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What health organizations are seeking in leaders, and what some are doing wrong


Sonia Millsom, the CEO of Oxeon, discusses trends in executive searches, some missteps companies are making when they recruit leaders, and getting diversity in the C-suite.

With many hospitals and health systems continuing to struggle, Sonia Millsom says they are looking for leaders who can help their systems recover.

Millsom is the CEO of Oxeon, an executive search firm that works with health systems and also helps launch health start-up companies. She tells Chief Healthcare Executive® that health systems are looking for leaders with some experience in reviving an ailing organization.

“Many healthcare organizations are in turnaround situations right now,” Millsom says. “If you think about the hospital systems, even some of the health plans, it isn't just just keeping the train on the tracks. You're seeing distress.”

“And so they're very much looking for more transitional leaders, people that can come in and really think about what that next phase of growth needs to be and be much more creative on the turnaround and what that looks like,” she says.

In a recent interview, Millsom talks about the trends in searches for leaders, the need for more diversity in the C-suite, and common mistakes organizations are making as they recruit executives.

(See part of our conversation with Sonia Millsom. The story continues below.)

Diversity efforts take a hit

Hospitals are starting to show signs of economic recovery this year, according to a report released this week by Kaufman Hall, the healthcare consulting firm. Still, many hospitals and health systems are working with modest operating margins, and some continue to struggle with staffing shortages.

In this environment, health systems are seeking executives with a proven record in leading a system, and those with experience in leading a troubled system to better days are highly desirable, Millsom says.

While some systems are recruiting women and members of minority groups for leadership roles, Millsom says there have been setbacks in bringing in more diverse leaders, as health organizations and boards are looking for experienced hands during difficult times. “I think it's taken a little bit of a hit,” Millsom says.

“Investors in particular, they like to see pattern recognition,” Millsom says. “And they want to see the people who have been there and done that. And historically … many of those people have been white men historically, who have done that.”

Oxeon is focused on improving diversity in healthcare leadership roles, and she says the company works to help executives from minority groups opportunities.

“The reality is that the healthcare leadership has historically been less diverse,” Millsom says.

While she acknowledges the value of experience, she says a more diverse set of leaders is needed to solve problems that healthcare organizations are facing.

“You really want the balance of yes, people who have some playbook and understand some of the lessons learned over the past, but also people who have new ideas and creativity are thinking much more tech forwardly, thinking about other ways to create solutions that go deeply into the patient experience,” she says.

“I think we're at a really interesting time of wanting to build diverse workforces, but also being very focused around the lessons learned and who's got the playbooks. And really, that does create some tension, candidly, as we're looking at these leadership teams going forward,” she says.

Oxeon is working to continuously expand the network of leaders for health systems to consider.

“If we are not consistently diversifying those talent pools and looking for new places to find people and to meet with them, then we aren't going to be able to tee those people up in these searches,” she says. “And so we need to continue to do that, and frankly, push the industry to do so as well.”

Mistakes to avoid

When health systems are looking for executives, they obviously want to find the right skills and the right fit for their organization. And it certainly makes sense to be thorough and deliberate.

In some cases, organizations are moving too slowly, Millsom says

“Sometimes, the larger organizations in particular, they take a lot of time,” she says. “A lot of things are consensus by committee, those types of things. And the reality is, with the market, even though it's gotten a little bit tighter, you still need to move quickly. You need to really manage a candidate's experience very positively, high -ouch engagement throughout that.”

Some organizations also focus too much on finding a recognizable name, rather than the right person to lead the organization, Millsom says.

“They want the name, they want the brand,” she says. “And again, is that the problem that you're trying to solve? Or do you want the creativity of somebody who might be a little bit hungrier, because they haven't ‘been there, done that’ before.

“Everybody likes to have the star and the name,” Millsom adds. “But you know, how do you really balance that again, with somebody who's got the hunger in the belly and the fire in the belly to actually make change in some of these organizations that are going through a lot of difficult times?”

Even with the turbulent environment for healthcare organizations, Millsom says it’s “a really dynamic time.”

“I couldn't be more excited about the opportunities of bringing new voices into the ecosystem in healthcare,” she says.

Millsom sees more opportunity for leaders from different backgrounds to play a role in healthcare. She’s seeing people move from health plans into health systems, and vice versa. “And that actually brings a lot of diversity of thought as well,” she says.

Non-traditional competitors in healthcare, including retailers and tech companies, can bring leaders who can think differently, she says.

“It's a really dynamic time to think very comprehensively and differently about how these systems work together,” Millsom says. “And ultimately, I think, hopefully it can bring some new ideas and creativity, because as I said, the patient experience is still very flawed, and it is for providers as well.”

(Coming tomorrow: What leaders who are pursuing new opportunities should be thinking about.)

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