Advancing Diversity in Health IT and Informatics Leadership

May 24, 2021
It is one thing to talk about diversity and inclusion in an organization's leadership, but another thing to make it happen

When my firm is retained to start an executive search, clients always ask about our ability and track record related to providing a diverse slate of candidates. Often they are seeking greater gender and racial diversity in their hires, though more and more organizations are defining diversity broadly and striving to build teams with individuals of myriad backgrounds who think and act differently and challenge each other.

Diversity and inclusion in hiring has become more important than ever and a central focus for essentially every role. This includes leadership positions in healthcare IT and informatics.

The Case for Diverse Leadership

Why is diversity in leadership important? First and foremost, it usually aligns with most organizations' core values and mission. Organizations that clearly define their purpose and mission, and articulate values to support them are positioned for long-term success and growth. Secondly, leadership should reflect the employees and communities they serve, so that leaders can better represent constituents' interests and needs. Otherwise, organizations risk becoming too insular and out of touch with those they serve. Third, diversity is good for business. Research has shown that diverse organizations are positioned to perform better, are able to attract and retain top talent, and improve their customer/patient experience and employee satisfaction. Hiring diverse leaders sends a message to staff that an organization values a variety of perspectives, experience and background, which can all lead to increased success. Finally, diverse leadership has the potential to boost innovation. Diversity of thought and behavior allows leaders to see multiple sides of an issue and to foster an environment in which individuals challenge one another.

Building a Pipeline

It is one thing to talk about diversity and inclusion in an organization's leadership, but another thing to make it happen. In healthcare information technology and informatics, there is a definite pipeline problem, in which there is a small census of diverse leaders.

Fortunately, there are ways that organizations can intentionally nurture and support a stronger pipeline:

  • Be active in initiatives by member organizations that support diversity in the health IT and informatics professions, such as those by HIMSS and AMIA.
  • Sponsor, support and invest in employee resource groups, mentoring programs and internships.
  • Support a Chief Diversity Officer role at your organization. This leader can be instrumental in not only championing diversity hiring, but also developing your diversity brand so that your organization appeals to diverse individuals who expect employers to align with their values.
  • Enlist leadership commitment and intentionality that developing a diverse team is important to them. Your CEO and top leaders should be directly involved in diversity initiatives.

Most of all, diverse leaders want to see others in the organization that reflect and represent them. They also want to see diversity in the communities in which they will be relocating. Candidates have strong interest in knowing there is representation in their local community.

Hiring: What Search Firms Can Do

  • At the start of an engagement, a search firm should have a clear, intentional sourcing strategy for how it will recruit a slate of candidates with broad representation:
  • It should have developed relationships over the years with diverse leaders across the industry who can be sources of nominations and referrals.
  • It should be willing and able to look outside of healthcare and cast a wider net for diverse candidates. For example, for CIO, digital and CISO searches, many healthcare organizations are willing to consider leaders from other industries.
  • A search firm itself should be connected and support organizations and initiatives that are furthering diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Bring Equity Into the Search Process

Once the executive search firm has done its work and provided a diverse slate of candidates, it is up to the organization and its search committee to ensure that diverse candidates are assessed competitively and fairly. Some suggestions:

  • Don't hire for cultural fit. "Cultural fit" often implies that the organization wants "more of the same" when it should be trying to create cultural difference and heterogeneity. Think of "culture add" instead.
  • Widen your definition of qualified candidates. You may need to broaden your thinking about traditional ways of assessing candidates. For example, a colleague recently pointed out to me that a racially diverse candidate may have shorter stints on their resume, not because they are a job hopper, but because their employers in the past may have been unwelcoming to them.
  • Leverage unconscious bias training. Many organizations now insist that their hiring managers and search committees undergo training, in order to make these individuals more self-aware and educated and less entrenched with the status quo. (Harvard University's Project Implicit tests can be very helpful as a place to start.) As Maya Angelou has said, "When you know better, you do better."
  • Use leadership assessments in hiring. Psychometric assessments can be valuable for introducing greater objectivity into the hiring process. The use of tools that measure personal and behavioral characteristics and tendencies has been shown to broaden hiring practices versus relying mainly on just interviews and past experience.
  • Offer meaningful onboarding. This includes making sure the new leader has the resources and support they need to excel early in their new role, but also making sure the leader and his/her family are connected in your community. I have seen newly hired leaders leave their positions far too early because they were never able to get comfortable in their surroundings. 

We are fortunate to be living in a time when organizations are taking diversity, equity and inclusion seriously in their hiring practices. While discussing and recognizing diversity are important, acting on it is an imperative. Leadership that has diversity is leadership that will provide innovation and positivity in moving an organization forward.

Hillary Ross is a managing partner and leader of WittKieffer's Information Technology Practice. WittKieffer is a global executive search firm dedicated exclusively to organizations that improve quality of life in health care, education, the life sciences and the not-for-profit sector.

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