Developing leadership at every level: 4 questions with Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder

When Chris Van Gorder became CEO of San Diego-based Scripps Health in 2001, the organization had 55 days worth of cash on hand and Mr. Van Gorder's top priority was getting the system's finances in order. However, once the system was solvent and could turn an eye toward the future, he knew he had to take initiative to ensure Scripps could cultivate sustainable growth. 

Many executives claim to value leadership development, but few take steps as structured and focused as Mr. Van Gorder. He created three formal leadership academies within Scripps, with each focused on the skills and responsibilities of different leadership levels. The Scrips Leadership Academy, founded in 2001, is the oldest program and focuses on the highest-level employees. The Employee 100 began in 2010 and the Front Line Leader Academy 2015. A total of 1,190 Scripps employees have graduated from the three academies combined.

Mr. Van Gorder took the time to speak with Becker's Hospital Review about how he created these academies, what they offer employees and how they benefit his organization.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Question: What kind of leadership development programs does Scripps have in place?

Chris Van Gorder: We have the Employee 100, Front Line Leader Academy and the Leadership Academy.

The highest level is our Leadership Academy, and on the first day we start them with a question and answer session with me and outline two rules: We won't violate HIPAA and we won't answer individual personnel issues if there are non-disclosure agreements. Everything else is fair game.

When employees walk in, we take off the veil of titles so they can get more comfortable. At the academy, they're all students, not bosses or employees. Once a month for a year, we get them in the boardroom and have sessions with our faculty, including chiefs of staffs, chief nurses or corporate VPs — who sit on panels — along with outside speakers we bring in.

After panels, we break them up into groups of four and they write a thesis-oriented paper together on how to improve the organization. They present the papers to the academy alumni and the board — it's always a lot of fun. We've adopted a number of these proposals, including the Helping Our Peers in Emergencies Fund. The HOPE Fund was created in 2007 as a system-wide program, completely supported by Scripps employees, to aid colleagues facing hardship. Assistance from the fund has covered a variety of needs, such as paying funeral expenses, covering medical costs or, in one instance, assisting an employee who lost eight family members in a single bus crash in Mexico.

I knew that if I had leadership academy support, we could change the culture of our organization. I expect alumni to be my agents of culture change. Eventually as their numbers increase, they become a force to be reckoned with.

Q: What qualities do you look for in a candidate for the Leadership Academy?

CVG: When we look at potential leaders, we look at performance evaluations and all sorts of human resources information. Frontline workers are recommended by their leaders, considering each academy's curriculum and the personal interest they indicate in growing their careers. We also look for people who will be influential with their peers.

We try and develop a group of employees who will spread the message and expect the same from their co-workers.

My three biggest priorities are:

  1. Some tenure in the organization. I used to make it a minimum of five years, but today we're willing to consider someone relatively new.
  2. I look for somebody who really wants to do something that benefits the community and the organization.
  3. I want them to take the "me" out of the equation, so when they work at Scripps they're giving us their all. I look for people who say "we" a lot.

To apply, they fill out an application and write a letter, and I handpick the class. If it's all about wanting to get promoted, they won't be selected. In our first year we had 30 applicants for 25 spots, and now we have between 85 and 90 applications per year.

Q: What are red flags that someone who is a star employee may not be ready for a leadership position?

CVG: I remember an employee a few years ago who was probably the greatest networker in the world. She was a great communicator, great drive, but she had one problem: She was so busy trying to get promoted that she actually didn't do a very good job. You can have all the drive in the world but, when push comes to shove, you have to do a good job. The thing that will get you promoted is doing an outstanding job. Networking and communicating alone will not overcome doing a bad job.

Look for people who are phenomenal networkers and go back to how their bosses are perceiving their job [performance]. The biggest red flag is if they are applying for one reason only — to get promoted as opposed to understanding and contributing to the community.

Q: How did you come up with the curriculum for these academies?

CVG: We work with a professor from California State University, Fullerton named Elliot Kushell. He has PhD in sociology and organizational behavior. The old methods of leadership development were very didactic. They were interesting for physicians who did not go to business school, but did not offer much for anyone who has been through school and is looking for practical advice as opposed to theory.

We added to our curriculum the leadership application component that was missing; the stories of success and failure that help people really understand how your organization works. Dr. Kushell helped put curriculum together and works as a facilitator during our sessions. However, we're always adjusting our curriculum based on feedback from graduating classes and the changing times.

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