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Promote Your Healthcare System's Diamonds in the Rough

by Eric Hunsaker, Psy.D.

The chief nursing officer of a large healthcare system told me her problem wasn’t that her organization’s leadership bench was broken. The problem was that the bench was empty! Through a concerted effort that included high-potential pools, mentoring programs, and placing nurse leaders in non-clinical leadership roles, the CNO said her organization had made great things happen. In just five years the system moved from filling 80 percent of its leadership positions with external hires to filling 90 percent of positions with internal candidates. However, that success bred another problem: the leadership pipeline was now dry.

“I’ve promoted everybody,” she explained.

And she’s not alone.

As the demands on healthcare leaders continue to change with the ever-ambiguous business landscape, and as retirements continue to impact all levels, the leadership capacity gap continues to widen for most healthcare systems.

To make matters worse, while organizations spend billions of dollars on leadership development, the percent of organizations that report having a bench of ready now leaders continues to decline.

So, what is a healthcare system to do? The answer is to identify and promote the “diamonds in the rough”—those in the healthcare system who possess leadership potential but who may be overlooked through the long-established methods of identifying and developing leadership potential.

To find these diamonds, you must:

  1. Reach deeper into the healthcare system to identify and develop leadership behaviors.
  2. Gather objective data to drive better talent decisions.
  3. Have conversations with individuals about their leadership potential.

Going Beyond the High-Potential Pool

Whether you are using acceleration pools or not, reaching deeper into the organization, collecting objective data through a scalable self-assessment, and having honest, unbiased conversations about potential does not mean you have to abandon your pools or your current development programs. Rather, it requires you to rethink leadership potential for your organization.

Here are some specific steps you can take to find your system’s diamonds in the rough:

  • Create a common language of leadership potential across the organization. If your system doesn’t know what it’s looking for, it will have a hard time finding it. Managers, despite their good intentions, tend to look to high performers (who often make ineffective leaders) instead looking for the characteristics of long-term leadership potential.
  • Level-set for the loudest managers. During a talent review I was involved in, a manager who had successfully lobbied for one of his direct reports to be accepted into the acceleration pool by touting her ability and accomplishments, surprised the room by removing her name from the board. He said, “I realized I wanted her in the program more than she did.”

    Oftentimes, managers are recognized or incentivized for the number of people they have in acceleration pools. While that can serve to inflate the size of the pool, it’s not the same as accurately identifying those who will grow quickly and then helping them to develop—the true purpose of an acceleration pool and where managers’ focus really needs to be.
  • Help those who don’t have an advocate. This is the opposite of the “loudest manager” scenario described above. There are likely people in the ranks with leadership potential—perhaps even a future CEO—but their managers don’t advocate for them. This could be for any number or reasons: the manger is too busy to develop his people, he doesn’t know what traits to look for, or maybe he is even biased. Meanwhile, the individual may not know how to influence upward.

    The best way to level the playing field for these overlooked leaders is to systematically collect objective data on a greater number of potential leaders, so their potential won’t be lost to the organization.
  • Increase visibility and mobility. All too often, the bulk of those considered for promotion, acceleration, or special assignments come from the flagship hospital or central office. In addition, certain managers may hoard their talent, fearing the impact to them and their department if their star is promoted.

    If these are commonplace occurrences in your healthcare system, you need to cast a wider net for leadership potential and work to develop a culture where managers are engaged in growing leadership capability for the entire organization, not just their individual team.
  • Actively promote diversity. It’s a sad reality that managers tend to hire, nominate, and promote people who are like themselves. And the impact is visible in the underrepresentation of key groups that possess tremendous leadership potential. For example, women account for just 26 percent of hospital CEO positions despite holding 75 percent of all healthcare jobs.

    In a healthcare system with which I am partnering, one talent management leader complained that the system is beset with low-quality leaders throughout the organization, and because managers are given to promoting people just like them, the cycle of poor leadership is likely to continue. Having objective data and a common definition of what defines leadership potential are necessities for breaking these negative cycles and increasing diversity.
  • Help facilitate the conversation. Too often, leaders undergo competency and personal attribute assessments either after they are promoted or when they get into trouble. When I look at the data that comes from these assessments, I often ask, “Did anyone ever ask this person if they actually wanted to be a leader or in a leadership role in the first place?” After all, leaders don’t always become leaders for the right reasons. Even if their intentions are good, they may not take into account all of the factors they really need to consider prior to becoming a leader.

    Objective data (including data gathered from a self-assessment that has a leadership simulation component) helps the manager facilitate the conversation with the individual about what it means to be a leader, why (or even if) the individual wants to go into leadership, and the strengths and personality characteristics that can enable him or her to succeed and grow.

    Potential leaders also need to be made aware of their development areas and what it will take to improve, as well as any derailers they will need to learn to manage. Consequently, this conversation is also the perfect opportunity to provide a realistic job preview and dispel any misperceptions about what it means to be a leader.

    Candidates for an acceleration program also need to be engaged in conversations to ensure they understand what is required of them, are able to commit to the program, and will be able to demonstrate growth.
  • Create more informal leaders. By broadening your reach to identify high-potential diamonds in the rough, you will also be able to grow leadership behaviors across the system. Not everyone will be selected for an acceleration pool (nor should they) or even want to pursue a leadership role, but with insight into their leadership potential, individuals can make the most of their ability in their current roles and in their teams.

Acceleration Pools Alone Won’t Cut It

Healthcare systems need a strong bench to meet the changing needs of our healthcare landscape, but acceleration pools alone won’t meet that objective. We must feed our pipelines and develop leadership behaviors deeper in the organization and earlier in people’s careers.

Eric Hunsaker, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist and client executive within DDI’s healthcare practice. When he is not partnering with healthcare systems across the country, you can find him on the rivers and hiking trails in southeast Missouri, explaining to his young son why the sky is blue.

Learn more about how to unleash potential in your organization and download the new eBook, The Revolutionary Guide to Rethinking Leadership Potential.

Posted: 19 Dec, 2017,
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