When it comes to retaining top talent, many organizations are missing the point, says Robin Sarkar, who believes the key is to focus less on annual performance reviews and more on meaningful dialogue. What that means, says Lakeland Regional’s CIO, is asking questions that focus on where employees want to go and how leadership can help them get there. In this interview, he talks about how this strategy has helped strengthen his team, as well as the work they’re doing to bring data closer to the point of care and push population health forward. Sarkar also talks about why innovation can’t happen without failures, and what it was like coming to healthcare from the business world.
- “Talent management is a major focus”
- Identifying the 4 major competencies
- Less performance review, more talent dialogue
- From the business sector to healthcare
- “It’s an industry where you can bring your mind & heart to work.”
- Adjusting to the “speed & cadence of healthcare”
- It’s not managing IT, but “how you leverage IT to benefit patients & providers.”
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We actually feel that the operational competencies — things like infrastructure engineering, Epic certification, network management, and application support — are core skills. They’re the price of entry. You’re working in healthcare or IT, but how do you get better? How do you provide exceptional care?
How do we work with our fellow health systems and demonstrate soft skills and conflict resolution skills? I think the day of an IT person just hunkering down and coding is way gone. We have to partner and work with our colleagues.
I really have a purpose every day. I consider my job not as an IT professional, but as a caregiver, and my job is to provide hope to our patients and customers and save lives. That provides a tremendous purpose and motivation for me and everyone else who works at Lakeland Health.
Healthcare, like higher education, has a heavily tenured leadership. So when a senior leader joins from another industry like I did, which is probably not the norm, it did take some time for my healthcare colleagues to understand how I could add value.
Gamble: With all these things your team is doing, it really highlights the importance of having a strong staff and having good people. I wanted to talk about your strategy as far as holding on to and really engaging with good people, and what that takes from your standpoint?
Sarkar: Sure. This is one area where I think we have done something good which would be interesting for others to look at. Talent management is a major focus. It’s a major focus for me as a CIO, and it’s a major focus in IT. We actually don’t have a performance appraisal system where every year somebody shows up and say, ‘Robin, how did you do? Did you do good? Did you do bad?’ Of course, we have regular dialogue, but what we do have is a talent management process.
What is talent management process? It’s focused on career development. It focus on aspirations. It focuses on training. We also focus on four competencies. We actually feel that the operational competencies — things like infrastructure engineering, Epic certification, network management, and application support — are core skills. They’re the price of entry. You’re working in healthcare or IT, but how do you get better? How do you provide exceptional care?
We found there are four emerging competencies which we are really focused on with our team in a structured way. Number 1 is project management. Everything is a small or big project — how do folks have the ability to manage stakeholders and look at issues and risks? Second is analytics. Not just the technical part of analytics, but the ability to move information to insight and wisdom, and how can we work with our clinical and revenue cycle partners to take action on the data.
The third is collaboration and partnership. How do we work with our fellow health systems and demonstrate soft skills and conflict resolution skills? I think the day of an IT person just hunkering down and coding is way gone. We have to partner and work with our colleagues. Finally, as we are constantly challenged to do more with less — and being in IT, we have an enterprise view — how can we develop lean and Six Sigma skills and performance improvement? How do we eliminate waste? How can we reduce the variability in our clinical operations? These are the four skills: project management, analytics, collaboration, and lean and Six Sigma which we are really focusing on in our IT team.
What we do, Kate, is we actually have a structured talent management template and we have a twice a year dialogue. I’m involved personally in this process. I, along with the manager or director, have a dialogue with each and every IT employee twice a year. It’s a little unstructured — how are you doing, where would you like to go, how can we train you and help you to leverage your potential to the fullest.
This is a really interesting process which I think has generated good results with our IT team. In the last three years, we have had 100 percent of our IT management positions filled up through our internal candidates through this talent and development process. We have also exported talent to nursing, to performance improvement, and to radiology. And when I say exported, I’m talking about management positions where we have developed talent and exported them to other parts of Lakeland Health.
Gamble: What do you think is the key to that success?
Sarkar: I think the employees feel there’s a plan, that there’s a career development plan. If I’m doing something today and there’s something down the road for me and the organization is investing in me, let me invest back in the organization as well as, opposed to performance appraisal where the customer is really the organization.
Gamble: Yes. That’s a really interesting initiative, and it’s nice to see because I feel like we’re seeing an awakening across a lot of industries when it comes to talent and really nurturing talent in the right way and moving away from, like you said, the annual appraisals where it’s a list of things you need to work on or what you’re doing wrong.
Sarkar: That’s correct. This puts the employee at the center of the dialogue and not the organization. During a performance appraisal, it’s what did you do for me last year. Our talent dialogue is what can I do for you?
