Emerging Women Health Care Executives Require Juggling as a Key Competency

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For women and those who identify as women in health care, being promoted to a first-time leadership position can be fraught with challenges. Statistically, women don’t put themselves forward and apply for management positions as often as men, and therefore, they continue to be underrepresented in leadership circles (even more so for women of color). What’s more, formal workplace leadership training can be sparse, and thus learning new skill sets—and filling knowledge gaps—while simultaneously juggling the responsibilities of a fast-paced new job can be highly stressful. 

“You go from feeling amazing, because you’re a really strong individual contributor, to ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ and feeling like you’re messing up a lot of the time. It’s a terrible feeling,” says Karen A. Curley, program director for Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Emerging Women Executives in Health Care program. 

So how do these emerging leaders find a version of balance while still being effective in their new roles?

Why Emerging Women Leaders Leaders Face Imposter Syndrome, Knowledge Gaps, and Overwhelm

Obviously, the details will vary depending on the environment—there can be nuanced differences in clinical, research, and operational spaces. But there are some surprising commonalities in the challenges new leaders face. 

Women, in general, are set up for failure when it comes to balance, because it’s impossible to juggle the amount of things that women prioritize, both inside and outside of their professional setting. Added to this is the challenge of balancing accountability with empathy. As the number of balls to juggle increases, this becomes even harder. The leader may start to lean away from empathy in order to get things done and that can lead to a reputation of lacking accessibility or flexibility. Over indexing on empathy places additional burden on the leader and the team may start to flounder due to slipping deadlines. Either way, “the leader can feel caught in the middle and unsure of what to do next,” says Curley.

There’s also an assumption that a person who’s promoted vertically will just naturally embody or absorb leadership competencies as they begin their new role, she explains.

“When emerging leaders struggle with gaps in their knowledge and expertise, they can experience unnecessary negative feelings, whether it’s depression or just a feeling of failure. There’s also a team cost and an organizational cost, where work doesn’t get done in the way that it needs to get done. There can be a financial cost and implementation cost as well.”

How Women Executives Can Find Proficiency, Ensure Efficacy, and Obtain Balance

The advice for emerging women leaders can vary according to the person—each leader will have different knowledge gaps and different leadership styles, explains Curley. But there are a few important elements that serve as the backbone for developing effective leadership and work-life balance: 

    • Crafting a competency model for leaders: In every organization, there should be formalized expectations across categories such as “business acumen.” “Anyone stepping into a role can do a self-assessment, and then can ask questions to get feedback: how am I doing against this metric?” says Curley. 
    • Developing self-awareness: As Curley puts it, “Where are my natural strengths? How do I leverage those more? Where are the places that I trip myself up?” 
    • Seeking out adaptive learning: Depending on one’s knowledge gaps, a new leader might need to obtain further training on subjects like budgeting, conflict resolution, negotiation, or problem-solving. Where can that learning take place, and how?
    • Expanding one’s network: Curley notes that the network of a new leader will need to evolve. “Who are your mentors, and what are you using them for? How do you create your circle of influence so that when you have an idea that you want to flesh out, you have somebody in your network who can help you think through pitfalls and challenges?”
    • Finding new ways to multitask: Approaching big tasks and knowledge gaps as enormous, behemoth challenges is an easy pitfall for emerging leaders. “It’s important to reframe the mindset around what progress is,” says Curley. “Maybe my goal is to have the budget done by the end of the month: what progress am I making against that this week? You’re marking the milestones in a different way.” 
    • Learning effective team management: Understanding how to bring the most out of team members and empower their productivity is a crucial skill. “Am I setting the tone? Am I letting people feel comfortable bringing the whole selves to work? Am I inviting different perspectives? Am I allowing people to fail and make mistakes?” explains Curley. 

These challenges, and the solutions to them, are explored in further detail throughout the program’s modules, which includes participants taking strengths assessments, identifying their gaps, exploring their networks, and making action plans, all with the help of leaders in the field. “For new leaders who are addressing these issues every day, we’re giving them the words and the tools and the framework to make positive progress,” says Curley.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Emerging Women Executives in Health Care, a leadership development program for women to develop and refine the skills needed to lead complex health care organizations. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.