Succession Planning 2.0

Molly Rowe, for HealthLeaders Media, June 6, 2008

So, you're finally taking this succession planning stuff seriously. You've implemented an ongoing process to prepare a replacement should you one day retire, resign, or die; you're no longer taking a reactionary approach to finding future leaders; and you've got a strong team of executives, any of which could step in at a moment's notice and lead your organization to success. Yay, you! But you're not there yet.

It's not enough just to prepare your COO to fill your shoes one day or to train your controller to take the reins of CFO.

According to a 2006 survey by the American Organization of Nurse Executives, 62% of CNOs said they expected to make a job change in less than five years, and one quarter of those said they were planning to retire. In a few years, hospitals won't just face a shortage of staff nurses; they'll need experienced nursing leaders—front-line managers who've gained the leadership experience they need to take the reins of CNO. Chances are, in the future, you'll be easier to replace, but your middle managers will be irreplaceable.

Middle managers are an integral part of every organization. As one HR leader recently told me, "Middle managers run the hospital"—yet they're often the group most ignored. Healthcare leaders spend a lot of time training newly minted nurses and worrying about retiring baby boomers, but the middle guys—the 30- or 40-somethings that seem settled and content—are often neglected.

One of the biggest contributors to turnover in hospitals is a lack of leadership development. A nurse manager leaves unexpectedly and an ill-prepared floor nurse takes his place. Everyone who reports to her is miserable because she's a terrible boss, and she's unhappy because she's overwhelmed and inexperienced.

Front-line managers, especially nurses, need to be trained in management, but that training shouldn't come through promotions.

At Chilton Memorial Hospital in New Jersey, for example, succession planning includes middle managers. High performers are identified early and given opportunities to learn leadership skills through lateral moves that provide new experiences and management experience without the risks that come with a promotion. Chilton president and CEO Deborah Zastocki says this prepares front-line managers for future leadership positions without putting them in positions for which they're not yet ready.

Leadership development is not about promotions (and it's not about piling on the responsibilities of a higher position without awarding the title). To truly develop future leaders, you must expose them to new experiences and opportunities on a small scale, then provide feedback on how they're doing. You also want to connect them to mentors—people within your organization who are proven to be good managers ("good" is the key word here).

Succession planning is about more than just replacing you. It's about identifying, mentoring, and developing leaders outside of your executive team. Because, in the future, these are the leaders you might most need.

Molly Rowe is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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