How hospitals can help their future leaders succeed

Planning for future leaders to take the helm has long been part of hospital and health system strategies. And it has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly amid an aging workforce, staffing challenges and an increasing number of employee and executive exits. 

A Sept. 21 report from executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas report found that six U.S.  hospital CEOs left their positions in August, bringing the total number of departures in 2022 to 77. Sixty-eight hospital CEOs left their roles in the first eight months of last year.   

Additionally, a recent survey conducted by Bain & Co. showed 25 percent of U.S. physicians, advanced practice providers and nurses are considering switching careers, and one-third are considering changing employers.

All these factors mean healthcare organizations must consider even more what their future leadership will look like, rising workforce needs, how to manage hybrid and remote work models, and how to foster diverse leadership, according to Paul Bohne, managing partner with the healthcare practice at WittKieffer, an executive search and advisory firm.

"I think for retaining talent, organizations have taken steps to be a lot more creative, within reason, with things relative to flex schedules and hybrid work," Mr. Bohne said.

In healthcare, WittKieffer performs more than 500 executive searches annually, including about 70 CEO searches in 2021 and more than 100 physician leadership searches. 

Mr. Bohne said health systems his firm works with that have paid the most attention to executive retention and succession planning have been more rigorous and consistent with how they approach the process.

"They're paying [highest potential leaders] appropriately with a retention focus," he said. "They're being much more intentional about development opportunities and exposure throughout their organizations. And … they're incorporating flexible work arrangements and hybrid where it's reasonable." 

Looking beyond the big picture

For health systems that want to maximize their ability to promote internally, Mr. Bohne said making it a priority to engage with their up-and-coming leaders is key.

He said there is also a "bigger picture that health systems are taking to look across the whole enterprise, how they are consistently identifying and retaining talent across the whole enterprise, so there's succession going on across the whole enterprise. For a lot of organizations, that's very much a work in progress."

For Jerald Novak, chief people officer of the University of Vermont Health Network in Burlington, succession planning begins with identifying future leaders of the organization.

"Before you get to succession planning, I think there's a real talent forecasting piece of work that's done first around identifying who future leaders are, understanding what pipeline gaps exist and how you're addressing those future leadership and skill mix needs," Mr. Novak said.

Organizations typically want to develop 50 percent to 70 percent of their talent internally and market for certain skill gaps they want to expand on externally. 

At Irving, Texas-based Christus Health, diversity in its leaders that reflects the patient population has been a key component to that process.

"Let's analyze the patient population we serve. The issue is not about being diverse for diversity sake, the issue is we want to represent the patient population we're serving — at all levels," said Marcos Pesquera, vice president of health equity, diversity and inclusion at Christus Health. 

One of the programs at the system that supports that goal is its sponsorship program, which, according to Mr. Pesquera, sets itself apart from mentorship programs in the level of confidence already established for the recipients.

"The mentorship program is me teaching you, mentoring you and helping you to develop," Mr. Pesquera said. "The sponsorship program is I already know you got what it takes, I'm going to offer to you all the doors that I have, all the rooms I'm allowed to enter and exit and open those doors to you as well."

Of Christus' C-suite leaders, 66 percent are women and 47 percent are people of color. Of its 14 board members, 42 percent are women and 35 percent are people of color. 

Subhead: 'Challenging structural barriers'

Warren Chalklen, director of diversity and inclusion at Christus Health, said it took a while for the system to think about gender and racial equity inclusion in a holistic way. 

"We need to get people to think that that's normal, we need people to behave that that's normal, we need to have policies that reward and pay women at the same rate," Mr. Chalklen said. "In that way, we're challenging the structural barriers that exist in society that have made all of these other things normal which are actually a very abnormal thing."

Methods such as the sponsorship program allow Christus to help make this type of equity the new normal for patients and providers. 

Mr. Novak said the University of Vermont Health Network looks at deep development when thinking about succession by looking at an individual's development opportunities, what critical experiences they've gained or need, what strengths or opportunities they've had at their current level and what they could experience in future levels. 

"Most people are really focused on the role that they're in or wanting someone to stay in the role that they're in," Mr. Novak said. "But to really keep people long term, it's what are the next two or three roles that they're going to potentially do."

Another development opportunity UVMHN plans to launch is what Mr. Novak called "future back planning," which will be part of the yearly talent management program that looks at what experiences an individual might need to succeed in a role such as CEO. 

"What are the other things that you need, other pillars in the career ladder to take that role at some point?" Mr. Novak said. "You sit down with somebody who has high potential, you have that kind of conversation with them. That builds a lot of goodwill that you're really thinking about them and their future and their place here rather than just what are they doing in their job today."

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