Four years ago, the leaders of St. Louis-based SSM Health Care, which operates 21 hospitals in four states, created a program to boost diversity in its executive ranks.
The system's leaders wanted the executive suites to reflect the makeup of the communities the system served.
"We knew we had to step up our efforts," said Yvonne Tisdel, corporate vice president of human resources and system diversity. "We had a lot of people of color on board, but they were all on the bottom."
Besides trying to increase the number of minority executives at SSM, the system developed several strategic initiatives to tackle the issue of diversity, Tisdel said.
SSM polled employees on their feelings about chances for advancement into the boardroom. Officials also created a mentoring program in which minority employees enrolled for a year to learn what talents are needed to graduate to the executive level.
"A lot of people were really skeptical," Tisdel said. "Now people are glad to see senior management is committed."
SSM reported in June that minorities fill 9.8% of its professional and managerial positions, up from 9.4% last year. From 1997 to 2002, the number of minorities in management and professional positions increased 31.7% to approximately 1,000, Tisdel said. The management and professional positions range from chief executive officers and corporate vice presidents to directors of radiology and patient services, she said.
The system aims to have minorities fill 10% of the management and professional ranks by 2004. The benchmark for the healthcare industry was 2% in 2000, according to the Institute for Diversity in Health Management, while the national benchmark was 13.2%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The movement to increase the number of minorities in the executive suites was an easy decision, Tisdel said. "We now know our communities are becoming more diverse," she said. "If we don't understand their health needs, we are not going to be able to help them." The system earmarks $7,000 annually to operate the program, Tisdel said.
In the four years since the Diversity Mentoring Program was launched, 88 employees have graduated and many still maintain relationships with their mentors, she said. SSM does not track promotions to the executive levels for the employees because it does not want to tie promotions to participation in the program, Tisdel said.
The challenge of encouraging diversity at the executive level is not reserved for not-for-profits. For-profit hospital chains also are tackling how to increase the number of minorities in corporate boardrooms.
For HCA Chairman and CEO Jack Bovender Jr., a member of the Institute for Diversity in Health Management, creating a diverse pool of executives at the 176 hospitals in the chain is a top priority, spokesman Jeffrey Prescott said. The Nashville-based chain also has created a diversity program similar to the one at SSM.
HCA's Chief Operating Officer Development Program trains young executives in the intricacies of becoming hospital leaders. The program, which includes a curriculum that teaches clinical policies, financial issues and human resource practices, is targeted to minorities. The current 38-member class includes 13 minority members, Prescott said.
"It is one area that we have the opportunity to provide access to leadership positions for minority candidates," Prescott said. "We intentionally seek them out."
"Our leadership ranks should be reflective of the community at large," Prescott said. "That is one of the things (Bovender) wants to see improved."