Look internally to groom your next hospital CEO

Hospitals and health systems demand a lot from their leaders. Chief executive officers must be humble, compassionate, interact and engage with staff, have experience with finance as well as data and analytics, be willing to change and embrace new management models and have clinical expertise.

It's no wonder that CEO turnover remains high.

I've talked in a previous column about the revolving door of hospital CEOs and why organizations must have a succession plan in place. But often organizations look outside their walls for candidates instead of grooming internal leaders for the job.

In many cases, organizations would be better off identifying potential leaders within their organizations and creating a development plan for them. Ideally, the next leader will be more prepared and better situated than the previous CEO because he or she already learned the ropes from a predecessor.

One often overlooked leader, especially at not-for-profit healthcare systems, is the chief operating officer, Donna Padilla, senior partner at leading executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, told me during an exclusive interview. And that can be a mistake. 

She recommends that organizations identify potential leaders, such as COOs, and help them gain experience through "cross pollination," allowing people to make lateral moves and learn other parts of the business. For example, as hospitals look to expand their outpatient services, organizations may want to have the person who runs a medical group switch jobs with the COO for a year.

"It can be disruptive, but it allows a bunch of folks to learn a different language internally without leaving the organization," she says.

Other industries have had success moving people across divisions to learn different elements of the business, and Padilla says she is beginning to see healthcare organizations take a little more interest in the model. "For-profits do it well, and we are seeing more people move every two to three years," she says.

She also has seen growth in the number of organizations that have internal leaders take on more system-level roles and have them serve on internal quality committees. This provides an opportunity for someone to interact with colleagues more broadly and develop a different level of skills and influence among multiple sites, instead of just one hospital.

But she also advises COOs who may have been passed over for a CEO position to take the driver's seat in their own careers. If the hospital or health system doesn't provide opportunities for advancement and the COO doesn't have experience in a certain area, it's up to the COO to seek out the experience, even if it's at a church or local government board.

"At the end of the day, the person needs to be self-aware and understand where his or her strengths are," she says. Ilene (@FierceHealth)