What were the Career Inflection Points of Women Hospital CEOs?

This second in a series of posts on women healthcare leaders, a study conducted with investigators from the University of Michigan, specifically focuses on the career inflection points we discovered and provides several highlights for each theme.

In our study of 20 women CEOs, we identified 25 career inflection points that fall into six themes: (1) education and training, (2) work experience, (3) career management, (4) work/life balance, (5) social support and networking, and (6) mentorship and sponsorship.

First, women CEOs described inflections related to education and training. All of the women obtained a graduate degree in early or mid-career. As one of them stated, a master’s degree in healthcare administration or the equivalent “was a requirement of the job.” Other inflections in this area included completing an administrative residency or fellowship, attending leadership training, and receiving executive coaching.

Second, the majority of women CEOs held the position of COO before moving into the CEO role—even if they had previously been in the CNO or CMO roles. Other work experience inflections were related to obtaining broad work experience, such as getting hospital or system-wide assignments. There were also several specific types of experiences that created inflections, such as obtaining clinical experience (i.e., later sought out for their clinical acumen and rapport with clinicians) and working with the hospital’s governing board.

Third, we found several inflections related to career management. Proactive actions included risk-taking through assignments or specific roles (e.g., moving from the ICU to an outpatient clinic) and voicing interest in higher level leadership work. Several women discussed moving to another organization in order to ascend into a CEO position because the odds of becoming CEO in their current organization were low. Most women did not develop formal career plans and did not aspire to be a CEO until the time they were working in the C-suite themselves.

Fourth, issues of work/life balance were described by nearly all the executives. They consistently described the importance of support from their significant other. They also described inflection points associated with having to move due to a spouse’s career or turning down positions they were offered because of family constraints. Several mentioned commuting in their job (across states or regions) so that children would not be moved.

Fifth, the women in our study discussed important social support and networking inflection points. In fact, this was the largest group of inflections mentioned, possibly reflecting the importance of workplace relationships. This included taking on high visibility positions, participating in professional associations and women’s groups, serving on community boards, and working with executive recruiters.

Finally, we observed inflection points related to mentorship and sponsorship.  We found clear evidence of sponsorship among the women interviewed—that is, someone with power and influence within their own organization or outside who advocated on her behalf.  While mentorship was also mentioned, sponsorship was clearly more important for career inflections in this study of women hospital CEOs. Mentoring and sponsorship were the only inflection points mentioned consistently at all career stages for these executives.

Tell us what you think: Can you identify with these inflection categories or themes?  Have you had a sponsor in your career? How did that relationship differ from your mentors? Finally, how might you and your organization support women in advancing their careers?

In future posts, we will outline more of our findings.

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About Christy Lemak

teacher and scholar interested in strenghthening leadership in health care

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