By Craig Pirner , Managing Director
A lot has changed for health care leaders in the past year—including the focus of and delivery mechanisms for leadership development programs. But one thing is clear: It's a demanding time to lead in health care, and the degree of difficulty is high. And that means that development support for leaders is critical.
As leaders continue to navigate Covid-19 and its attendant economic effects; grapple with diversity, inclusion, and equity; and face ongoing limitations on traditional means of assembling their teams, here are three questions to help you focus on the most meaningful leadership development interventions in the year ahead.
Question #1: Are leaders getting the community and skills they need right now?
Covid-19 is a marathon, not a sprint. We're seeing the mixed emotions that come with marathons. Many leaders feel pride in what their institutions have accomplished and are grateful for the camaraderie that has characterized the past few months. Simultaneously, leaders are exhausted: For months, they have faced ambiguity, translated for their teams frequently evolving guidance, and supported colleagues experiencing heightened professional and personal stress (while processing similar stresses themselves).
And many, if not most, health care leaders have performed admirably in the circumstances. Yet we must proactively address to what leaders are vulnerable during extended crisis: Unprocessed emotions risk becoming isolation, principled prioritization risks becoming avoidance, fast decision-making risks defaulting to command-and-control.
To ensure you address this question, focus on three leadership development imperatives:
- Foster a sense of community among leaders. Give leaders collective spaces in which to process what they have been and are going through. Ask leaders to name the mixed emotions they are experiencing; then, use your facilitative and consultative talents to dig beneath those emotions and connect them to patterns of behavior. Help leaders grapple with what behaviors might be counter-productive over the long-term if not appropriately regulated in the short-term.
For example, one health system with whom we work has assembled its senior leaders into small cohorts. Each cohort is participating in a 90-minute facilitated discussion about the emotions they have experienced and reflecting on how those moods affect the shadows they are casting as leaders. Evaluations demonstrate that the forums have lessened isolation—helping leaders understand they are not alone in feeling the emotional intensity of the past year—and that leaders appreciate a chance to process the paradox of needing to be vulnerable with their teams while also projecting confidence.
- Focus on a short list of developmental priorities. While there are some populations (e.g., high-potential leaders) for whom all-encompassing developmental experiences remain essential, for the vast majority of health care managers and leaders, Covid-19's impact on physical, emotional, and intellectual capacity justify focusing developmental interventions on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes most important right now.
- Ensure developmental interventions are digestible—but still leverage the value of synchronous gatherings. Again cognizant of Covid-19's effects on capacity, many institutions are limiting developmental interventions to 90 minutes—often, of course, delivered virtually, to maximize accessibility while many work-from-home and limits on gatherings apply.
That said, the synchronous nature of those interventions—leaders coming together, live, as a leadership community—has, for many institutions, never been more important as a supplement to asynchronous, digital interventions in the flow of work. The very act of gathering has particular cultural resonance now, and learning and developmental leaders are wise to capitalize on that resonance by incorporating approaches that emphasize community-building, collective processing, and shared learning.
Question #2: Are you preparing leaders to deliver tough messages?
As senior leaders turn their attention to positioning their organizations to focus on the strategic plan and recover from Covid-19, they are likely going to be asking a lot of the workforce. For example, in the months ahead, executives may request that the workforce:
- Become comfortable with greater flexibility in where, when, and how people work;
- Have a dual focus on continuing to navigate Covid-19 and advancing the strategic plan;
- Adjust processes and maintain productivity while budgets are rationalized;
- Incorporate new decision-making lenses around diversity, inclusion, and health equity while maintaining or increasing the pace of decision-making.
These senior executive requests will be translated and delivered through managers—and that will place a premium on managers who are informed, committed to effective communication, and empathetic.
Consequently, as you create your short list of developmental priorities, strongly consider three areas:
- The ability to be human-centered when communicating. Leaders who communicate clearly while demonstrating empathy for their teams will be much more effective in helping the workforce digest change; the next year is likely to place premium on human-centered communication.
- An understanding of inclusion and belonging. Help your leaders understand what implicit bias is, how it thwarts leadership purpose, and how to interrupt it. Challenge your leaders to create an environment in which they bring their full selves to work and encourage others to do the same.
- A willingness to deliver honest moments. Some of the messages leaders will have to translate and deliver in the year ahead are likely to be tough. Leaders may be prone to sugarcoat the challenge ahead or afraid that honesty will deplete engagement. They need help in how to delivery honest messages in ways that sustain morale.
Question #3: What shadow are senior leaders casting?
More than ever, the tone set (through word and deed) by senior leaders matters. Consider and seek input on what shadow senior leaders are casting with their leadership. In times of crisis, highly visible leadership is critical—yet, all too often, crises are when leaders reduce their visibility due to fear, endless meetings, or emmeshing themselves in operations.
Every successful senior leader knows that they must continue to invest in their own development. As you help senior leaders invest in the right developmental opportunities for this moment, strongly consider how your leadership development support for senior executives:
- Builds adaptive capacity. Successfully leading transformative change puts a premium on helping people navigate loss and/or fear of loss—loss and fear the pandemic may have exacerbated. For senior leaders, this adaptive work is often more important than the technical work of finding the right solution. Consider developmental programs that help leaders understand this and develop skills—like self-awareness, emotional regulation, and noticing—critical to leading adaptively.
- Fosters social support. Research tells us that social support shields executives from stress; those who possess experience both less stress overall and less severe stress. Yet, social support can feel frustratingly difficult to access as leaders rise to senior levels—as many executives say, “it's lonely at the top.” Create forums for senior leaders to access social support with each other and, where necessary, through external sources.
- Addresses stress management as a leadership competency. Despite their success, many senior executives may have developed bad stress management habits—and, consequently, may be contributing to "second-hand stress" in the ranks. Deploy educational interventions that foster self-awareness about stress and introduce healthier habits. Encourage conversation about resilience-enhancing habits that may feel "counter-cultural" due to health care's "I'm fine" cultural tendency and how senior leader role-modeling can fuel wellness.
It's a demanding time to lead in health care, and the degree of difficulty is high. Leadership will be a deciding factor in how organizations evolve their pandemic response and recover over the next year. Use the three questions above to inform your leadership development strategy—and don't hesitate to ask how we may help.