Larry Garrison, my hospital systems chief operating officer, called me one morning with a request to help prepare those to whom we must turn over the car keys some day.
Like many senior executives, Larry recognizes that healthcares complexity, regulatory pressures and relatively low salaries are formidable hindrances to recruiting and retaining top talent. Development personnel such as myself are faced with finding creative solutions for equipping emerging leaders with the necessary tools and savvy, both for short-term organizational performance as well as longer-term succession planning needs.
Larrys call led to some significant brainstorming on the part of the Organizational Development Team and others within Health First, a 6,000-employee not-for-profit system serving Brevard County, Fla. What additional steps could we take to mentor our emerging leaders?
Health First operates three hospitals, with a fourth facility under way; an insurance plan; physicians offices; and community health services in a rapidly growing region of central Florida. Spread across so many locations in a county stretching 71 miles, current and future leaders of Health First need to be particularly skilled at understanding the different components of our business. The pace and demands of healthcare work already reinforce functional silos, which can prevent both clinical and professional support services leaders from gaining a global understanding of the organization.
As we began to craft the skeleton of a new mentoring program, it became obvious that a cross-functional aspect was non-negotiable. As Larry puts it, One of the challenges we have is making sure a person is able to utilize their leadership skills and talents in the best area. Cross-functional mentoring gives the opportunity for both the individual and more mature leader to see where that persons best potential can be.
To find the best candidates for the initial wave of the program, I contacted numerous senior executives and directors and asked them to target promising members of their respective management teams. I asked them, Whom do you see as filling your shoes down the road? I also asked them, Say, would you be interested in serving as a mentor in this new program? Hardly anyone turned me down.
I then took this eventual list of about 30 managers and 30 senior leaders, and scheduled three-hour training sessions they could attend together in order to get a feel for expectations and how to go about beginning a mentoring relationship. The sessions drove home an understanding of mentoring and its roots, the roles and responsibilities of both mentors and those they advise and how to get involved in the new cross-functional program.
I began the training by unpacking Health Firsts overall business strategy and leadership development framework, emphasizing the urgency and long-term value of intentional, cross-functional mentoring. The potential mentors and proteges shared their previous experiences with mentoring, and brainstormed the expected benefits and any potential barriers to the new programs success. I concluded the sessions with spontaneous role- playing involving myself and brave volunteers from the audience, simulating what an initial, ice-breaking mentor-protege conversation might be like.
Many of the potential participants told me they would feel more comfortable if there were no direct reporting from proteges to the mentor. They would be freer to speak their mind and admit their opportunities of growth. It also seemed wise that the intensity, duration and flexibility of the relationship should be determined by the individual participants.
Given this goal of matching younger managers with directors or executives from different business units across the system, I partnered with a vice president, Christi Rushnell, to craft a suggested framework for the mentoring relationships. The guide recommended a total of six monthly meetings, complete with opening questions and action steps such as stretch assignments (tasks that provide learning opportunities in functions or areas beyond a proteges past experiences and current level of competency) and reading materials.
I also sent the potential mentors and proteges a biographical form that requested information on professional background, strengths, interests, etc., and then used that data to make suggested matches. Proteges also listed their top three choices for a mentor, based on the pool of which executives or directors had made themselves available.
We asked each pair of mentors-proteges to fill out a partnership agreement, articulating their goals for the relationship. Every couple of months I check in with the participants to ensure they are on track toward fulfilling their goals and expectations.
Not quite five months into the program, 16 mentoring relationships are in place and feedback has been quite encouraging. Michelle Fox, Health Firsts patient-access manager, says the stretch assignments are increasing her confidence and skills when it comes to seeking buy-in from physicians. Foxs mentor, hospital Vice President Judy Killebrew, says the protege brings a new personality, a different way of looking at things.
Later this fall I hope to conduct a new search for the next wave of mentors and proteges and conduct additional training sessions. Reality tells us that not every single protege we develop will stay with Health First for the long term. It is imperative to continuously develop our organizational bench strength, and get as many qualified hands as possible ready to receive those metaphorical car keys.
John Michael DeMarco is an organizational development practitioner with Health First, Melbourne, Fla.