Moving into Healthcare Leadership Roles After Obtaining Your Advanced Degree

Holding an advanced degree is increasingly considered a requirement for upward movement through the leadership ranks in healthcare. As the consolidation of healthcare systems and the complex recovery from the pandemic continues to play out, the knowledge and skills gained from studying for an advanced degree are more critical than ever to navigate this complex environment.

There are numerous advanced degrees for a leadership or management role in the healthcare sector. Some of the most frequently encountered would be the master of health administration (MHA), the master of public health (MPH), and the master of business administration (MBA) degrees.

Most healthcare employers have policies taking educational level into account in determining salary offers. An automatic promotion process, however, is uncommon, so proactive steps are generally necessary to help fully realize the new opportunities that are now available to you. There is a fertile opportunity for personal rebranding in the period immediately after the award of your graduate degree, so complacency may well be the largest risk that exists here.

After several years of busy nights and juggling conflicting demands, you’ve shown that you are capable of accomplishing a great deal. You’ve shown this quite clearly to your current employer, and this is an important point to bear in mind. There are a number of advantages to applying for your first management or leadership role with your current healthcare employer that should be considered. This is particularly so if you have no previous management experience.

Remember, you have a knowledge base now that exceeds the scope of what you knew before. You probably seek greater challenges that build upon what you already know, more so than you did before. Use this opportunity to your advantage by taking a thoughtful approach as you determine the next steps. We will explore how to achieve a management or leadership role within your organization.

Lean On Trusted Mentors to Navigate Ambiguity

Building a relationship with at least one trusted mentor in your workplace can be critical for navigating higher positions within an organization.

The guidance provided by a genuine mentor can be invaluable in figuring out the right approach for you. This may be a suggestion as to what level of transparency is appropriate to have with your direct supervisor about the process. It might also be information to help you identify situational risks or workplace political ambiguities you have overlooked or misinterpreted. A mentor will share with you another perspective beyond your own. They provide especially valuable insight into gray zone areas that aren’t easily navigated following any specific guidance.

What is a gray zone area? Most of us understand the concept intuitively to some degree, but to be clear, gray zones are areas of ambiguity that can be risky to navigate. They include the types of activities and behaviors that shouldn’t exist within the workplace, but they do to varying degrees.

Gray zone behavior doesn’t break formal processes or policies but does not seem to be in the spirit of transparency or in the benefit of the organization. It is frequently self-serving to the initiator, often at the expense of others.

Hopefully, this is not describing the activities and behavior of your direct supervisor, but if it is, all the more reason to lean heavily on the guidance of your trusted mentor relationships.

Your Supervisor Can Be Your Strongest Ally—But Assess Carefully

In many situations, you will have a distinct advantage when being considered for a role at your current company over external candidates, assuming your work quality and reputation are in alignment with the expectations of the role.

Most companies, healthcare being no exception, prefer to promote talent from within the ranks, whenever possible because long-time employees can develop deep institutional knowledge that is hard to replicate in any other way. This type of knowledge applies to both pragmatic logistics in how to get things done and demonstrating your understanding of and respect for the cultural norms. Cultural norms are demonstrated in how you conduct yourself in interactions with colleagues at all levels. Indeed, your success in applying for internal roles can hinge quite strongly on these interpersonal relationships that you have developed throughout the organization.

Naturally, one of the most important relationships will be the one between you and your direct supervisor. Particularly within the larger healthcare systems, your manager can be one of your strongest allies. Your manager knows your work style better than most and they can help you identify gaps in your skillset for you to focus on developing your technical knowledge and interpersonal skills.

Of course, the world is not perfect, and there is no shortage of managers who will stymie attempts at advancement because they prioritize their personal benefit from the current arrangement. Such a mindset is short-sighted and can feel deeply unfair. It can make upward mobility more challenging, but it is rare that any one individual has such influence as to thwart you entirely, so it should be kept in perspective.

Try to consciously approach the situation with a neutral, strategy-focused mindset, and remove emotions from the equation whenever possible. In general, a conscious effort to follow a strategy-driven approach with an intentionally neutral and calm state of mind will improve your odds of landing any role within your career journey.

Unless there are particularly unusual circumstances in your relationship with your direct supervisor, transparency about your desire to move upwards within the company can be the best approach. Not only can it improve overall comfort with an arguably stressful process, but it also demonstrates a maturity to your supervisor that is expected of someone who would hold a managerial role. You will benefit from their genuine support.

How do you know if their support is genuine and if transparency is warranted? A great manager wants to see you succeed in your career and is grateful for the contributions you have made to their team as part of your journey. A great manager feels genuine happiness from your individual success, because they see the larger picture, and perceive this as a reflection of their own management abilities.

How do you see your manager treating other direct reports? Just as importantly, what does your mentor observe in these relationships and in your relationship with your supervisor?

The value of trusting, honest mentoring relationships for navigating the process of internal advancement cannot be emphasized strongly enough. If you do not have any of these mentor relationships, you may wish to consider putting forth efforts to cultivate these before you start taking steps to advance into a leadership role.

While you may enjoy a good relationship with your direct supervisor, they are not your mentor, at least not during the time in which you report to them. The best mentors often are those who had strong mentor relationships themselves, who seek to pay it forward, and cannot be influenced by any incentives linked with your trajectory in the workplace.

Soft Skills Assessment and Gap Closure

You probably encountered material related to “soft skills” in an MBA and or MHA degree program. Rarely will curriculum alone, however, be sufficient for most people to fully develop all of the components of oneself that are needed to effectively manage and lead others. Therefore, a focused approach on soft skills is highly complementary.

