Seven steps to leadership for healthcare professionals

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Published on LinkedIn May 27, 2019

Over the past two or three years as my career in healthcare has accelerated, I’ve encountered students from all healthcare professions wanting to learn how to begin stepping up a leadership ladder once they have graduated and started a career. Leaders in the healthcare field are becoming more visible in our digital healthcare landscape and are, intentionally or not, setting examples for future healthcare workers. Developing leadership roles in healthcare is unlike other industries given the delicacy of our profession and leadership trends focusing towards patient experiences rather than productivity or profits. Through my experiences both professionally and academically I have summarized some advice for new healthcare professionals interested in pursuing a future in healthcare leadership into seven simple steps.

Step 1: Know your stuff

Know the background of your work environment. This can take some time, so your first day on the job is not the best opportunity to seek out how you are going to lead a change and declare yourself a leader. Spend some time getting to know the workflow, supply chain (what materials are used, how they are delivered, etc.), staffing patterns, patient throughput, who your colleagues are, and their strengths and weaknesses. Knowing the background of your unit or department gives you a better foundation to implement change and predict what the consequences of those changes may be.

Step 2: Find a problem

Every workplace has issues and challenges, so finding one small one to take on as a side project shouldn’t be too difficult. You should pick a small but notable issue that involves more than just your department. For example, I noticed our pharmacy had been stocking the medication dispensing machine with 20cc vials of lidocaine, for which we were really only using 5-10cc per case. Since they are single-patient use, we were discarding a large amount of lidocaine. After doing some digging and talking to our pharmacy partners, the bulk of our lidocaine stock now come in 5cc syringes, which has drastically cut back on our lidocaine waste. This was a simple problem that didn’t require difficult policy or staffing changes.

The problem you choose shouldn’t require a huge escalation through the leadership ladder, like one requiring major construction or a huge capital funding project. It can be as simple as an interruption in patient throughput because of a default security setting in the EHR limiting a unit clerk’s access to the chart. The problem should however be annoying enough that you can drum up support for the change from colleagues.

Step 3: Create a plan

Do some more research and create a plan. Chances are if you’ve noticed a significant workflow issue, then someone else has as well. Ask around to learn how things have changed over time. Perhaps your proposal was already implemented and failed to resolve the issue. Talk with colleagues from different practices or departments to see what is successful in their environment and what could apply to yours. If there is any cost associated with your plan, your best action is to thoroughly research the potential costs and determine how implementing your suggested changes end up delivering a financial return.

Territory in the workplace can be an important obstacle, so to avoid the risk of overstepping someone else’s role, part of your background research should include finding out who has a stake in your plan. Learn who the players are and how they contribute to the department’s success. If you are proposing a change to your medication formulary, find out who is responsible for the formulary and open up discussions. Excluding them from your plan or ideas can burn bridges that may be hard to rebuild for later projects.

Step 4: Get ground level support

Talk up your ideas with other colleagues. Change is difficult, and most are resistant to it. Discussing the problem and your potential solutions in casual conversation is a great way to implant the thought among colleagues and to start generating support for your change. If your colleagues are interested enough they are likely to continue the conversation with others or help you with your supporting argument.

Step 5: Be seen and heard

While you are working on your big idea or change, get noticed among your team’s leadership and other high-ranking individuals by volunteering to join committees or special group projects. Your participation contributes to background research as you will learn who the big players are and will get an inside scoop on who to best approach for support with your proposed change. Speak up at these committee or group meetings, even if to just ask a clarification question. Having your voice heard means others will take notice of your presence and will begin to recognize you in your regular workspace. It also shows your interest in the success of your department or team because you are willing to step outside your normal job duties to take on extracurricular work.

Second, you will want to start building your online presence (and reputation) as well. As you learn about your selected issue, attend committee meetings, participate in leadership training, and write down what you have learned along the way. Publish your thoughts on an online blog or a free publication such as LinkedIn or Doximity. The more you write, if you write well and accurately, the more likely others will begin to see you as an authority in your field.

Step 6: Network

Your current job may not be the job that promotes you into your desired leadership position. It may not even have a potential leadership career ladder that you can begin to advance, so it is important to network with others in your field. Networking provides a cache of professional contacts that can guide you through your leadership quest or even potentially recommend you for open positions at another company. Networking is also a great way to learn other’s perspectives that can be applicable your problem-solving project. Examples of networking events include alumni meet-ups, social media gatherings, academic and industry-specific conferences, and even online events such as Twitter Chats or LinkedIn Groups.

Step 7: Speak up

Now that you’ve discovered an issue worth changing, performed some background research, created a plan, and started generating support from colleagues, you must present your solutions to upper management. Request an official sit down with your direct manager to discuss the issue and how you would like to help in solving it. You may even join the committee responsible for your plan and present it there. Succinctly summarize what you have discovered and why your plan will be successful. This may take more than one effort, so do not be discouraged if you are initially rejected. Depending on your proposal, you may be asked to present your plan to higher levels of management, so be prepared!

These seven steps may not necessarily happen in order, so jumping around shouldn’t be discouraged. In the rapidly growing and frequently changing healthcare landscape, good leaders need to be able to adapt. Progressing through leadership roles is not linear. Unlike its comparison to climbing a ladder, leadership development is more like mountain climbing. There is no direct route to the top. You must navigate around obstacles and sometimes will experience setbacks. Lastly, remember that leadership starts with attitude and persistence, not with a formal job title. That you are taking on a project to find a solution to a problem makes you, in fact, a leader.