Gamble: Right. I can imagine how you’ve gotten a good reception from that because it’s more of a discussion. And this is something you plan to continue?
Sarkar: Yes, we plan to continue to accelerate. And this is a continuous process. As an example, I had a talent dialogue today with one of our employees who’s done an exceptional work in MyChart. I sat with her and the EHR ambulatory manager, and we bounced around a few disruptive ideas. She said, ‘I’m very happy with what I’m doing.’ I said, ‘okay, but what about something else? Would you like to lead a project? Would you like to integrate a practice?’
We keep the dialogue a little open so that we can bounce around ideas on what’s best for her, what’s best for her career, and what can keep her really happy and excited with future challenges.
Gamble: Right. Now, looking at your own career, you’ve been with Lakeland for about three years?
Sarkar: Yes, this is my fourth year at Lakeland. Before this, I worked in different industries primarily in banking with Bank of America, and with Whirlpool Corporation for a large number of years. I have worked in China, Italy, and India before being stateside for the last 10 or 11 years.
Gamble: Okay, so definitely a broad perspective, and not the typical career path of the healthcare CIO. What made you interested in the first place in getting into this industry?
Sarkar: I had an exposure through membership of nonprofit boards. It certainly looked like an industry — and this has certainly been proved to me at Lakeland — where you can bring both your mind and heart to work. I really have a purpose every day. I consider my job not as an IT professional, but as a caregiver, and my job is to provide hope to our patients and customers and save lives. That provides a tremendous purpose and motivation for me and everyone else who works at Lakeland Health. We do have a very interesting program called Bring Your Heart to Work which is deployed here.
Gamble: What is that program all about?
Sarkar: That program is an opportunity for all of us to share ideas, to share stories, to share examples where folks were inspired to go above and beyond in helping and working with our providers and patients, and also to reward and recognize some of the stories which I’ve heard here, actual stories of people who have gone way beyond their roles to step up. When you hear this, you get inspired and you do something or somebody else does something. It’s like a collective rush. Sometime last year, our work in this area was even recognized through a write-up in the Harvard Business Review.
Gamble: That’s a pretty nice honor. So this really helps people learn more about the people they work than some of the surface things that we might usually hear.
Sarkar: That is correct. And also, it helps to keep a positive spirit. As you know, healthcare is a challenging industry where despite the best work which we do, sometimes you’re not always able to save the patient. You’re not always able to prevent bad things from happening. This is a way for all of us to rally together and keep positive in a challenging work environment.
Gamble: Right. What did you find to be the biggest challenge in coming into healthcare?
Sarkar: I would say one was learning and gaining trust of my clinical colleagues and my other colleagues. As you know, healthcare, like higher education, has a heavily tenured leadership — and by that, I mean a lot of leaders with decades of healthcare experience. So when a senior leader joins from another industry like I did, which is probably not the norm, it did take some time for my healthcare colleagues to understand how I could add value. I would say another challenge was adjusting to the speed and cadence of healthcare.
Gamble: In particular areas or just in general?
Sarkar: I would say just in general, Kate.
Gamble: Especially since coming from finance, I’m sure that there’s some big differences there.
Sarkar: Yes. One of the things I like about healthcare was the long-term orientation. I came from the for-profit industry, been at Whirlpool Corporation, and as you know, for-profit industries are sometimes subject to short-term pressures.
Gamble: It’s a certainly different cadence. Now, as far as taking on the CIO role, that happened somewhat quickly in. Was it just the right set of circumstances that led you to taking that step to CIO pretty quickly?
Sarkar: Yes. I would say, as in many other cases, luck plays a big factor. Sometimes you just happen to be the right person, placed at the right time.
Gamble: Right. And although you haven’t been in the industry too long, obviously, you’ve gotten very familiar with it. Any thoughts on where you’d like to see health IT go in the near future just as far as the continued role in improving patient care?
Sarkar: Yes. I think health IT needs to get more integrated with healthcare operations. I do see more and more physicians and nurses holding my job in the future, and so what’s becoming more and more important is not managing IT, but how do you leverage IT for benefit of our patients and providers.
Gamble: Right. Well, I think that answers the questions I had. I don’t know if there was anything else you wanted to add, but I wanted to thank you so much for your time.
Sarkar: Thanks a lot, Kate. I think we covered a number of areas. Thank you for the opportunity to speak, I certainly appreciate it. I feel blessed every day that I work in healthcare and at Lakeland Health, as I’m sure many of my other colleagues do.
Gamble: I think our listeners and readers will appreciate hearing about some of the unique projects you have going on. Thank you, and I’d like to catch up with you again in the future to see how things are going.
Sarkar: Wonderful, Kate. Thank you for the great work which you do as well.
Gamble: Sure, thank you so much and I’ll be in touch soon.