healthcare leadership Healthcare organizations rely on skilled leaders to ensure patient safety, deliver high-quality care, and develop a Patient-Centered WorkforceTM. However, many organizations do not have a defined process for identifying potential leaders and preparing them to succeed in their new role.

A structured, proactive approach to leadership development in healthcare is an essential hallmark of many organizations across the care continuum. Consider the following when evaluating initiatives related to leadership development in healthcare:

Demographic Changes

The aging workforce means that senior leaders in healthcare organizations are retiring. These vacant positions are great opportunities for high-performing employees, but the transition can be difficult if individuals have not had experience managing others or thinking about issues in more strategic ways. High potential frontline leaders can benefit from access to developmental resources as a way to prepare for future advancement opportunities.

Quality of Care

According to The Joint Commission, leaders have a direct influence over many of the factors that determine the level of safety and quality of care provided in healthcare organizations. These factors include the number of competent staff, ongoing evaluation and improvement of performance, and the workplace culture.

Employee Retention

The 2015 HealthcareSource and ASHHRA Healthcare Workforce Executive Insights Survey found that “Opportunities to Advance” was ranked the most influential factor in retaining top healthcare talent. To maintain and increase retention levels for top talent, healthcare organizations must focus on initiatives that will develop future leaders.

Building a Patient-Centered Workforce

A Patient-Centered Workforce is comprised of highly-engaged employees who always endeavor to provide patient-centered care. Leading healthcare organizations understand the importance of continuously assessing and developing competencies across both staff and leadership, establishing goals that align with patient care, as well as the need to motivate the workforce with education and professional development opportunities.

Assessing and Building Competencies

Succession planning is a common approach for developing a pipeline of up-and-coming leaders. However, The Advisory Board discovered that only 15%-18% of leaders at best-in-class healthcare organizations have succession plans in place. As healthcare institutions consider how to prepare employees for leadership roles and to build out succession plans, one good place to start is with an assessment of individuals’ leadership competencies.

Successful healthcare leaders need to develop competencies in ten areas:

  1. Achievement orientation: This is a desire to accomplish career aspirations and goals. In the healthcare industry, where science and technology are constantly evolving, it is critical that leaders possess a desire to evolve, achieve more, and inspire others to do the same.
  2. Conscientiousness: This is the willingness to work hard and complete tasks and projects. Healthcare leaders must be able to inspire change despite potential resistance.
  3. Critical thinking: This is the ability to reason through complex data and solve problems in an effective manner. Effective leaders objectively analyze situations, foresee possibilities, and plan ahead.
  4. Customer orientation: This is a genuine enjoyment of helping others and attending to the needs of external and internal customers. Customer orientation is essential as healthcare organizations look beyond patients and consider the entire consumer experience.
  5. Emotional evenness: Leaders with this competency are calm, even-tempered, and able to deal with stress.
  6. Innovative thinking: Innovators are creative and willing to experiment with new ideas and approaches. The best leaders seek ways to implement enhanced practices in their healthcare systems.
  7. Multitasking: This is the ability to work on multiple tasks or projects simultaneously. Prioritizing and working on multiple projects is crucial in the healthcare industry.
  8. Openness to change: This is the ability to easily adapt to changing priorities, demands, and work processes.
  9. Self-Confidence: Self-confident leaders have a positive self-image and are self-reliant. Self-confidence is important since healthcare leaders must feel comfortable making decisions on their own.
  10. Self-Development: This is a willingness to update and improve one’s job-related skills and knowledge. Healthcare leaders must be willing to go the “extra mile” to learn, maintain, and enhance their job-related knowledge.

While assessment results add value during the hiring process, they are also useful during the performance evaluation and review process. Samaritan Health Services in Oregon’s Mid-Willamette Valley uses assessment results when employees are promoted from a staff role to a managerial position. “We find that the results are helpful when evaluating critical thinking and employee potential, as well as strengths and opportunities for growth,” said Amanda Morris, Employment Director at Samaritan Health Services.

Once high-potential employees understand their strengths and areas where they need to build skills, it is easier for organizations to identify learning opportunities that will contribute to leadership development and create well-rounded leaders. Gaps in leadership competencies can be addressed in various ways. Online learning is a common option in healthcare since it complements different learning styles and offers flexibility to clinicians and staff who cannot take time off the floor for traditional classroom training.

Integrating performance evaluations, leadership assessments, and learning systems make it easier for healthcare organizations to create a structured and reliable leadership development process that supports continuous improvement. Since leadership development is an ongoing process, an infrastructure must be in place to continually assess leaders and then shift performance goals and development efforts to reflect growth and new development needs.

By focusing goals and development activities on behavioral competencies, managers can provide healthcare leaders with the real-time coaching and feedback needed for continuous improvement. While all leaders should be proficient in specific behavioral skills and clinical competencies, it is important to recognize that leadership development needs will be different for frontline leaders and senior leaders. Frontline leaders are primarily responsible for managing people, whereas senior leaders deal primarily with operational processes and strategic plans.

For example, to build the innovative thinking competency, frontline leaders might learn about the drivers of organizational change in healthcare, while senior leaders might focus on how to generate innovative ideas by maximizing team creativity. On the other hand, for the multitasking competency, a frontline leader might learn about time management, while a senior leader might build skills related to establishing goals, individual roles, and guidelines for teams.

The pace of change in healthcare is unprecedented, and to keep pace healthcare organizations must proactively cultivate leaders through employee engagement initiatives in order provide continuity and address future challenges. Building a pipeline of healthcare leaders depends on a two-stage process: assessing promising employees’ leadership competencies and then offering learning opportunities that target specific development needs. This can be accomplished by leveraging technology to support leadership development.

Healthcare organizations that leverage talent management technology for employee performance evaluations, leadership assessment and development, and online learning will be well-positioned to stay a step ahead of any and all demographic shifts to build a more Patient-Centered Workforce committed to high-quality care.


Editorial Note: A version of this article originally appeared in HR Pulse Magazine. 

Are you interested in learning more about the best practices associated with hiring and developing healthcare leaders? Download our free how-to guide:

How to Improve Patient Care: 3 Steps to Recruit and Retain Great Healthcare Leaders

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About The Editorial Staff

The Editorial Staff is a team of writers with a passion for helping healthcare organizations manage their biggest and most important investment: their employees.