Leaving the Ladder: Rethinking the Healthcare Executive Career Path

By Rachel Polhemus and Jason Petros

Mergers and acquisitions have influenced nearly every aspect of the healthcare industry in recent years, including the career opportunities available to rising executives. Hospital and health system consolidation has resulted in fewer CEO positions, more centralized decision-making, and often frustration among top leaders about their roles and responsibilities. For many executives, the rapid increase of matrixed mega-systems has upended the traditional path of advancement. Moving slowly but steadily up the ladder has gone out of fashion.

Jason Petros and Rachel Polhemus, who presented on this topic at this year’s ACHE Congress

But these seismic industry shifts can be viewed with optimism, given the right perspective. Rather than one linear route, the new healthcare landscape offers multiple pathways in which executives can “advance”.

It’s time for healthcare leaders to rethink career development. Prepare yourself to change positions more often than you might have once thought, sometimes switching to different departments or areas of focus to broaden your skills and perspectives. Consider the possibility of moving laterally – or even taking a step down – if it prepares you for a more meaningful career and builds your skills for new roles down the road.

Planning Your Path

Leaving behind the career ladder — and its clearly-defined hierarchy of advancement — may leave executives feeling unnerved. The key is to remain open and curious, both about your own unique career path and about the skills and competencies that best suit your organization and other employers in the marketplace.

For many healthcare leaders, the seismic M&A shifts have resulted in personal reflection and soul-searching. Keeping up with a changing industry requires executives to change the way they lead. Now is the time for them to stop expecting different results while making the same choices.

Here below are some additional recommendations:

Think about competencies suited for today. “The Well-Managed Healthcare Organization” is becoming less relevant, while a more facile organizational structure is more common. Executives who thrive in such complex, matrix-oriented systems have certain qualities fit for the environment. Among other things, they are:

  • Collaborative, team builders
  • Good communicators with varied colleagues
  • Culturally sensitive and committed to diversity
  • Committed to quality and improvement
  • Genuine and authentic
  • Patient-focused
  • Willing to take risks

Think experience, not title. Rather than thinking of your advancement in terms of position title, think in terms of experience. What do you see yourself doing not just one, but two jobs ahead of your current position? What competencies would you need to gain in order to advance to that second job? Your next position should prepare you more fully, serving as the stepping stone to a future rewarding role.

Stretch, but not too far. Volunteer for projects that provide stretch opportunities for your professional growth. This allows you to “test the waters” of a potential branch of your career path without committing to it fully. Be selective in your volunteerism, however; you don’t want to over-commit and under-deliver.

Keep a journal of successes and failures. See it as a chance to document what you’ve done and to improve yourself. When the time comes for your next job interview, you’ll have plenty of material to talk about.

Network with your boss’s boss. Once you have mapped out your advancement goals and the competencies you’ll need to reach them, try to build relationships with leaders who are further ahead of you on the path. Share positive feedback on a successful presentation or pass along relevant articles to higher-level executives. When appropriate, ask a question or challenge an assertion to stimulate additional dialogue. Don’t be afraid to sing the praises of your team to higher leadership.

Mine for mentors. No matter how much experience you’ve gained during your career, you can always benefit from mentoring. Whether through a formal program or an informal request to meet monthly over lunch, mentors can provide important insights into your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the broader needs of the organization and the industry. Pursue a diverse range of perspectives, including leaders from other departments and perhaps a leader from another organization or from a different industry.

In this era of change, no one has all the answers. Being open to learning new concepts and mastering different skills garners respect, from both your team and your supervisors. Remain curious and show your genuine desire to grow. Healthcare executives may have lost their footing on the career ladder of old, but it is possible to discover unique and enriching paths that lead you to career success.

About the Authors

Rachel Polhemus is a senior partner with Witt/Kieffer. Jason P. Petros is a consultant with the firm.

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