grassroots level is vital, starting with those pursuing excellence in oneself, and inspiring it in others. With this definition, there is plenty of room for everyone to develop leadership qualities in their own space. For providers, it starts with leading by example as a high clinical performer with excellent patient satisfaction, mentorship of others, reaching outside their comfort zone to become involved in quality initiatives, and demonstrating innovations that enhance our reputation. Understanding the many perspectives management needs to consider, while bringing solutions instead of problems, clearly indicates potential that should be embraced. The curriculum vitae is a summary of such accomplishments that deserve recognition. For developing leadership talent, I like to create synergy of high performers with like-abled peers while offering my own mentorship to their growth. "Cream rises to the top," so it should be easy to find and cultivate those with passion, competence and goodness.

Kevin Cullinan. CEO of CommonSpirit St. Anthony Hospital (Lakewood, Colo.): Identifying and developing top talent is one of the most important parts of my role as a CEO. We have a formal process for evaluating talent that is thorough and comprehensive, but the very first thing I notice is how a leader acts under pressure. Do they rush to judgment? Do they raise their voice? Do they start coming up with solutions before fully understanding the problem? Or do they listen, seek to understand, and remain calm? Calmness can be confused with ambivalence, which is a mistake. Having the emotional intelligence to rationally navigate the complex issues we often face is absolutely necessary. We try to recognize and develop talent by giving our people growth opportunities within their role or temporary assignments beyond their role. For example, I recently put someone in an interim role over several key areas that could use some help. It is a stretch role, but they have the opportunity to make a difference and help turn things around. Whether they are successful or not, they will learn a tremendous amount about complicated areas that they have never had responsibility for. I was fortunate to be given opportunities like this throughout my career and always tried to make the very best of them. Providing opportunities for others to grow is a natural tendency that has paid dividends.

M. Shafeeq Ahmed, MD. President of Johns Hopkins Howard County Medical Center (Columbia, Md.) and Assistant Professor in the OB-GYN Department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (Baltimore): I would really ask, what are we doing to develop our current leaders, as opposed to just identifying the new ones? We are putting in programs to help re-educate or give the resources for knowledge sharing for our current leaders, and especially in our middle management ranks. So we have an internal leadership development program that we put together that was a local cohort, talking about the basics about leadership challenges, having crucial conversations, et cetera. 

Investing in them and making sure that they're not frustrated helps to build that link to the future, because many times in healthcare, we will promote people with content expertise in some areas, but not necessarily leadership experience. And so doubling down to make sure that we're really investing in them as leaders and ensuring that we've got that middle management level ready to take on the challenges of leadership — which are probably the highest they've ever been. 

Like what you see? All executives featured in this article will speak at the 14th Annual Meeting in Chicago! Hospital and health system leaders, click here to apply for a complimentary badge. Interested in exhibitor or sponsorship opportunities to connect with 3,000+ hospital and health system leaders? Download the prospectus here.  

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