Great Leaders Bred, Not Born

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"We've reached down to people who are at the director or manager level and identified about 20 who we believe are potential high performers," Thompson says. SSM has assigned each of those individuals to a mentor who's higher in the organization. "We bring the group together in conference calls, Webinars, and in-person meetings to prepare them for greater positions of responsibility."

At UWMC, initial participants in the program included about 50 people at the 450-licensed bed hospital, including the top eight executive leaders in the organization—the CEO, CFO, and others in the C-suite. Offered four times annually, employees now attend the program from all parts of the medical center, including food services, environmental services, patient care, nurse administration, and physicians in leadership roles.

Completing the course involves some prework online. Participants set up a profile, which sends e-mails to those who are in a position to evaluate the person's skills. Those offered the chance to provide feedback have about three weeks to do so. Participants are then provided with a report that details and slices the data.

"Then we show up for the full-day workshop ready to objectively identify everyone's potential and interpret their feedback. In the afternoon, each participant gets 45 minutes of time with a professional coach," says O'Brien.

In completing the leadership program himself, O'Brien realized he had some strengths among the 17 core competencies, but needed to work on championing change, for example.

"I gained a better understanding of how I am perceived as a leader, as well as why working to enhance my strengths versus focusing on my weaknesses will take me to the next level of leadership," says Teresa Spellman Gamble, associate administrator at UWMC. "I left the workshop with a better picture of my own leadership abilities, and a plan for building on my strengths."

Keeping your good people
How do you keep the good people in the organization when there isn't an immediate opportunity to advance? They might work on systemwide projects, says Johnson, that are outside their normal job responsibilities.

"The most important thing we can do is identify top performers from those who are not top performers and be very open on those who need help," he says. "We have high performers who I don't think we pay enough attention to, so we're working on doing that outside of incentive payments, because we don't do those. But there are ways to acknowledge the great work some folks are doing."

At Susquehanna, the system makes use of Healthcare Performance Solutions, a consulting company featuring cofounder Tom Olivo, who helps the system get a handle on the personalities and capabilities of its current staff as part of the process of identifying future leaders.

"Tom's Right Path profile is equivalent to a Meyers-Briggs," says Thompson, referring to the time-tested questionnaire used to measure how people perceive the world and make decisions. As a second step, Susquehanna performs an employee climate assessment, which is a reflection on current performance by people managed by the individual being evaluated. It also uses a top-down leadership assessment profile.

Those three elements combined help identify people who have real potential, he says, and Susquehanna makes sure those individuals get extra training, coaching, and extra assignments in different parts of the organization.

"When we've identified them as top talent, we share that with them, and in some cases, list them as potential candidates for future jobs in the organization," he says. "But they may be in that slot with several of their peers. So we don't promise that job."

Recently, Johnson identified a need for a chief quality officer within the system, but had few candidates who he felt were qualified for the job and possessed the trust and respect of fellow physicians in the organization.

"One of our physicians who's a quality disciple and specializes in internal medicine was getting to point where he was starting to get a little bored," he says. "I sat down with him and we talked about his interest in quality and safety and building processes around best practices and evidence-based medicine. It went so well, I created the CQO job and hired him into it."

Philip Betbeze is senior leadership editor for HealthLeaders Media. He may be contacted at

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