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It’s time to improve diversity in the healthcare C-suite

June 16, 2021
From the June 2021 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

By Sheila Talton

Whenever the topic of improving diversity in healthcare (especially in the C-suite) comes up, it’s natural to frame the discussion by citing statistics. For example, according to a 2019 study by the American College of Hospital Executives (ACHE) and the American Hospital Association (AHA), 89% of all hospital CEOs were White, yet only 60% of the overall U.S. population fits that description. This despite a 20-year effort to attract more minorities into undergraduate and graduate-level health administration programs.


I’ve lived the reality reflected in those numbers. Many times in my career I have seen White peers put into the pipeline to run very large businesses, when I had similar or even stronger leadership and management skills. While it’s true that a number of women and people of color make it to the vice-presidential level, once you reach the C-suite and above they become increasingly rare.

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Despite the larger percentages of women and people of color across the clinician landscape and in operational roles, healthcare is no different than other industries relative to lack of diversity in the upper echelons of leadership. There has been some progress within Blue Cross Blue Shield, where there are more women and people of color with broader roles, but most of the commercial payors and the providers still have a lot of work to do. (One notable exception is Kaiser Permanente, which had a visionary leader in former CEO Bernard Tyson, who, sadly, passed away in 2019. Tyson, an African American, reshaped Kaiser’s C-suite to include women and people of color.)

The lack of diversity in healthcare leadership is indicative of larger challenges we face as a society. However, by viewing the situation through the lens of societal or workplace fairness and equity, we tend to overlook another price we pay for our myopia and lack of outreach: A missed opportunity to improve healthcare overall. And that missed opportunity is our failure to fully leverage all the human resources available to the healthcare industry, if only providers and payors would cast a wide net.

There is a broad talent pool of bright, ambitious, and well-educated leaders-in-waiting who are eager to make their marks in one of America’s most critical industries. Yet they are not being given a chance to demonstrate their abilities or to assume greater responsibilities, even though so many women and people of color are more than qualified to fill leadership positions.

Fixing the problem
We can't afford to not be using all of the skills and talents we have available to us, both in healthcare and the larger business world. Unfortunately, as the numbers show, whatever the business community in and out of healthcare has been doing for the past two decades simply isn’t working. It’s time for some bold moves.

One thing healthcare organizations can do is use metrics to ensure that women and people of color are being given the same opportunities as everyone else – to be stretched professionally and to take on expanded roles so they’ll have the right experiences as C-suite openings become available. I’m not talking about job quotas. I’m talking about tracking whether people are getting the opportunities to grow and prepare for senior leadership roles.

Some businesses in other industries are making similar efforts to ensure they are providing equal opportunities to all promising employees. Healthcare, in contrast, generally lacks sufficient diversity plans and initiatives. Healthcare organizations could learn some lessons from proactive leadership diversity efforts being made in other industries.

One of the reasons business in general is being much more responsive and proactive is because its shareholder base, large mutual funds such as Fidelity or T. Rowe Price, are demanding these companies put a spotlight on and make diversity a priority. Many organizations in the healthcare space are not-for-profit, and thus aren’t under that kind of direct shareholder pressure. But there’s no reason the people on the boards of healthcare organizations shouldn’t be asking management about diversity plans and holding provider and plan leaders accountable for putting diversity at the forefront of their talent strategy.

Diversity in healthcare can extend beyond executive leadership to the supply chain. Is your organization buying its medical supplies, accounting services, legal services, and technology from diverse companies? If not, you’re shortchanging staff and patients because you could do better as an organization by cultivating a more diverse base of suppliers.

I also have advice for any young, aspiring professional: Don’t wait for someone to give you the opportunity. I call it “filling up white space” in every organization. There's always more to be done than there are people to do the work. If you volunteer to do something that really stretches you, and then you do it well and you continue to do it, people will notice and you will have successfully created strategic opportunities that you can leverage in support of your leadership goals.

Finally, seek out mentors and sponsors. Those two things are very different. A mentor is someone who can help coach you on your skills development, what to present and how to present it, and prepare you for taking on a new role or job. A sponsor is someone who, when you're not in the room, is an advocate for you to step into an expanded role, a new role, or a promotion. Aspiring leaders need both.

Sheila Talton
Healthcare organizations are missing out by not actively expanding their efforts to seek out and fast-track talented individuals across many minority populations. This isn’t just about “doing good” for these minority communities. It’s about serving the organization, its employees and, most of all, its patients more effectively by ensuring their executive search encompasses a vast, traditionally undervalued reserve of individuals who will bring exceptional skills and will to the job. That’s just smart business.

About the author: Sheila Talton is the founder and CEO of Gray Matter Analytics.

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