Curating the early careerist’s leadership toolbox: Guidance from 5 successful healthcare leaders

The term “leader” carries a weight of importance and magnitude. It is not a role to be taken lightly and can, therefore, be a daunting expectation for any early careerist in the beginning stages of their own leadership journey.

It is difficult to know where to start and often we are faced with mounting roadblocks and difficult choices along the way. So how do we set ourselves up for success? How do we know that we are on the right path? What are the skills we need to be a great leader? There does not exist a single answer to these questions. As young professionals, it is our job to be sponges and absorb the knowledge and lessons that the leaders before us have to offer. For this article, we interviewed influential healthcare leaders with a variety of backgrounds. While their insights were as different as their experiences, the common message was that no journey is the same. Every leader’s course is different than the next. What we must do to be great leaders is to learn from the wisdom of others, observe the methods of those around us, and filter this information to create our own unique leadership toolbox.

Communication, Communication, Communication
A necessary skill set of any good leader is the ability to effectively communicate. Leaders are often responsible for delivering messages and conveying ideas in a way that is easily understood by all parties. This is not an easy task but there are important factors to keep in mind. Remember to explain the “why” as it clarifies the driving forces behind organizational decisions and actions. “Because I said so” did not work on you as a child and certainly won’t cut it in the professional world. What can destroy working relationships is the inability to communicate with respect and integrity. Respect your audience by being transparent. Your team members can handle the good, bad, and ugly of your organization’s endeavors. Integrate this with trustworthy follow-through. Always do what you say you are going to do. If a leader fails to communicate effectively, she may as well be speaking a different language.

Connect To Your Stakeholders
Understand what is important to your constituents. This concept is not exclusive to your external customer base. Your internal customers include your staff and team members. Take the time to listen to their opinions and suggestions. They have a wealth of information and understanding in their unique, organizational roles. When a problem comes to your attention, get to the root-cause of the issue. Find a solution that works for everyone. It doesn’t have to be optimal, but it should have a positive impact on a majority of your stakeholders. It is also important here to remain consistent in your delivery and assurances on your product. When a leader speaks with false promises, it permeates the relationship she has with her team and the work that she does as a leader. Dishonesty replaces integrity as the expectation.

Appreciate Differences
It is crucial for leaders to understand and appreciate the different personalities and styles that make up their workforce. Many tests, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, provide insight into our diversity. Learn how to work with the various temperaments, profiles and tendencies so that you may partner and engage others on your team. These personal characteristics play a large role in decision-making and cohesion. In turn, study your own natural biases and how you respond to situations. Recognize when you have failed to lead from lack of appreciation and not mistake this for a unique team member failing you. Dedicate time on a constant basis to understand your workforce. Nothing we do is black and white, and we need to recognize when variation serves as an asset. We have to remove roadblocks not make them.

Networking Building Relationships
“Networking” now appears to have a negative connotation. It is word associated with taking and not giving. This interpretation fails to appreciate the true nature of the networking concept. A network is really a group of people that support you throughout your career. It shouldn’t be thought of as a collection of business cards or stepping stones. Think of your network as relationships. They are meaningful connections along the life of your career so build something that is long-standing. It requires work and these relationships need to be fostered. As much as a mentor gives, some day he may need something in return. Ask what you can contribute to the relationship because it’s symbiotic in nature. To maintain a healthy network, it is important to be visible, be consistent and be genuine. Do not be afraid to put yourself out there. Experienced leaders are always looking to help young leaders grow. Stay in touch with your connections. Put a reminder in your calendar to contact members of your network twice a year. Send them articles that you believe would intrigue them. Be genuinely interested in their career and experience. This latter advice may be the most valuable lesson of networking. Always remember that relationships are vitally important throughout your career so continue to build them.

Mentors Matter
Mentors come in different shapes and sizes. Some mentors may exhibit traits of genuineness, positivity, and inclusivity. Others may be revered for being unflappable during times of stress. Some may encourage you to never compromise on your own personal beliefs as they are representative of the values that define your leadership style. We are attracted to different leaders based on own wants and needs. An essential part of mentor selection is to find someone who is unique to your learning. Find people along the way that will show you how to do the job that the classroom cannot. Work with someone who will invest in you as a person. Figure out who you personally connect to and develop with their guidance. But remember that it is often the role of the mentee to cultivate the connection. Set-up regular calls with your mentors as check-ins and make the effort to meet in-person as well. These interactions continue to build upon the foundations for a strong relationship that will sustain throughout your entire career.

Continual Growth
Being a leader takes time and dedication. There is no expiration date on a one’s leadership education. There are a number of ways even the most successful leaders continue to prune their own skills and knowledge. Be curious and open to new experiences. There is always the chance to learn something and fill your toolbox with new techniques and skill sets. Many recommend membership in ACHE. Go to big conferences, like Congress, and small conferences too. Tailor your involvement in your professional organizations to fit your own learning and educational needs. Understand the importance of reading and do not just focus on healthcare material. Expand your horizons to business and world issues. Turn to the Wall Street Journal or Harvard Business Review. We are so insular that it doesn’t help if we don’t know what others are doing in their respective field. Recognize that the opportunity to learn is often right in front of you in the form of observation. Always watch and listen to other leaders. Analyze them as their actions have as much value in showing you how to do things correctly and incorrectly. Think about what your own leaders are like. Do their actions strengthen and inspire? How do they handle themselves in a crisis? Every position or task in your professional career presents the opportunity to learn, influence, motivate, or face and conquer difficult issues. No matter your educational preference, never forget to be in the continual mode of learning. The great leaders are always figuring out how to be better. Don’t get complacent. That’s risky.

Remember that everything does not belong in your toolbox. Be sure to discard ineffective ideas and advice that lead to clutter and retain those which add value to your leadership skill set. Meaningful connections and constant initiative are two of the most important themes for our toolbox. Communication skills are crucial so be sure to consistent and purposeful in everything you do. A leader with a track-recorded of false promises will quickly lose the trust and respect of his stakeholders. You will work with and lead all types of persons, staff, and leaders in your career. Understand how to capitalize on these differences and use them to the benefit of your organization. There will also be those similar to you who you may seek as mentors. Appreciate what these leaders have to offer and, like all relationships, understand that it takes work and dedication to strengthen them. Always strive to learn more about the industry and develop your mentor relationships even further. Pushing for greater understanding and deeper relationships with your teammates and mentors will be a continuous journey. One day, you may return the favor to another young leader seeking the same guidance and you will remember the significance your own mentors had in your growth and journey.

We would like to thank the following for their contributions to this article:

Teresa L. Edwards, MHA, FACHE
Corporate Vice President, Sentara Healthcare

Alan B. Keesee, MHA, FACHE
CEO, Capital Regional Medical Center, HCA Healthcare

Thibaut van Marcke, MHA
Senior Vice President, Orlando Health and President, Dr. P. Phillips Hospital

Roberta Tinch, MHA, FACHE
Chief Operating Officer, Johnston-Willis Hospital, HCA Healthcare

Emily W.G. Towey, JD, MHA
Director, Hancock Daniel

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