The best interim leaders possess these 5 traits

As the rate of turnover among healthcare executives remains elevated and the regulatory environment becomes increasingly complex, many hospitals and health systems have a new appreciation for interim leaders to fill vacancies and support various types of strategic improvement projects.

Hospital staff depend on solid, mission-driven leadership to shepherd them through the changes occurring within the industry. However, high turnover threatens leadership stability. According to data from the AmericanCollege of Healthcare Executives, the rate of hospital CEO turnover in 2015 was 18 percent. While this is less than the record high of 20 percent in 2013, it is still among the highest rates reported in the past two decades.

Interim leaders represent an effective solution for hospitals that encounter a leadership vacancy due to retirement, resignation, termination or other staffing changes. In addition, interim leaders can be invaluable assets to organizations during performance improvement initiatives and leadership development programs, according to Angela Dale, vice president of operations for B.E. Smith's Talent Strategies Division.

"An organization will often experience some sort of opportunity for improvement, whether it's financial, operational or related to quality," says Ms. Dale. "They might need an extra set of eyes and someone who is experienced to come in and assess the situation objectively."

Who are interim leaders?
Interim leaders either serve a predetermined period of time, or they fill a role indefinitely until the organization identifies a permanent leader. Hospitals and health systems can recruit their own interim leader, or they elect to tap an executive search firm to do their bidding.

B.E. Smith, which places more than 500 interim leaders annually at all levels of management in healthcare organizations, has a nationwide pool of candidates to draw from. Each of these leaders has at least 20 years of healthcare leadership experience under their belt. They are placed in a hospital based on its demands and the leader's background and expertise.

B.E. Smith helps hospitals fill leadership vacancies with interim leaders in two weeks, according to Ms. Dale. This expedited timeframe enables hospitals to reduce the financial risk attributable to gaps in leadership.

When should a hospital seek an interim leader?
Hospital and health system boards weighing the possibility of interim leadership should consider a few key questions, according to Ms. Dale.

Is there an immediate need to fill a vacancy while the board searches for a permanent leader? Does the hospital seek to design or implement a new project but lack leaders with the right experience and skill set? Does the organization seek a leader with a specific background to develop emerging leaders or serve as a mentor?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, interim leadership can represent the most time and cost-efficient solution.

"One of the great advantages of installing an interim leader while the board continues recruiting a permanent one is that the interim leader brings all of their experience with them and can hit the ground running," says Ms. Dale. "They're responsible for assessing the organization's current state, creating an action plan and preparing to implement that plan. When a permanent leader does start, they can do so with a roadmap for success." Ms. Dale added that interim leaders typically stay on to help onboard the new permanent leader and ensure a smooth transition.

Five important traits for interim leaders to possess
Whether an organization opts to enlist an executive search firm to help select an interim leader or the board heads up recruitment, the best interim leaders should possess the following five traits, according to Ms. Dale.

1. They are experts in their field. All interim leaders should be healthcare industry experts. They should be attuned to the most pertinent healthcare trends and have experience devising effective strategies in a rapidly changing regulatory environment. Whether the interim leader is filling in as CEO, CFO, CIO, CMO or any other vacancy, he or she must possess a deep level of competency and experience.

2. They're flexible. To succeed in a new environment, interim leaders must have a flexible leadership style and be willing to embrace and contribute to an unfamiliar organizational culture. They demonstrate agility and enthusiasm about change and are "able to adapt to different situations very quickly," says Ms. Dale.

3. They have strong assessment skills. Because interim leaders are often enlisted to bring in a fresh perspective, they must be adept at analyzing and assessing the current state of an organization. Whether an interim CEO is evaluating the organization's overall strategic direction or a CMO is assessing how a specific department handles a particular quality issue, for example, the new leader should be able to do so accurately and objectively.

4. They're excellent communicators and collaborators. Communication is an essential competency for employees, managers and leaders at all levels of the organization. This is an especially important skill for interim leaders to have as they begin to build relationships with their colleagues, staff and board. Additionally, as healthcare delivery and leadership leans more toward team-based dynamics, the ability to collaborate, incorporate others' ideas and delegate appropriately is vital.  

5. They're focused on building relationships. "Because they're new to the organization, interim leaders need to quickly credential themselves with key stakeholders," says Ms. Dale. Especially at the C-suite level, interim leaders must immediately build rapport and gain the trust of the board, their colleagues and the staff. Although interim leaders are often brought in to help enact change, they must first spend time listening, learning and building strong relationships. 

"Interim leaders have varied backgrounds, but have deep experience in operational and strategic leadership," says Ms. Dale. "They share many of the same traits as a permanent leader." The best interim executives are confident, used to working in challenging situations, and natural change agents and problem solvers. "This is what they're brought in to do," she added.

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