Executive Interview: Mentor Material

Is building the next generation of leadership your problem … or somebody else’s?

Grooming your successor is a tricky business. It’s true that by grooming an up-and-comer, you look good to your boss. You’re the ultimate team player, and all that. It can be professionally satisfying to help advance someone’s career. On the other hand, there’s always the possibility that the person you’re grooming is so good, or that you’ve done such an outstanding job in moving him or her along, that your boss will replace you with him or her. Or what if, after you’ve invested time and effort training someone to assume a position of responsibility in your organization, there’s no position big enough for him or her … in which case, he takes off to another medical center – maybe a competitor?

Yes, grooming your successor has its upside and potential downside as well. So where does that leave the supply chain executive? The Journal of Healthcare Contracting recently put that question and a few others to Jim Gauss, president and CEO of Witt/Kieffer, Oak Brook, Ill., an executive search firm serving healthcare, education/nonprofit, and corporate/insurance/managed care clients.

Journal of Healthcare Contracting: “Grooming a successor” seems to be a phrase used mostly by business owners and CEOs. Does it filter down to the VP and director level? Would “grooming a replacement” be a better phrase?

Jim Gauss: Either way. Obviously, the larger the organization, the more likely they are to have a formal succession planning and mentoring program in place.

JHC: United Parcel Service is said to have a strong culture of workforce development. This process begins with workers in the warehouses, where many of the company’s top execs reportedly started their careers. Can hospitals or IDNs – which simply don’t have as many opportunities as a huge company like UPS – develop a similar culture?

Gauss: Absolutely. There are certain organizations that have enough critical mass for this kind of work. Organizations such as Catholic Health Initiatives in Denver, Colo., and MemorialCare in Long Beach, Calif., have formalized their succession planning processes. Some have actually developed leadership academies, where they do, in fact, pluck people throughout the organization who are seen as potentially upwardly mobile or promote-able, and put them through a series of classes, with the intent of growing and promoting from within. Obviously, an outgrowth of this will be that smaller organizations or even health systems will lose some people over time. But if you create a culture like UPS or other health systems, which are known to do this work well, it will help with recruitment and retention in what remains a talent war. People will recognize you for your work. So the net is a big plus.

JHC: How healthy is the concept of mentoring in healthcare organizations?

Gauss: It’s my personal feeling that we got away from mentoring in the late ’80s through maybe the late ’90s. I think there’s been a substantial resurgence of interest in it, and in succession planning.

JHC: Why do you think the concept fell out of favor for a while?

Gauss: When I got into this field 25 years ago, there was still a belief that [administrators] would provide at least informal mentoring. Networks were alive and well. There was a kind of a fundamental give-back-to-the-field culture. I think that changed a little bit. We probably needed to toughen up in a more competitive environment, and to become more careful of how we shared human capital resources. Also, people were taking multiple layers out of their organizations; I don’t think they were providing as many training opportunities as they did before. There was a lot of discussion about, “Can we survive long-term?” We got away from building the next generation.

I think the industry has matured from a human resources standpoint. I see some incredibly capable organizations and human resource executives and CEOs taking the lead and understanding that the kind of thing that UPS is doing can be a huge competitive advantage.

JHC: Can you talk about the risks involved in succession planning and mentoring?

Gauss: When there aren’t enough promote-able opportunities, people leave. But I think you’re seeing more people “come home” than you used to, because their organizations have kept an eye on them, even after they’ve left.

But the fear is real: You will lose some people if you do your work well. If you consider that a defeat, then save your energy [and don’t embark on this path]. But if an organization can train and promote from within, then competitively, they don’t lose a heartbeat when they have to make a change in leadership.

JHC: When should an organization look outside for talent?

Gauss: The strongest organizations have a firm growth-from-within culture. But they understand that bringing in outsiders with new ideas and a fresh way of looking at old problems can build the strongest company. On most of our high-level searches, there is invariably an internal candidate or candidates. And I would submit that more and more of those people are being selected, even when a search process is initiated and seen through. But there are equally as many situations where the need for a fresh outlook is important, or where the organization hasn’t done as good a job in succession planning as it should; or politically, the internal candidates carry too much baggage.

JHC: If a hospital or healthcare system lacks a culture of workforce development, can an individual VP create it in his or her own department?

Gauss: You can create at least a solid foundation of informal mentoring. In the health field, a lot of people identify not only with their department and hospital, but also their profession. (The other place you see this is in education, where faculty identify equally with people outside the organization as within.) So you can have some successful mentoring that way. But if we’re really looking for people to develop the capacity to grow in the organization and maybe grow outside their profession – to grow as a manager instead of a clinician, or to grow as a senior vice president or chief operating officer candidate – then the culture of the organization has a profound impact.

JHC: Is there a downside to mentoring – for the mentor, protégé or institution?

Gauss: In its purest context, mentoring is the development of a 1-on-1 relationship with someone, to help them grow personally and professionally. If there is a downside, it is this: For every three investments you make, you may only have one really strong, long-term winner. I think the time commitment and emotional commitment, and the desire to be available to a person who’s on the way up, should not be underestimated, especially in a business where time pressures are pretty substantial. If you don’t invest as you should, you can probably have a more negative impact than if you hadn’t started the work in the first place. Think of a mentor getting only half the mentoring experience he or she needs. Think of an organization going into succession planning and then pulling the plug.

People I have worked with have found the mentoring experience to be very gratifying. They get a chance to somehow leave a legacy behind. I would submit that the benefits outstrip the negatives.

JHC: Other pitfalls of mentoring?

Gauss: Oftentimes, people make the mistake of trying to be the person’s friend more than being a mentor or boss. There’s a fine line, but it’s important to note.

JHC: What words you can offer VPs of resource management/materials management/supply chain management relating to mentoring or worker development?

Gauss: There is a little bit of a risk to all this, particularly, grooming one’s successor, where you’re not in a position to leave and there are no other options available. And if you train too many qualified people around you, there’s always the risk one could take your job. But if the organization conducts itself in a constructive and straightforward manner, the likelihood of that is not great. It takes a reasonably secure, smart person to serve as a mentor to begin with.

Obviously, there’s a certain personal gratification that people get out of the mentoring experience. Clearly, the industry needs it. Beyond that, there’s a certain ability to give back to the field in a way that you can’t in many other ways.

The other important point is this: If you serve as a mentor to several well-qualified people, you have developed a network which can provide you counsel, whether they stay in the organization or go elsewhere. If you’re wise, you’ll hire people who are strong, and then use them as a resource when you need to.

One last point: Clearly, in my view, there is and will remain a severe shortage of good, qualified supply chain executives in the field. The ability to identify people with those experiences, or even in other areas of the health system, who might be able to move up the ladder in the supply chain business, is a real opportunity.