Published: Apr 16, 2020Time to read: 8mins Category: Insights

The 5 Most Important Skills for Healthcare Leaders

Successful healthcare leaders need clinical skills, business competencies, and interpersonal or soft skills to guide their organizations to success. But which skills are the real must-haves when recruiting or developing leaders to manage healthcare organizations and teams? In this article, we outline the five skills that are considered to be the most important for healthcare leaders, based on insights from industry analysts and healthcare professionals alike.

In recent months, healthcare experts have been in the news more often than usual due to the global pandemic, COVID-19. Nurses and doctors have been asked to meet higher than usual demands to help with the growing number of patients who have fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic. With the growing need to properly support our frontline workers during this global crisis, one element to consider is the capability of our healthcare leaders to handle such a shift.

Based on a study by Huron Consulting Group, 21% of healthcare leaders say their organization lacks a specific leadership strategy. Furthermore, 67% of respondents view innovation as more than new technology. Successful healthcare leaders need clinical skills, business competencies, and interpersonal or soft skills to guide their organizations to success. But which skills are the real must-haves when recruiting or developing leaders to manage healthcare organizations and teams? Like most things, it depends on who you ask.

Educational institutions with degree programs in Health Administration and Healthcare MBAs face this question constantly. Dr. Mark Boxer, Cigna’s Chief Information Officer, considers empathy, curiosity, and the ability to be ‘customer-first’ oriented to be the three emerging leadership qualities for healthcare professionals. Based on these insights and other surveys we found, we’ve amassed the five most important skills for healthcare leaders.

Insights from a Healthcare Leadership Success Story

According to a recent Forbes article examining the ROI of leadership development, Temple Health in North Philadelphia stuck out as a success story. The hospital has taken a two-pronged approach in identifying the most important skills for healthcare leaders. Its Director of Leadership and Organizational Development, Allyson Saccomandi, explained how the organization’s dual focus on employee engagement and development elicited successful results.

Part of the engagement strategy was to regularly survey employees and share their findings with individual team leaders. The next prong in their approach was focused on training employees who were not yet in a supervisory role but had the potential for leadership development. Using this strategy along with Gallup insights that asserted 70% of the variance in team engagement was influenced by managers, Saccomandi and her team were able to identify the following leadership skills needed to ensure employee success:

1. Empathy

To best explain empathy, it’s important to note the difference between having empathy and displaying sympathy. Sympathy is showing shared feelings of pity or compassion for another person. Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes and walk alongside them during times of sorrow. It’s not to say that sympathy isn’t a valuable trait, but empathy is a valuable tool in helping others feel truly understood and appreciated.

For healthcare leaders who want to make a habit of connecting with their employees, empathy can be practiced on many levels. Healthcare leaders should practice empathy on an individual level, but they should also encourage others within their organizations to do so. Some easy ways to implement the practice of empathy are:

  • Modeling the desired behaviors in front of your teams and encouraging others to do so. This includes managers and employees alike.
  • Show caring values with words and actions by taking a detailed look at common roadblocks or stressors and offering guidance or support in helping employees overcome obstacles.
  • Create ‘comfort zones’ for emerging Gen Z or other generations who may feel under-represented in their new environment.
empathy is a top healthcare leadership skill

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2. Communication

There are many ways we all communicate with coworkers or supervisors. Whether it’s an email, a video chat, or texting, it’s oftentimes best to choose the right delivery method for your circumstances. For example, I once had a boss who explained to me it was better for him to personally call an upset customer and schedule a face-to-face meeting so they could work through the situation.

I wondered why an email wouldn’t suffice and he responded by telling me this: “I choose my communication method based on the circumstances. I feel that bad news is best delivered in-person, wherever possible, as that’s how I would prefer to receive it.”

Not only does this practice show a willingness to solve problems expeditiously and appropriately, it also shows one’s ability to empathize with another. While the conversation may not be a positive one, it’s necessary in order to work through issues and come to a mutual place of understanding. A leader’s overall goal is to act as a coach, mentor, and a problem solver—all of which require great communication skills.

3. Strategic Decision-Making

A successful leader should be able to handle making various decisions on a daily basis; many of which could impact their employees. For instance, solving any employee problems within their own teams without escalating the issue demonstrates a leader’s ability to be a strategic decision-maker. This is an especially important skill for healthcare leaders to have as they navigate a high-consequence industry.

Being a strategic decision maker requires the ability to weigh potential outcomes on the workforce while still balancing the needs of the organizations a whole. Individuals who hold these positions must be ready to gather and analyze statistical data, information from others in the organization, and even third-party consultants.

Each one of us makes choices throughout our day, but making a strategic decision requires forethought and (once again) excellent communication skills. Once a decision is made, leaders must be able to clearly communicate directives to others in their organization.

4. Self-Awareness

Touted as one of the capabilities most necessary for great leadership, self-awareness can either mean success or failure for healthcare leaders. In addition to being fast-based and demanding on a daily basis, healthcare is also a constantly and rapidly evolving industry.

Healthcare leaders must be sufficiently nimble enough to quickly grasp and devise strategies to manage change or solve problems. By being aware of their strengths and weaknesses, leaders can identify gaps in their own abilities and compensate by leveraging new tools or processes.

Furthermore, being self-aware can also mean leaders are better equipped to develop future successors. By identifying similar strengths in an employee they are considering for a promotion, the self-aware leader can seek out those who have the capabilities necessary, yet lack themselves. Finally, healthcare leaders should be open to continuous learning programs for themselves and their employees. Curiosity (both internally and externally) is a key element of self-awareness.

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5. Customer-First Oriented

Healthcare is a fast-paced, high-risk industry. Every decision healthcare practitioners make at work affects a patient’s wellbeing and potentially, their life. A good leader is one that can navigate within a stressful environment without creating additional stress by reacting impulsively.

Leaders who take a customer-first approach should also encourage employees to share ideas, information, reactions, and perspectives—while actively listening. This investment signals respect and open-mindedness, and a commitment to continuous growth. It engages employees in their work, their teams, and the organization as a whole.

And, importantly, it clearly demonstrates that leaders value employee contributions and input on strategies. By sustaining employee engagement over time, great leaders elevate their organizations—lowering turnover and improving patient experience, quality of care, and health outcomes. Adopting this ‘outside-in’ viewpoint means healthcare leaders should design solutions to meet customers on their terms.

most important skills for healthcare leaders

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Recruiting and Developing the Leaders You Need

It’s worth noting that these competencies are all soft skills that can be difficult to assess in a candidate. For many hospitals and managed care organizations, the more promising strategy may be to invest in cultivating leadership potential in house.

Your performance review process creates an excellent opportunity to identify employees with leadership potential, coach and mentor them, and create targeted L&D plans to enrich their soft skills. Performance management also holds the key to sustaining skills for employees who take on leadership roles—and for the leaders you have in place today.

It’s critical that healthcare leaders be measured against these competencies—effectively creating a common level of accountability across your organization. And by creating an environment in which employees are able to provide continuous feedback on their leaders, you can evaluate their effectiveness. Remember, while skills are applicable in any industry, healthcare leaders must not only exhibit and build these traits, they must do so under pressure.

Strong leaders must know both how to manage their own emotions and work-life balance as well as how to support and empower employees to take care of themselves. So when your healthcare organization recruits new leaders or seeks to identify and grow leaders from within, your HR teams will do well to focus on these five core skills.

Editor’s Note: This article, originally published in October 2018, has been updated with new information.

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