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Transforming Good Workers into Great Leaders

Supervising a team of 20 to 30 workers doesn’t come naturally. Here’s how three of Alabama’s largest employers help their leaders develop leadership skills.

William Ferniany, CEO of UAB Health Systems, meets with other leaders at UAB Health Systems, an organization with a commitment to encouraging leadership skills.

William Ferniany, CEO of UAB Health Systems, meets with other leaders at UAB Health Systems, an organization with a commitment to encouraging leadership skills.

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi declared that leaders are made, not born — and it’s every bit as true in business as on the gridiron. 

Since most of us aren’t hard-wired to become leaders, it’s up to employers to prepare their chosen few to climb the corporate ladder. 

In a 2015 study conducted by the research and analyst firm Brandon Hall Group, 55 percent of the 500 organizations polled reported a talent shortage and difficulty attracting talent. As a result, the focus is often on grooming existing employees for leadership roles. 

According to research by Oakland-based Bersin & Associates, U.S. organizations increased leadership development spending 14 percent to $15.5 billion in 2013. The study also found that companies with well-executed leadership programs outperformed their competitors.

Alabama health care and utilities sectors are meeting this challenge head on in an effort to turn good workers into great leaders. 

Nationally recognized UAB Health Systems has many programs in place to train and develop its next leaders. A search for a new leadership development officer is under way so the health system can provide even more leadership training opportunities, says CEO William Ferniany. 

Healthcare is a rapidly changing environment, says Ferniany, making it ever more important to train management for leadership positions and then retain the new leaders. 

“Employees react to their supervisors; they don’t know me,” he says. “And for some supervisors, managing 20 to 30 people doesn’t come naturally.”

UAB operates the 13th largest hospital in the country and runs at 90 percent occupancy, Ferniany says. “Even though our staff is stretched, they get high patient satisfaction.”  

UAB’s Collat School of Business and School of Medicine operate the Healthcare Leadership Academy for UAB Academic Health Center’s future leaders. Each year, the program accepts 24 participants who have toiled in demanding positions for two to four years. The academy includes classroom sessions, off-site team projects and experiential learning activities. About 80 hours of class participation is required, including team projects.

Other options at UAB Health Systems include:

  • Graduate Certificate in Healthcare Quality and Safety, a partnership among UAB schools to prepare clinical and administrative professionals to lead their teams on quality and safety measures.
  • Reaching for Excellence, a twice-yearly leadership development program created through UAB Medicine’s strategic plan.
  • Leadership Development Institute, which provides coaching and intensive leadership training.

Raheel Farough, director of managed care and venture support at UAB Health Systems, participated in the Leadership Development Institute. He also received a scholarship to pursue UAB’s Executive Master of Science in Health Administration (MSHA), designed to prepare participants for senior management positions.

“It’s been a very exciting and rewarding experience,” says Farough, who believes his newly acquired skills strengthen his performance in his current position and will increase his opportunities to grow within the organization. 

Rapid changes in health care make it ever more important to train management for leadership and then retain the new leaders, says Ferniany.

 

Despite the many options available for leadership training and development, Ferniany sees room for expansion. He would like to create a formal mentoring program, along with a more effective way to seek out potential leaders hidden within the workforce — then give them a chance to prove their ability and develop new skills.

At faith-based St. Vincent’s Health System in Birmingham, leadership programs address both general management skills and skills needed to lead health care as a ministry. The yearlong mission and mentoring program helps associates connect with the system’s mission, which includes spiritual reflection and development.

St. Vincent’s parent, Ascension Health, offers a two-year Executive Formation program that focuses on health care as a ministry. The new Leadership Academy for senior executives centers on leading transformational change through virtuous servant leadership. 

St. Vincent’s Health System CEO Neesya Biddle says the curriculum varies from program to program, and the Leadership Academy has the most extensive curriculum. National leaders speak on such topics as strategy formulation, leading through change, financial acumen and disruptive innovation. Thirty-two executives have finished or are currently enrolled in the Leadership Academy.

“As a former participant in all of these programs,” Biddle notes, “I can share that my own personal development as a leader has been accelerated and enhanced as a result of participation.” 

Biddle says St. Vincent’s has offered leadership training for a long time, perhaps as long as the hospital’s inception 116 years ago. Ascension Health, which was formed in 1999, created the Leadership Academy to strengthen competencies and encourage the innovation necessary to sustain its future ministry and leadership. 

Like St. Vincent’s, leadership training at Alabama Power is as old as the company, which was founded in 1906. 

Alabama Power Talent Management Manager Libby Browne says working for Alabama Power or “going with the power company” as it was then worded, has always meant not only a good job but also a chance for advancement. She says the company nurtured leaders without having an actual leadership program in place and used mentors to tutor employees long before it was fashionable.

Biographies of Alabama Power executives from the 1920s and 1930s list their first jobs as meter readers, surveyors and other entry positions, for example.

Today, leadership development programs at Alabama Power are designed to advance the leadership competencies and capabilities necessary for carrying out the company’s business strategy. Skills include business acumen and execution, communication, leading people and organizations, organizational savvy and personal attributes. Leadership curriculum includes assessments for self-awareness, leadership skills training and business and industry training, along with mentoring and networking opportunities. 

“I discovered that true leadership has little to do with me and everything to do with the team I lead,” says Compliance and Support Manager Tracie Hill, a recent leadership development program participant. “True leadership means being an involved, impactful leader who empowers individuals and encourages top performance while maintaining an inclusive and cohesive team.”

The adage “it’s lonely at the top” may in part have to do with a leader’s need to take potentially unpopular positions. According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, the critical challenge of leading is primarily the challenge of emotional courage — the ability to speak up when others are silent. 

At Alabama Power, Browne says the challenge is to effectively manage the many variables to short-term and long-term success. This includes ensuring that the right people are in the program, aligning curriculum with a business strategy, and making sure the content, facilitator and learning environment are effective. In addition, program assignments must create meaningful opportunities and accountability for participants so they can apply the knowledge and skills they learned to their work. 

Ken Taylor, editor-in-chief of Training Industry magazine and president of Training Industry Inc., says the best leadership teams understand that leadership development programs are vital to creating and sustaining the culture, and keeping employees aligned with and engaged in the company’s success. 

“Outlining the expectations, language and approach leaders have in every interaction with employers, customers and the community is core to meeting business goals,” Taylor explains. “This consistency allows employees to understand their environment and thrive with an awareness of boundaries and expectations.”

Jessica Armstrong and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Auburn and he in Birmingham.

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