It’s an issue that seemingly has a simple solution. Health IT is facing a workforce shortage — particularly in areas like cybersecurity, and veterans often struggle to attain leadership positions after leaving the military. And yet, the two sides remain apart, largely because of a hesitancy on the part of healthcare organizations to extend opportunities to veterans.
The primary reason for this, according to Kimberly Smith, Senior Partner of the Healthcare Practice at Witt/Kieffer, isn’t an unwillingness on the part of hospital leaders, but rather a lack of awareness regarding the skills that former officers can bring to the table. In this interview, she speaks about the “unique voice and viewpoint” that military veterans offer, why the disconnect still exists, and what can be done to close the gap. Smith also offers insights on why this topic is so important to her, and how she plans to continue exploring it.
They value loyalty and integrity, and know how to put the good of the organization first. Contrary to conventional wisdom, military leaders learn adaptability and flexibility.
Veterans provide a unique voice and viewpoint that can truly benefit top-level operations and strategy. So it’s a matter of organizations needing to be proactive in seeking to incorporate veterans into their entire organization, including their leadership ranks.
When military veterans first transition into civilian roles, they might not always be able to articulate how their military experience translates into non-military work environments. Healthcare leaders need to dig a little deeper into the experiences of ex-military to find out what roles they’ve held, what skills they’ve obtained, and how this can benefit their organizations.
Simply because someone thrives in the military, it doesn’t mean that same person can’t thrive in a civilian health system. They are not mutually exclusive.
Gamble: In 2016, Witt/Kieffer published a report entitled “Answering the Call: Veterans as Healthcare Leaders.” What prompted Witt/Kieffer to explore this area?
Smith: Our firm has had a working group for several years whose mission is to support our clients in their hiring and transitioning of military veterans into healthcare executive roles. Veterans who were medical leaders in the services are a tremendous pool of potential candidates for hospitals and health systems to consider, and yet we saw that they weren’t getting due consideration for key roles. We want to help veterans, but also to make our clients more cognizant of veteran candidates and their strengths.
Gamble: Why were you in particular interested in the topic of veterans as healthcare leaders?
Smith: I come from a military family — my dad was a marine during World War II and my father-in-law was part of the landing on Omaha Beach. I have an affinity for the military and the way that it shapes leaders. As a search consultant, it was also easy for me to see that military candidates were being passed over because of some of the negative stereotypes that are really based on a lack of familiarity with how military experience can contribute to leadership acumen.
Gamble: Talk about the skills that seem to translate well from military leadership roles to other sectors like healthcare.
Smith: There are quite a few such skills. In general, military leaders are can-do people. Few situations frustrate them, so they are great problem-solvers and project managers. They value loyalty and integrity, and know how to put the good of the organization first. Finally, contrary to conventional wisdom, military leaders learn adaptability and flexibility. They must lead with finesse and empathy; they are patient-focused. They are not as rigid, or ‘command and control,’ as stereotypes of soldiers often suggest. These are just a few things that make them strong leaders.
Gamble: In the report, the majority of respondents said they believe healthcare organizations see military veterans as valuable employees; however, only around a quarter feel that organizations make it a priority to have veterans in leadership roles. What do you think are the main reasons for that disconnect?
Smith: I think it’s mostly a lack of awareness on the part of these organizations. Initiatives to hire veterans, if they exist, are often focused on lower ranks of soldiers. What organizations often overlook is that more senior personnel — military hospital administrators, for example — present an opportunity to diversify and strengthen the leadership team. Veterans provide a unique voice and viewpoint that can truly benefit top-level operations and strategy. So it’s a matter of organizations needing to be proactive in seeking to incorporate veterans into their entire organization, including their leadership ranks.
Gamble: One observation from the report was the thoughtfulness of the responses, and the passion that former military leaders have about this issue and their willingness to help pave the way for other veterans to advance to senior roles. What did this tell you about these individuals?
Smith: They do care about this issue and many others. They’ve lived this experience themselves — transitioning into civilian roles — and want to help others in doing so. It doesn’t surprise me at all. Passion is one of those positive qualities I see in candidates who are veterans.
Gamble: Let’s talk about the challenges in making the transition from the military to the healthcare sector. One issue that came up was a lack of appreciation for military system values — how can healthcare leaders develop a deeper appreciation for the skills that veterans have developed through their experience?
Smith: Primarily by getting to know these individuals and asking them about their careers. Especially when military veterans first transition into civilian roles, they might not always be able to articulate how their military experience translates into non-military work environments. Healthcare leaders need to dig a little deeper into the experiences of ex-military to find out what roles they’ve held, what skills they’ve obtained, and how this can benefit their organizations. And sometimes they may need to look past the nomenclature differences — for example, what our clients might refer to as ‘supply chain’ a candidate’s resume might say ‘logistics.’
Gamble: What can be done to help facilitate the transitions of military medical leaders into civilian healthcare positions?
Smith: Awareness and more coordinated efforts. Many health systems have initiatives to encourage the hiring and support of veterans, and groups such as the AHA and ACHE (American College of Healthcare Executives) have loose-knit groups for veterans, but there is not enough cross-industry coordination. We are open to ideas about this.
Gamble: What are the most difficult biases that military leaders face in being considered for senior roles in healthcare organizations?
Smith: There is a perception that the military has its own culture that is incompatible with other cultures. The reality is that military culture is usually a positive influence upon career professionals, but these are still individuals who have their own strengths and values and can freely migrate from one culture to another. Simply because someone thrives in the military, it doesn’t mean that same person can’t thrive in a civilian health system. They are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in military medicine, oftentimes officers are leading other officers who outrank them. Military hierarchy isn’t simplistic and all about pulling rank.
Gamble: Talk about the key steps that veterans can take to ease the transitions in their own careers?
Smith: Understand that many people have made similar transitions before them. Get advice from executives who have had this experience, and be prepared for some bumps in the road. Look for an objective opinion about whether your language and resume make sense to someone outside the military.
Gamble: Does Witt/Kieffer plan to explore the topic further?
Smith: Yes, we are maintaining our working group and always looking to write and speak about the topic. We want to connect with anyone who is interested in this issue. We’re also continually adding to the resources we have on our website.