A critical self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and seeking out data-driven guidance to strengthen these weaker areas are important to maximize your chance of success in obtaining a leadership role. You want an interviewer to see you as someone capable of managing other people.

Being capable of handling other people is knowing how to apply both the soft and hard skills at the right times, even when the interaction or situation has become emotionally stressful for you or those you manage. Effectively navigating these inevitable scenarios requires sufficiently developed emotional regulation.

Indeed, emotional regulation may be one of the most important areas that determines whether a new manager will succeed or fail in a role, and interviewers specifically look for evidence of this skill.

In addition to emotional regulation, another soft skill area of great importance is your posturing or your self-presentation. This refers to how you dress, how you speak, the words you say, and, crucially, the words that you do not say.

Applying for internal positions with the support of your supervisor may mean your supervisor is using their political capital to help you. Political capital is slow to gain, and like any resource, when you use up some of it, you have less left. When your manager helps you in this process, consider that it takes place within a larger web of activities, communications, strategy, and goals of your supervisor. Do not be quick to discount what they have to gain or lose from how you perform.

Interview Scheduling May Feel Casual (It Is Not)

If you are selected to interview for a position in your existing workplace, do not let your guard down if the interview scheduling process feels somewhat casual. Remember: it is not casual for you.

As an internal candidate, the interviewer has ready access to an entire network of colleagues who have had some degree of interaction with you in your current role. This provides access to information that is much more extensive than what can be verified with the references of an external candidate. Be mindful of what further check-up your actions can invite if you are too casual at this time, and the perspectives that it can influence to your benefit, or detriment.

Until you are in a new role and have gotten a sense of the appropriate workplace decorum, always lean toward a more formal self-presentation and style of interaction. The congenial relationship that your manager or colleague has with the interviewer is not the relationship that you have with the interviewer—and not the one that you have with your boss either.

Taking on a leadership role means adopting a different way of conducting oneself. In particular, there are unspoken behaviors that indicate the appropriate level of deference to the existing hierarchal structure. These are some of the most valuable skills often gained from a relationship with a trusted mentor, because the formalities imposed on a direct report/supervisor relationship limit the nature and format of interactions to some degree.

This is not a negative thing, but one that needs to be recognized as fundamentally different from that of a mentor/mentee relationship.

Interview Preparation and Conversation Tips

It may be tempting to skimp on preparation for an internal interview—but do not. Refresh yourself on the data and history of the organization in the same way that you would for an interview at an external employer.

You want to be able to naturally align your individual goals with the goals of the organization. While this may seem like obvious advice, it seems to be frequently overlooked by internal candidates. Set yourself apart by approaching this with intent.

Consider how the type of role you apply for can fit into a cohesive narrative tying into your current role and the transferability of your value-added. Emphasizing past experience at the organization is generally prudent if you have never previously held a management or leadership role.

When asked about your biggest weaknesses, any response that indicates a lack of self-awareness on the lack of management experience is a red flag. In healthcare, this is particularly important because of the liability associated with the provision of clinical care, making the chain of accountability especially impactful when something goes wrong. If you have never managed others before, an attitude of unwavering confidence that you will have no issues transitioning into the role is a red flag for the person who would be managing you.

Articulating your understanding of hard and soft skills, and recognizing that management success is absolutely not built on hard skills alone, shows appropriate confidence in your ability to continuously develop yourself, without unintentionally dismissing the efforts that will inevitably be required of your future manager as they help guide you. You can conclude the response by sharing some of the specific actions you have been taking as part of the soft skills gaps assessment and development process.

Overall, it is a balance of confidence in your ability to grow, a demonstration of how growth takes place (e.g., identifying and strengthening weaker areas), and fundamentally, a recognition that your growth process does not take place in a vacuum.

Conclusion: Securing an Advanced Leadership Role in Healthcare

The period immediately after being awarded your advanced degree is a fertile one for self-development of soft skills and an opportunity to develop your personal brand to more closely align with the roles that you seek for upward movement. This is complementary to your degree, which largely demonstrates hard skills achievement.

Overconfidence in one’s soft skills can be perceived as a lack of self-awareness, which can, in turn, be perceived as a lack of respect for the time and effort of your future manager.

Emotional regulation, and how one postures themselves in spoken and unspoken ways, are often the most critically assessed areas not only to obtain an interview but to be offered a position from the interview. A balance of humility coupled with calm confidence can be more easily achieved by responding to questions with specific examples from your soft skills gaps assessment, and subsequent actions undertaken to develop weaker areas.

Above all else, do not downplay the inevitable work and time that will need to be put in by your future manager in managing you as a first-time manager.

Elizabeth Bradford Kneeland, MBA
Elizabeth Bradford Kneeland, MBA

Elizabeth Kneeland is a writer and entrepreneur living in Philadelphia. As a small business owner, she spends much of her time creating content, researching markets, and refining financial models. Her career has straddled novel operational and financial modeling, and traditional academic research within the healthcare sector, providing her with a unique perspective on programmatic development. She built the first for-profit telemedicine program for the University of Pennsylvania Health System in 2015. She also has helped build and scale sleep medicine startups in the U.S., China, and Taiwan.

Kneeland has co-authored publications in peer-reviewed journals on topics ranging from device validation to clinician-level educational interventions and has been an invited speaker at medical conferences throughout the U.S., China, and Taiwan. She has most recently contributed to discussions on healthcare technology as a research analyst focused on analytics, real-world data, and patient privacy legislation.

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