Adopting a High-Potential Healthcare Leadership Model

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

A comprehensive review of existing research on high-potential healthcare leadership and the executive interview findings led to the identification of a four-factor model of High-Potential Healthcare Leadership. This model was developed to focus on those factors that are most relevant to leadership readiness in hospital organizations, while also remaining user-friendly for a range of practical applications. Summarized below, the model includes four key factors of high-potential leadership competencies:

Analytical Aptitude: This factor consists of personal characteristics and competencies that are associated with analytical abilities, including Strategic Insight, Comfort with Ambiguity, and Innovative Thinking. Strategic Insight involves examining problems from a multi-faceted hospital perspective, demonstrating a systems-view on the problems facing one’s department, and avoiding ‘silo’ thinking and decision-making. High-potential leaders demonstrate Comfort with Ambiguity by remaining open to new and diverse ideas and effectively coping with an increasingly complex healthcare environment that presents competing priorities and frequent changes. Emergent leaders exhibit Innovative Thinking by reflecting critically on existing practices and procedures and encouraging divergent views and perspectives from coworkers and colleagues across the organization. Below, a Nurse Manager of General Medicine describes the importance of Strategic Insight:

{High-potential nurse leaders] come with more of a global perspective than that a me, me, me perspective. When a decision is made or something goes into action, they’re questioning it but not in a way that they’re questioning against it. They just want to know why and if this was the right thing and what would they have done in this situation. You can tell that they’re thinking outside of the box and thinking on more of an institute level, versus my assignment, my patients, and my problem.


People Savvy. The People Savvy factor includes a set of competencies and skills that reflects high-potential leaders’ ability to build relationships and demonstrate basic, yet often assumed communication skills. Emergent leaders display Interpersonal Skills by demonstrating strong reflective listening skills, exhibiting effective written and oral communication skills, and adapting their communication style to diverse audiences, including peers, supervisors, patients, and stakeholders across the organization. Such leaders also effectively engage others in decision-making, forge strong relationships with colleagues across specialties and departments, and consistently give credit to others (Collaboration Skills). Finally, Organizational Awareness is the ability to effectively network with colleagues, understand organizational culture and its impact on decision-making, and recognize organizational politics. Below, a CMO notes the importance of Communication Skills:

You have to have a great capacity for listening and you have to be able to reserve judgment until you’ve heard all sides of a situation, which is not necessarily something that’s easy for us as physicians to do. We’re used to looking at it from our view, from our specialty, from those things that we know to matter most based on our area of expertise. You need to acquire the self-awareness to be patient enough to listen to all aspects of an issue, and then to incorporate all that you have heard, which means you really do have to listen so that you are getting the major points that everybody wants to express on all sides of the issue.

Leadership Capability. The third factor of the model is Leadership Capability, which includes a set of competencies that address both the aspiration for leadership positions and the capabilities for initiating and sustaining organizational change. This factor includes a fundamental desire for advancement or promotion to leadership roles, including a willingness to take on leadership opportunities via committees, projects, or other extra-role duties (Drive to Lead). Professional Credibility is characterized by perceived credibility from peers, direct reports, and colleagues as a high-quality clinician or professional in one’s field, a characteristic that is particularly important for clinicians transitioning into first-time leadership positions. High-potential healthcare leaders also effectively coach and develop others by bringing out the best of their team members and holding others accountable for performance outcomes (Develops People). Most importantly, Leadership Capability is marked by the ability to both initiate and successfully sustain change initiatives across the organization (Leads Change), as emphasized by a Director of Cancer Services:

[High-potential nurse leaders] come up with a lot of great things on their own. They’re working at the bedside, and they come up with these great ideas of how they can make things more efficient or improve the patient experience. They’re not afraid to come and say, “Hey, I have this idea. I was working with Mrs. Smith. Why don’t we implement this and I’ll go find some evidence base behind it?” They want to take on these types of things to improve the work environment, to improve the patient experience. They’re growing themselves. They want to grow in their role, so they’re seeking these things out and they want to be part of the change and part of implementing change?


Learning Agility. The final factor of the model, Learning Agility, consists of several characteristics that reflect the general capacity to quickly learn from new experiences and demonstrate accurate self-awareness. High-potential healthcare leaders demonstrate emotional intelligence by exhibiting an accurate awareness of both strengths and limitations in skills and knowledge while showing humility by acknowledging what one doesn’t know (Self-awareness). Emergent leaders demonstrate a strong interest in learning from others and from their own experiences, including perceiving failures as opportunities for learning and growth (Learns from Experiences). High-potential healthcare leaders actively seek performance feedback from others, including colleagues at higher organizational levels, and maintain openness to criticism (Seeks Feedback). Finally, such leaders demonstrate a remarkable ability to maintain emotional control and composure during difficult circumstances, remain positive in the face of setbacks, and demonstrate resiliency when challenged by others (Perseverance under Adversity). Below, a former physician leader and health system CEO, and current healthcare executive search consultant, highlights the critical role of Self-awareness:

Being self-aware is extremely important. Inherently, if you’re self-aware, you have sought feedback from others. That’s part of the process in which you become a leader. Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are and how do you make sure that you have a successful team? So how do you recruit someone around you that may bring a skill set that you don’t have.

Applications for Healthcare Organizations How can healthcare organizations utilize these research findings for addressing the fundamental challenge of identifying and sustaining a pipeline of leadership talent across leadership roles? Consider the following practical applications for enhancing your organization’s talent management capabilities:

  • Assess emergent leaders across talent pools (nurse, physician, and administrative) using 360-degree feedback or manager assessment of the High- Potential Healthcare Leadership competencies.
  • Execute annual talent review meetings in which management teams complete nine-box grids that utilize job performance (performance appraisal data) and leadership potential (High-Potential Healthcare Leadership competency ratings) to plot employees across talent pools.
  • Develop behavior-based interview protocols for leadership positions (both internal promotions and external hires) that reflect the High-Potential Healthcare Leadership competencies.
  • Develop ‘new leader’ onboarding programs that address the critical transition challenges faced by clinicians entering first-time leadership roles.
  • Enhance the annual performance appraisal process for strategic positions through personal development plans that reflect the High-Potential Healthcare Leadership competencies.
  • Utilize the High-Potential Healthcare Leadership model for designing an internal leadership academy or leadership development program that develops cross-functional cohorts of emergent leaders (nurse, physician, and administrative).


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