One of the more disruptive events to occur in an organization is the turnover of a senior management position, especially that of the CEO or COO. Succession planning, which is a fundamental responsibility of the board, can help to maintain a seamless provision of health care services to the community by enabling the transition of leaders while sustaining the team and culture.

AtlantiCare believes the best way to prevent disruption to culture, operations and service is through building consistency and continuity in the fundamentals of leadership. To ensure that the direction, strength and quality of our health care services are not compromised during a transition, we focus on three core aspects of our organization:

  • mission, vision and values;
  • culture and character; and
  • staff development, which includes developing the core competencies of leadership.

In recent years, health care organizations have realized the value of having strong, well-defined mission, vision and value statements, and more important, engaging staff in their work by clearly defining the part they play in the organization's success. To that end, each AtlantiCare employee completes and carries a personal strategy map with his or her identification badge. This document reinforces mission, vision and values, and links the overall organizational goals to department and individual goals, which helps employees achieve organizational and personal alignment and accountability.

Developing Internal Talent

To maintain our fundamental mission, vision, values and culture, AtlantiCare has adopted a philosophy of promoting from within whenever possible. This approach benefits our staff because it recognizes, supports and provides opportunities for the growth of each employee. Our implementation plan is analogous to those used in sports involving game plans (or strategic planning), bench strength (or organizational depth) and training (or staff development).

Game plans: This process not only defines what we do but also how we do it, and forms the basis for our culture. At AtlantiCare, we use a rolling three-year planning process that involves the community, board and medical staff. It is structured so that business unit action plans and individual staff goals are aligned with AtlantiCare's strategic goals. And because the organization is informed about and engaged in the plan, we are able to seamlessly execute it during inevitable transitions in leadership. In addition, promoting from within also ensures timely and consistent transitions within this framework.

Bench strength: As part of our annual compensation process, the board receives a report on key executive positions, which identifies potential successors and their readiness to step into the role. In some cases, a successor does not exist and when this occurs, outside recruitment is necessary and becomes a priority to address for the coming year. If the successor is not yet qualified to move into a more senior role, AtlantiCare creates a development plan for that employee.

Training: AtlantiCare has multiple levels and types of staff development programs—our version of training camp and conditioning—all directed toward upward mobility within the organization. This supports the continuity of our strategic direction and culture and the staff's personal growth and development. Staff who are interested in exploring career progression into a more senior role may participate in:

  1. Pathways, a year-long curriculum designed to build leadership skills and competencies and to acquaint the participant with the leadership expectations of AtlantiCare;
  2. Foundations, an educational program delivered to leaders who are new to the AtlantiCare culture;
  3. Excellence, a curriculum designed to enhance current leaders' skills and prepare them for director-level and higher positions;
  4. High Potentials, a small group of individuals who have exhibited high potential over time and who are personally mentored by senior leaders to prepare them for a seat at the senior leadership table. When appropriate, these individuals also attend executive M.B.A. programs; and
  5. Top Tier Senior Leadership, where contingency planning takes place in case one of the top three executive leaders (system CEO, COO or CFO) vacates their position.

AtlantiCare also has adopted Servant Leadership, a more holistic approach to developing leaders and positively influencing culture. This philosophy turns the organization chart upside down so management provides the support staff members need to thrive in the organization.

Servant Leadership was first deployed at the senior leader level and consisted of a 360-degree assessment of servant leader behaviors, goal setting to address opportunities, and team learning to build community and understanding among the senior leadership team. In the fall, servant leadership training will be expanded to include two corporate staff departments and the High Potentials group. Implementation at all levels of leadership will occur over the next three years.

Long-Term Commitments

AtlantiCare has been using this succession planning method for many years, and among its many successes, two examples stand out.

First, a review of the resumes of our senior management demonstrates an average tenure with AtlantiCare of more than 10 years with most maturing from staff into senior management positions. Our medical center CEO, vice president of nursing, vice president of clinical services, and vice president of quality improvement all started as staff nurses. More recently, our system president and CEO of 21 years retired and the system COO, a 19-year AtlantiCare executive, assumed the role in a very smooth transition.

At AtlantiCare, we are very proud of the approach we take to succession planning and feel that it fosters financial viability, growth, and high staff and customer satisfaction, and it has ensured sustainability through change. Our strategic plan is defined through collaboration with our stakeholders and staff. Our culture is developed by the board and management and sustained through a deliberate succession plan that allows for seamless transitions and continuity in providing high-quality health care to our community.

A structured approach to talent development and investment in building a culture that values promotion from within the organization can contribute to long-term viability and sustain a vibrant and productive culture.

Gene Arnone (gene@arnonellc.com) is immediate past chairman of the board of AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Atlantic City, N.J., a 2009 recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.