Leadership Transition Planning and the Importance of a Warm Handoff

by Robert Thorn

As stated in Part One of this series, during a change in leadership, more than 30% of hospitals stop or postpone strategic planning; and, many strategic initiatives are abandoned.  25% of hospitals stop or delay the development of new services altogether. In addition, many new priorities can arise as a result of the transition.  Therefore, with the selection of a new leader, there comes an opportunity for the new leader and organization, division or department, depending on roles, to start off in the right direction.  This is especially true for smaller and rural healthcare organizations, as the need for focused strategic planning in rural communities has never been greater. According to the Journal of Healthcare Finance, “The hospitals that come up with a strategic plan and are proactive will stay open, and staying open means saving jobs and opportunities in the community.”  While strategic planning on the heels of a leadership transition is a method for getting a hospital or department back on track, it is much more than that.  If strategic planning can be the difference between a hospital staying open and closing, then it can be a difference between life and death of a rural community and its residents.  According to a University of Washington study, when an urban hospital closes, there is no material impact on its community.  However, when a rural hospital closes, the community mortality rate rises 5.9%. Therefore, ensuring a warm hand-off between the interim leader and the permanent leader through a short-term strategic (work) plan, no more than 12 to 18 months into the future, enough time for the new leader to get a bearing on his or her surroundings without being committed to long-term strategies, can make all the difference in the longevity of the new leader and the success and sustainability of the organization.

It is common for departments at every level to become confused as to what’s going on during and after a transition in leadership. Employees, among others, want to ensure the organization will have a long-lasting future. They want to know where the organization is headed and the steps it takes to get there. Effective departmental or organizational planning can help create clarity, improve communication and improve employee engagement, which in turns drives quality.  A strategic plan should address the key issues, the organization’s or department’s vision and goals, and the steps to get there. Whether or not a hospital or a department has an existing strategic plan, a change in leadership is always a fresh opportunity to look at things objectively to see where the organization sits in meeting its goals.  It is a time to check-in with key staff to gain a perspective on where they feel the organization or department is “hitting its mark,” or missing it.  After all, employees want to be recognized and heard. Using this post-transition plan, with the interim leader facilitating the process, addresses both long-term issues and those resulting from the leadership change.  Being transparent in this process can greatly impact productivity, engagement, and quality. Again, the interim leader can bring both objectivity and familiarity to the process, and it can be performed in a matter of days or weeks to ensure a smooth transition occurs while maintaining focus, momentum and direction.  In other words, it does not have to be overly complicated.  Extra skills such as recruitment and planning facilitation may appear specialized and uncommon; however, they are not necessarily so for a seasoned interim leader, and another reason to consider such a resource rather than sliding an existing resource into an interim leadership role.  By bringing in a leader who can address operational issues while also recruiting and then planning, organizations can leverage a more cost-effective solution, both in terms of time and dollars.

Once this plan is completed and the “warm hand-off” has successfully occurred, and the interim leader has left to tackle new challenges in other organizations experiencing a leadership change, improvements between former leadership and new leadership can be seen.  According to the American College of Healthcare Executives, these improvements include hospital culture, 73% of the time; medical staff relations, 71% of the time; employee morale, 71% of the time; board relations, 69%; community relations, 63%; and, financial performance, 60%.  As these statistics show, when leadership transitions are managed effectively, with the right “hand-offs” in place, organizations can respond in kind.

In the next Thaxton series, the question “How to select the right interim leader at the right time?” will be examined and answered.

Robert Thorn, MBA, FACHE, is an Advisor to Thaxton Interim Leadership and has served in both interim and permanent healthcare leadership roles across the country.