In Today’s Healthcare Climate, Actionable Succession Planning is Vital to Future Nursing Success

Cleveland Clinic nurse leaders follow a 5-step process

Five years ago, the Cleveland Clinic Nursing Institute was one of the first of Cleveland Clinic’s system-wide institutes to adopt a newly launched succession planning program designed specifically for health system leadership.

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Led by the learning and development function of Cleveland Clinic’s human resources team, the program focuses on the following: developing a diverse pipeline for key enterprise leadership positions; identifying, developing and retaining top talent; driving mobility across the enterprise; and increasing the readiness of potential successors.

“Cleveland Clinic first introduced the succession planning program to get a better, well-defined pipeline of potential leaders so that at any point in time if a current leader were to move on or retire, we would be better prepared to fill his or her position with a selection qualified candidates from within our organization,” says Nora Kelly, project manager for Cleveland Clinic Learning Academy. “Nursing, as the largest caregiver group, immediately saw the value in the program and has been a front-runner in terms of program participation – truly embracing the process from beginning to end.”

An evolution of the program

In the early stages of the program, the nursing organization focused on the executive nurse level, looking at candidates for executive chief nursing officer, associate chief nursing officer and chief nursing officer positions. Since then, the program has evolved and now includes director and manager level positions with the opportunity to further extend planning efforts to other nurse positions.

Cleveland Clinic Hillcrest Hospital Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) Sue Collier, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, notes that when the program first started, it was challenging to be truly comfortable in talking about finding a replacement for her position. But that soon dissipated she said as the overwhelming benefits of succession planning became clear.

“In today’s fast-paced, high turnover climate with retirement rates rising, succession planning is imperative,” Dr. Collier says. “When our nursing organization started the program, we were looking at candidates for the executive nurse level, and now our efforts are much broader as we are seeking out ‘top performers’ at every level. It is an incremental process that needs to start with staff nurses because there is so much for up-and-coming leaders to learn. It’s important to ensure you have the tools and resources in place as early as possible to help shape your future leaders.”

An overview: Cleveland Clinic nursing succession planning

So, what does succession planning for Cleveland Clinic’s Nursing Institute look like? It is an annual effort that begins with a review of the business climate and an assessment of talent needs. From there, current nurse leaders create ‘success profiles’ and develop succession plans for identified leadership positions. When each individual has completed his or her profiles and plans, the executive nurse leadership team holds a collective ‘talent review’ session, which leads to the actual development of potential successors. The cycle closes with ongoing tracking of successor movement.

Success profiles and associated succession plans

As project manager, Kelly works directly with the nursing team on succession planning and she says it’s imperative that current leaders dedicate this time and effort on success profiles and associated succession plans. When creating a success profile for a potential leader candidate, Kelly says the focus should be on four key areas:

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  • Knowledge
  • Competencies
  • Experience
  • Personal Attributes

“Once success profiles and associated succession plans are in place, we see a clearer picture of identified candidates’ needs. Do they need help with emotional intelligence, or guidance on executive presence? Or perhaps a candidate is ready to assume a leadership role, or we can see that they will be ready within 6 to 18 months,” Kelly says. “The information contained in the profiles and succession plans is the basis for a talent review meeting and determining how best to move forward with each potential candidate.”

Talent review session

During the talent review session, which includes all members of Cleveland Clinic’s executive nurse leader team, each current leader discusses and shares their recommended candidates by providing an overview of his or her success profiles and succession plans.

“This open forum style enhances succession planning not only for each individual Cleveland Clinic hospital or facility, but for the entire health system,” Dr. Collier says. “Each leader has the opportunity to share his or her thoughts on a candidate’s strengths, weaknesses and growth opportunities. And there have been cases where a successor is initially identified for one Cleveland Clinic location and position, and through this dialogue, we find they would be a perfect fit for one of our leader roles at another location.”

Dr. Collier says this scenario recently happened with the Hillcrest Hospital operating room (OR) nursing director, a candidate she had identified in her succession planning efforts, who was recently promoted to senior nursing director for the OR at Cleveland Clinic main campus.

The collaborative, half-day talent review also provides the opportunity for current leaders to determine if other talented candidates from throughout the health system should be considered as potential successors. Following the talent review, leaders establish goals and objectives for further development of each potential successor.

Successor development and tracking of successor movement

“There are many important components to the successor development step of the process,” Dr. Collier says. “Each candidate first needs to know that they have been identified as a potential successor – there is real power in this as you can gauge interest from the person, find out how we need to help them evolve so they are getting the opportunities for professional growth and development, and effectively track their progress.”

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Career dialogue with potential successors includes discussion points such as recent work and notable accomplishments, strengths, opportunities, career aspirations and how the caregiver feels he/she is perceived by others within the organization.

“We base our leadership potential assessment primarily on attributes such as ability, aspirations, agility, critical thinking and fit for the position, which allows us to develop ratings to determine when candidates may be ready to fulfill roles,” Kelly adds. “One of our key measures is how quickly and effectively can we get our identified candidates to the ‘ready now’ category by aligning the appropriate tools and resources needed for success.”

According to Kelly, the goal of this comprehensive process is to create planned movement through a combination of individual and group conversations, the creation of success profiles and action plans, and leaders talking to other leaders throughout the health system. Identified successors have the opportunity to participate in a number of developmental programs, such as “A Day in the Life of a CNO” or Cleveland Clinic’s “Emerging Leader” program, which is a great way to constantly assess staff who want to lead and help them refine their leadership skills.

Each year, the nursing succession planning process kicks off in May after annual performance reviews are complete and strategic planning initiatives for the year are cascaded throughout the organization.

“If the leadership team believes in succession planning, it sells itself. It can be overwhelming to get started, but it delivers a huge long-term benefit,” Kelly says.