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Diversity at the Top

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Samuel L. Odle’s route to the healthcare C-suite has been fairly typical. He started his career fresh out of Indiana University graduate school in 1978 as an assistant administrator at Indianapolis’ Winona Memorial Hospital. By 1981, he oversaw several departments as vice president of operations at Methodist Hospital of Indiana.

As higher-ups transitioned out of the organization and he further proved his leadership mettle, Odle took on greater responsibility until he became Methodist’s chief operating officer in 1986. He stayed the course in 1997 when Methodist merged with Indiana University Hospital and Riley Hospital for Children to form Clarian Health, and he ultimately became chief executive officer of both 802-staffed-bed Methodist and 316-staffed-bed University in 2004. Now he’s added system and association leadership experience to his portfolio as Clarian’s CEO of Indianapolis Operations and immediate past chairman of the American College of Healthcare Executives.

Odle may have taken a customary route to executive leadership, but he doesn’t fit the typical healthcare CEO mold of a middle-aged white male. As an African American, he has encountered racial stereotyping from colleagues who questioned his qualifications and his ability to fulfill responsibilities. But throughout his 30-year career, Odle has maintained a positive attitude. “If you keep your composure and let your work speak for itself, you build a reputation for being reliable, honest and thoughtful, and you can overcome it,” he says. Although Odle is less of a rarity in healthcare leadership now, minorities and women still have considerable ground to gain in the white-male-dominated world of healthcare leadership.

Waking to the possibilities

While the head count of women and minorities has risen and positions like “director of diversity” are appearing more frequently on hospital rosters, leadership diversification isn’t always at the top of healthcare organizations’ priority lists. To some in the industry, diversity is holding its own despite being overshadowed by more immediate financial and physician relations issues. An American College of Healthcare Executives survey found that 5.2 percent of member CEOs were people of color in 2006, up from 3.3 percent in 2001. The number of female CEOs has grown from 8.8 percent in 1996 to 15.3 percent today.

However, from the perspective of George A. Zeppenfeldt-Cestero, president of the Association of Hispanic Healthcare Executives, healthcare is making little effort to emphasize diversity. “If you were to do a review of where the ranking Hispanics are in hospitals, you’d probably find them primarily in community outreach positions,” he says. “You rarely find them in the C-suite.”

The time being devoted to boosting diversity may be difficult to discern, but as communities become increasingly multicultural, awareness is growing that the healthcare leadership suite must follow suit. The risk of inaction, says ACHE President and CEO Thomas C. Dolan, Ph.D., is that leadership teams will find themselves out of touch. Going forward, organizations will need to think of diversity as a business strategy, says Odle. “To be successful, you have to listen to your customers and continually develop your services to better meet your customers’ needs,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure we’re listening with ears that represent the community we serve.”

What starts strictly as an attempt to reflect the community may produce unanticipated benefits, as well. The nine-member leadership team at Jackson, Mich.-based Foote Health System, which includes 470-licensed-bed Foote Hospital, boasts five women who serve as CEO, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, vice president of patient care and vice president of human resources. “I think more organizations are beginning to realize they also get a better collection of executive skills that really strengthens the organization if they have diversity,” says President and CEO Georgia Fojtasek. “You realize the real benefits, like diversity of thinking, after the team is in place.” That diversity of thinking and group dynamic, Fojtasek says, is not lost upon the system’s employees, 85 percent of whom are female. “There’s a recognition that our executive team mirrors the work force.”

To begin building toward those invaluable connections with community and staff, consider the following advice:

1. CEO = CDO

As with any internal shift, leaders must set the tone. “Your CEO has to be your chief diversity officer to send a message that the organization is serious about diversifying the leadership ranks and creating a welcoming environment,” says Dolan. With commitment from trustees—who also need to reflect community demographics—top management should engage human resources to formulate a diversity plan.

2. Plug in

Bring together people of color within the organization along with majority representatives to discuss what will be addressed in the plan. Several years ago, Zeppenfeldt-Cestero started a group for Hispanic employees at New York’s Montifiore Medical Center to address cultural issues and organize community outreach efforts. Such meetings allow ethnic groups to connect while making organizational leaders aware of the diverse nature of the work force.

3. Determine your baseline

For about the past 10 years, Clarian has employed a director of diversity who performs an annual analysis of the entire management structure—from trustees to frontline managers. The study pinpoints gaps in representation so system leaders know where they stand, says Odle. Financially challenged organizations can save money by assigning their HR department to do the analysis, he recommends.

4. Recruit proactively

Use the data to target where you need more females or minorities in leadership positions. Then, whether your new senior vice president is being recruited by your HR department or a national executive search firm, demand a diverse pool of candidates to be considered by your search committee.

5. Cultivate talent in-house

Many minority healthcare employees encounter such trouble breaking out of mid-level careers into executive leadership spots that they abandon healthcare for opportunities in other industries, says Dolan. Be mindful to help minorities and women within your organization develop their skills. Clarian pairs minority managers with mentors to head-off mid-career dropouts. Foote Health’s CFO gained leadership development through the system’s participation in the Health Care Advisory Board’s executive fellows program.

6. Reach out to grad schools

Not having leadership role models from their ethnic backgrounds can be a barrier to those who might otherwise pursue graduate studies in healthcare, says Zeppenfeldt-Cestero. Graduate schools and the healthcare industry can deepen the pool of diverse candidates by collaborating on internships, mentoring and job placement programs. Clarian’s relationship with the master’s program at Indiana University recruits students for 10 to 12 weeks in the summer to work with a senior executive and learn not only specifics about healthcare management, but also practical skills like time management and how to conduct a meeting, says Odle.

Kara Olsen is a staff writer with HealthLeaders magazine. She may be reached at kolsen@healthleadersmedia.com.