Great Leaders Bred, Not Born

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Retirements and new priorities mean hospitals may be better off growing their own.

C-level talent for hospitals and health systems is in high demand, but supply is low. Similarly, physicians who have the skills and desire to take on leadership roles are scarce these days. That's primarily because the relationships between hospitals and physicians are increasingly morphing into employer-employee format, and having a physician as their immediate supervisor is often more comforting for employed physicians.

But knowing the characteristics of the person you need to lead in those positions doesn't really get you any closer to hiring the right person. And the high demand means competition for these individuals is especially fierce. So unless there's simply no alternative, some hospitals have ditched recruiting in favor of growing their own leaders, says Steve Johnson, president and CEO of Susquehanna Health, a three-hospital system based in Williamsport, PA, with a total of 282 licensed acute beds. "The number of unsolicited recruiting contacts I get looking for someone who might be a C-suite candidate has definitely increased," he says. "It's the most in years."

Johnson admits that might be by virtue of his position as CEO, searches for which often come with the caveat that recruiters want prior CEO experience. In the same breath, he is sensitive to the current lack of physicians in leadership roles—essential for hospitals that want greater collaboration and alignment with their physicians.

Taught, not inherited
Leaders are bred, says Johnson, with one exception—there's at least one major characteristic with which a good leader has to be born.

"That's a certain drive and personal motivation," he says. "And that's not real easy to identify. The rest comes with education, training, and experience.

So contrary to the old saying, leadership skills can be taught. Problem is, often they're not taught properly, says Kurt O'Brien, director of organizational development and training at the University of Washington Medical Center.

UWMC started its leadership program about four years ago to help make sure its leaders were focusing not only on the organization's goals, but on how well they're able to motivate the people they manage, among other leadership qualities, says O'Brien, who is the instructor for the Extraordinary Leader Workshop at UMWC, based on the book, The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders, by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman.

Many such programs focus on uncovering weaknesses, which he finds a negative way to reinforce the behavior the organization is trying to promote. With 360-degree evaluations, people not only feel uncomfortable asking others for feedback, but they feel uncomfortable pointing out weaknesses they perceive in their colleagues or managers.

"With this program, we're not just looking at liabilities, but at strengths among our leaders, and how you build and leverage those strengths," he says.

As Darwin said . . .
What makes it so tough to find good leaders is that healthcare is entering an era in which there will be significant change in how care is organized and delivered, so competition is fierce for people who not only have expertise in their field but who can think creatively and manage change.

"As Darwin said, the adaptable will survive, not the well-adapted," says William P. Thompson, president and COO of St. Louis-based SSM Health Care, the nation's fourth largest nonprofit Catholic health system.

Taking his own wisdom into account, Thompson is among several hospital leaders who have taken a "grow your own" approach to developing top talent for leadership positions. So if they can't buy them, they'll develop them.

To that end, SSM created SSM University four years ago, a virtual education system for people who have been identified as having potential for success at leadership positions at all levels in the future.

"Leadership development is critical to the success of the organization," he says, adding that SSM is never finished tweaking its program as well as its less formal leadership development activities. "We're trying to come up with a more explicit set of expectations for our senior leaders to measure current performance, which we will use to identify strengths and weaknesses with people we have."

Courses are developed to capitalize on strengths and ameliorate weaknesses, and future leaders are identified by individual hospital presidents, for example.

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