It's more important than ever for revenue cycle leaders to think seriously about succession planning as baby boomers begin to retire and the revenue cycle increasingly requires more specialized skills, says PeaceHealth's senior enterprise director of HIM, coding, and CDI.
Some revenue cycle leaders might disagree.
Finding exceptional revenue cycle employees can be difficult—so difficult, in fact, that senior leaders might insist that there's no one who could possibly do their job as well as they can.
But not only is everyone replaceable, it's also more important than ever for revenue cycle leaders to think seriously about succession planning as baby boomers get ready to retire and the revenue cycle increasingly requires more specialized, expert skills.
In her role at PeaceHealth, her previous role at UC San Diego Health, and in other positions, Birnbaum has made it her mission to cultivate the next generation of revenue cycle leaders.
"It's incumbent upon us as senior leaders to really develop a deep talent pool to provide opportunities to enable others to act and to lead by example," she says.
Birnbaum spoke about her proven succession planning strategies on the latest episode of the HealthLeaders Revenue Cycle Podcast.
Here are five steps to revenue cycle succession planning success.
1. Start early
Don't wait until you're faced with a staffing emergency to identify successors for key roles.
"Succession planning needs to begin the day that you enter an organization and … your position," Birnbaum says.
That's important not only for long-term planning but also for unforeseen situations, too.
Anything could happen at any time that could put someone out of commission for a while, so it's of "critical importance" for leaders to start ASAP to identify, train, mentor, and cultivate people who will be able to step up and get things done to avoid gaps in leadership.
That way, when an unexpected absence does occur, it won't put the organization "in a position where [it's] left high and dry and can't continue to function."
Birnbaum also notes that "succession planning needs to cascade down as well," so leaders should have plans in place for backups and replacements at every level within the revenue cycle.
2. Identify skilled leaders
A key element of succession planning is identifying the next generation of leaders, of which Birnbaum considers several factors. Besides demonstrating the core competencies of their role and having a strong grasp of technology, she looks at whether they have had cross-functional responsibility; a good educational background; and deep experience in various parts of the revenue cycle.
But there are other, less easily identifiable traits that Birnbaum looks for too, such as being able to look beyond the day-to-day tasks of their role with an analytical eye toward identifying strategies for success, innovative approaches to the work, and a big-picture perspective.
Another key is the ability to identify barriers to success and look at processes and benchmarks—as well as best practices within other organizations—to come up with different ways of problem solving.
3. Recognize soft skills along with technical skills
The technical and analytical skills it takes to make the revenue cycle run smoothly are critical skills for leaders to possess, but there are other skills that are often overlooked, including the ability to lead strategic initiatives, to collaborate with other leaders and employees, and to listen to their teams.
"I think that in terms of hiring managers, directors, and senior leaders in revenue cycle, a lot of times the focus was on the technical skills and really understanding how to manage that book of inventory [and] being very task and functionally focused," she says. But "as the revenue cycle lanes have matured, I really feel that many senior leaders are taking a step back and really trying to hire for those soft skills."
4. Be a mentor
Oftentimes, senior revenue cycle leaders are so driven by metrics and getting cash in the door that they don't take the time to listen and really become the kind of motivational, mentoring leaders that employees need to succeed and grow within an organization.
"As I look at my current directors who report up to me and all of my functional areas, I'm really working on coaching," Birnbaum says.
When she identifies people who would be a good fit for a leadership role in the future, she's very direct in sharing that with them. She also gives them increasing responsibility, encourages them to bounce ideas off her, come up with new approaches to existing challenges, or add new things onto plans that they've already built.
"That is really part of my coaching and mentoring strategy and approach," she says.
5. Realize successors might be different from you
In addition to recognizing—and embracing—that they're replaceable, revenue cycle leaders should also realize that choosing your successor doesn't mean choosing your clone who will do every task the same way it's currently done.
That's especially true these days, when uncertain times require leaders to pivot quickly and try new things.
"Although we feel that we have put our heart, soul, in our positions, and that we bring unique skills and talent to our positions and into the organization, ultimately, there are other folks out there that can take our place," Birnbaum says. "Their approaches may be different, their philosophy may be a little bit different, but at the end of the day they, they could dig in and do what's necessary to promote strategies and to enable the organization to reach new heights in all areas of the revenue cycle."
To listen to Birnbaum's full interview, listen to the HealthLeaders Revenue Cycle Podcast.
Alexandra Wilson Pecci is an editor for HealthLeaders.
Don't wait for an emergency to start succession planning.
Identify potential leaders who have both technical and soft skills.
Mentor your employees and embrace different ideas and approaches.