Leading the way: Two SSM Health Care programs take the initiative in grooming future leaders

Any company would like to retain its most promising employees, and most also recognize the value of promoting from within and giving opportunities to people who have flourished within a particular corporate culture.

But whether a given company has the foresight to really take steps to do something about employee retention and succession planning is another story.

Count SSM Health Care of Wisconsin, the parent of Madison’s St. Mary’s Hospital, among those companies that see the value of “growing their own.” The company’s Leadership Pathways and Emerging Leaders programs are vigorous efforts aimed at doing just that – with an eye toward strengthening the company by retaining employees who share its values.

“We’ve got our core values, so I think it’s important that folks who are part of the organization understand the importance of that and how that is part of our culture,” said Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff, the director of the child care center at St. Mary’s and a participant in SSM’s Leadership Pathways program. “And so it’s kind of that natural progression when you can promote those folks from within.

“I think the learning curve really is a lot faster, obviously, because we’re part of the organization. We’ve been here so we know the culture; we know what it is that we’re trying to accomplish here, so I think there’s a lot of value in that.”

Both the Leadership Pathways and the Emerging Leaders programs are relatively new initiatives. Leadership Pathways was launched as a pilot program in 2009, focused on developing promising managers and directors into stronger leaders, with the ultimate goal of preparing them for vice presidential positions and above. It’s a corporate-wide program that’s administered out of SSM Health Care’s headquarters in St. Louis.

As part of the program, each participant becomes a team leader on a project. Hargrove-Krieghoff, who participated in the Leadership Pathways pilot program and also was involved in the corporate planning process that helped bring it about, worked on increasing the number of patients who had advance directives upon discharge from St. Mary’s Hospital.

“We know that it’s important, obviously, for patients to be able to tell us what their wishes are,” Hargrove-Krieghoff explained, “and as a hospital, we want to be able to care for them in the way that they’d like, so I took that on as my project, as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the clinical side.”

Hargrove-Krieghoff said her work on the project, which helped bring about marked improvement in the percentage of patients who had advance directives, not only gave her experience in the clinical side of the industry, but also allowed her to grow as a leader and helped boost her confidence.

“I have an MBA from the University of Wisconsin, and so obviously you learn a lot about leadership and all those kinds of things,” said Hargrove-Krieghoff. “And so really being able to take what I learned in that program, and what I learned in the leadership program, and apply that to the clinical side, you start to recognize that there certainly are some differences.

“But I don’t have to be a subject matter expert in order to help create change and to improve processes and improve patient care at the hospital. So that was kind of an ‘a-ha’ moment for me.”

Room to grow

Hargrove-Krieghoff’s experience in the Leadership Pathways program also helped her in her role as a mentor for participants in the Emerging Leaders program, which is facilitated locally through SSM Health Care. Emerging Leaders is similar to Leadership Pathways in that participants attend classes and work on a specific project. But the focus is on identifying non-titled individuals who have the potential to achieve a director or other titled position.

Jake Verbeten was recently promoted to information systems manager for St. Mary’s Janesville, a new SSM hospital that’s opening in January 2012.

Verbeten started in the Emerging Leaders program nearly a year ago along with 14 other participants (Hargrove-Krieghoff is one of his mentors). Verbeten says his leadership abilities have always been a personal strength, and the program has allowed him to

really focus those abilities. He worked with St. Mary’s Renal Services to identify a software solution and new processes to help them become more efficient and provide better care to their dialysis patients.

“From the outset, the director whose area that I’m serving in my project turned over the leadership to me, and really has deferred to me for decision-making processes other than [for really] major decisions,” Verbeten said. “So I would say that it has definitely expanded my skill set when it comes to leading and when it comes to really getting everyone on board with one direction and toward the common goal.”

Verbeten also said the program helped him in those areas where he didn’t have a natural aptitude.

“The things that I’m prepared for more now are more along the lines of proactively dealing with my own weaknesses,” said Verbeten. “One of the things I recognized through this process is everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. I have my own, and some of those weaknesses at the beginning of the process were kind of exposed in some of the initial steps of my project, and I recognized those, and it kind of caused some stumbles – nothing major – but it caused some stumbles along the way.

“I think what I recognized was I got to catch those chances for stumbling before they came up and redirect myself down the correct path. I think that was probably one of the biggest things I learned through this process that’s going to help me in the future.”

Verbeten and the other Emerging Leaders graduates will take part in an April 28 celebration, during which they’ll give their project presentations. Hargrove-Krieghoff said that one of the key points she tried to impart to the Emerging Leaders participants was how to manage change in an industry that sees a lot of it.

“We’re in an environment that’s continually changing and improving, so we have to be able to kind of move with that,” she said.

In the end, making one’s employees feel appreciated and teaching them how to handle new challenges can help with employee retention strategies as well. That, of course, applies both to SSM’s Emerging Leaders and Leadership Pathways programs.

“People want to be recognized, you want to retain your talent, and [Leadership Pathways] is a program that recognizes individuals; it provides them extra development,” said Craig Brenholt, director of human resources for St. Mary’s Hospital. “It’s also a lot of hard work for these folks. It’s extra hours, but I think they see the investment the organization made in them, and that always helps with retention.”

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