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A Thought-Provoking View on Solving the Healthcare Leadership Skills Gap

Amidst a severe supply-and-demand imbalance, pressure to improve care access and quality, escalating costs, and reduced reimbursements, health systems and institutions are challenged like never before. It will take transformative change to thrive in this difficult environment. And that demands a new leadership paradigm—one that current healthcare leaders weren’t likely prepared for. As Part 1 of this series explored, traditional career paths and recruitment approaches have created skill gaps that hamper leaders as they guide the shift to a future state that is both radically different and still evolving.  

Equipping healthcare industry professionals to lead teams and organizations in a dynamic, volatile environment will require novel strategies and innovative approaches to talent acquisition and leadership development.  

Rethinking Leadership Hiring  

Healthcare has advanced in many ways—from the novel therapeutics revolutionizing oncology to the medtech devices that help patients live longer and healthier to new approaches to chronic care management. But when it comes to hiring leadership talent, the industry as a whole has stayed rooted in the past.  

In many health systems, there are fairly standard profiles of what a strong candidate for a leadership role looks like. For leaders who come up through the clinical track, organizations typically look for a degree from a top medical school, a residency at a leading teaching hospital, and a decade or more as a physician for a nationally recognized healthcare institution. For leaders on the operations or business side, there’s a strong bias toward candidates who have worked exclusively in healthcare, moving up through a conventional, fairly linear career path meeting very specific time and grade requirements. For example, the ideal profile of a hospital CEO candidate is often a professional who’s progressed from heading up a service line to serving as COO in a very similar organization. In a risk-averse industry like healthcare, veering outside those lanes is uncommon; and when it happens, it’s usually met with skepticism.  

But leading a healthcare organization through the kind of transformation the industry is on the cusp of takes skills and capabilities that may be very different from what many industry professionals acquire along a traditional career path, and very different from what hiring managers look for. 

While the word “risk” has negative connotations, if healthcare organizations hope to weather the storm and thrive despite it, they’ll need to acquire a bigger risk appetite when filling leadership roles. And while it’s vital for all organizations to develop a workforce with a diversity of personal characteristics (age, race, gender, and religion, for example), it’s equally important to view diversity through the lens of experiences and approaches.       

The most progressive organizations are pursuing candidates with non-traditional backgrounds who offer valuable parallel experience, often hailing from different sectors. Others are finding ways to cross-pollinate across industries—not just for business functions like IT, finance, HR, and marketing, but for clinical leadership roles, too.  

Consider the many highly qualified MDs and PhDs doing great clinical and applied research work and leading teams in pharmaceutical companies and other corporate settings. Undoubtedly, many have great value to offer academic-based health institutions and health systems. Likewise, a CTO who’s led major transformation efforts at a major manufacturer or high-growth tech firm may have just the skills and experience needed to lead a health system’s evolution.   

Filling a Trickling Pipeline 

Acquiring leaders with the skillsets that are most relevant for meeting today’s challenges also will require cultivating a more robust pipeline of up-and-coming leaders, ideally from the start of their academic careers. Tighter collaboration between the for-profit and not-for-profit healthcare worlds could help in achieving this objective.  

For example, teaming up with highly successful organizations outside of healthcare, like the Microsofts and Amazons of the world, could expose young professionals to broader experiences that would help prepare them to become the healthcare industry’s next generation of leaders. Since some of the most vital healthcare leadership skills—such as agile decision-making, cross-disciplinary problem-solving, and stakeholder influencing—aren’t unique to any single sector, there is tremendous value in learning from the experiences of successful organizations and leaders across the business landscape.   

Keeping the pipeline appropriately filled with suitable candidates also will require a more innovative approach to assessing future leaders. Past performance in a similar role has long been the focus when evaluating healthcare leadership candidates. Yet, when you’re hiring to lead a team, functional group, or entire organization through transformative change during volatile times, the past is certainly not prologue. 

Potential is an equally important measure of likely success for a healthcare leadership role. That makes it critical for the evaluation process to include assessments designed to ascertain attributes that demonstrate potential, such as problem-solving approach and willingness to take calculated risks. A rigorous assessment process can reduce risk and secure buy-in by backing up unconventional choices with solid data, especially in the face of pushback by the board, the executive team, or other key stakeholders. 

Reimagining Leadership Development 

As the healthcare industry continues its rapid evolution, it will be just as critical to equip those currently in leadership roles and those tagged as successors with the skills and experiences they’ll need to succeed in a new environment. By first taking a fresh look at the skillsets and competencies that tomorrow’s healthcare leaders will need, health systems and institutions can create novel development opportunities more suited to an industry in transformation.  

The most effective learning and coaching programs for healthcare leaders will likely span inter-professional, intra-company, and intra-industry approaches. And that’s starting to occur, albeit on a small scale.  

For example, the shift to collaborative medicine, with cross-functional teams working on treatment plans, offers a good model for training and coaching effective healthcare leaders. Just as clinicians hailing from varied backgrounds and specialties will view a patient’s situation from a unique lens, leaders from different functions within a health system or institution will look at systems, processes, and problems in entirely distinct ways. As but one example, clinicians are typically trained to reduce an individual patient’s risk, while leaders on the operations and business side are coached to manage risk across a functional group or an entire enterprise. 

Exposing leaders at various levels of the organization to the thinking of their peers, in a structured and methodical way, can pay significant dividends when it comes to skill building. It also sets the stage for more systemic thinking, equipping leaders to think more broadly about the organization as a system of business and empowering them to be more innovative in solving challenges.   

Intra-organization and intra-industry training and development will take more effort to put in place, but it opens the door to learning in a more diverse environment, through broader and richer experiences than one typically encounters within the confines of a single organization. By forming training-focused partnerships and alliances with other healthcare organizations or leading businesses in other industries, health systems and institutions can co-develop training and coaching programs that help current and future leaders build critical skills and capabilities.   

Healthcare organizations that step outside the box and take reasonable risks in acquiring, identifying, and developing talent will be well rewarded. The challenges may be formidable, but a wider field of vision and an open mindset can transcend them, enabling health systems and institutions to thrive in these volatile times.  


In a competitive and turbulent landscape, the Odgers Berndtson Healthcare Practice supports organizations in recruiting transformational leaders with the ambition and strategic vision to pursue new opportunities. And our Leadership Advisory Practice helps organizations develop leaders, strengthen value-creating teams, and prepare for what’s next. Learn how we can help your organization meet the challenges of a transformational healthcare industry. 

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