Trends show that if it hasn't happened already, hospitals and health systems soon will have members of Generation X vying for top executive positions. With the baby boom generation reaching retirement age — and given the growing complexities and demands of health care leadership — many of the most experienced candidates are leaving the industry. While traditionalists (born before 1946) and baby boomers (born 1946–1964) still have a slight majority in the health care workforce, Generation X (born 1965–1980) and Generation Y, or Millennials (born after 1980), comprise a rapidly growing minority.
Whether or not the board selects an up-and-comer to take the reins, trustees should strongly consider these changing dynamics. Today's CEOs need to be able to adapt to new technologies, workflows and industry practices while still working with established leaders and employees. Don't discount experienced, adaptable baby boomer candidates, but consider keeping Gen X applicants in the mix. A Gen Xer can be the right fit for the organization, but the board needs to understand how he or she differs from boomers as well as the unique skills he or she can bring to the table.
Tech Savvy Required
Amid all the changes in care delivery and payment models, tech-savvy leadership is essential. Electronic health records, mobile technology and wireless access to health information are the norm, and your board, as well as your employees, need a CEO who understands them. Members of the C-suite may not have to navigate complex hardware and software on a daily basis, but they do need to negotiate intelligently with vendors and technology personnel.
To that end, a Gen X CEO could be a boon to a health care organization. Xers came of age with the first home computers, and most were attending college or working their first jobs when the Internet emerged. They've been quick to embrace smartphones, tablets and other major mobile technologies, and they're used to the now-common practice of conducting personal business online. They also have a deep understanding of social media and digital marketing, both of which will be crucial in retaining and growing market share in the future.
Leveraging mobile and social technology allows Xers to work smarter and more efficiently. The board's consideration, then, will be whether a Gen X leader's working habits can be integrated into the organization's current culture. And if the board opts for an older, more experienced and traditional CEO, he or she must be up-to-speed on the latest medical technology.
A common critique of Gen Xers is that they are rebellious, individualistic and skeptical. Xers are thought to resent meetings and group work, and they are seen as suspicious of both entrenched institutions and proposed organizational changes. Given their willingness to change employers, they also may be perceived as disloyal, or at least more loyal to themselves than to their employers.
While these tendencies can create misunderstandings with boomers and traditionalists, they also pave the way for fresh, innovative perspectives. Younger CEOs might not have the same "live to work" mentality as their older colleagues, but they will be ambitious and driven to improve their organizations. Their innate skepticism also can provide an edge when negotiating with unions, medical manufacturers and other key players in health care.
Ultimately, onboarding a Gen X CEO likely will call for frank discussions about the organization's direction and culture. Hospitals should take into account current workforce generational dynamics, future hiring practices and their place within the industry as a whole. Boomers still account for nearly half of the health care workforce, so a Gen X CEO's individuality will need to be tempered with deference to current policies and work practices.
More than any other trait, attitudes toward work-life balance sharply differentiate baby boomers from Gen Xers. Older executives usually define themselves by their careers, and they're often willing to put in significant overtime with little or no additional compensation. They want high salaries, of course, but the money is an accompaniment to their unwavering dedication to the tasks at hand.
Conversely, even the most ambitious Gen Xers tend to see work as just one aspect of their lives. They want their careers to accommodate their personal lives and, given the vast improvements in communications technology, they often expect a great deal of flexibility in their work schedules. Compensation is important to them, but they may value extra free time over extra pay.
While these conflicting expectations can cause friction between a Gen X CEO and older board members, an organizational shift toward balanced work lives may be a net gain. Although Generations X and Y are a growing minority in health care, the field's lack of flexibility actually has driven out the Millennials over the last few years. Gen X's understanding and promotion of the work-life balance could help to reverse this trend. And, in the long run, every organization will need to attract Gen X and Y employees.
Keeping Xers in the Mix
So, if board members are considering a Gen X CEO, they may want to tailor hiring practices to reflect these changing dynamics. Don't be too quick to rule out candidates who raise common red flags: adequate time for family and friends; the desire for predictable, moderate workloads; the expectation of scheduling flexibility, particularly where meetings and other group activities are concerned; and the ability to take yearly vacations. While CEO candidates of any age are going to be hardworking and driven, these concerns are becoming increasingly important to executives, middle management and front-line employees.
People from all generations can bring many of the most important qualities to the table. Younger CEOs are known for their technology skills, helpful skepticism and fresh perspectives on work-life balance, but adaptable baby boomers also can display these attributes. In either case, the board should select a future-oriented candidate who can lead the organization to long-term success.
Pam Sime, M.S., SPHR (Pam.firstname.lastname@example.org), is executive vice president and practice leader, MSA Executive Search, an Integrated Healthcare Strategies company, Kansas City, Mo.