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Nurturing Women Leaders to Strengthen the Human Services Industry

Apr 20, 2021

by Rachel Boynton

Volume 8, Issue 8, April 20, 2021

There is a struggle these days to find reliable and competent leadership. In many ways, the human services industry exemplifies the challenge. Despite an abundance of books, speeches, and guides that focus on the creation of good leaders, their absence persists.

This persistence, however, is not a result of our inability to pull good leadership from thin air. Rather, it's about our inability to simply look at the colleagues around us. Good management is cultivated, not found. This isn't a radical claim and is a concept I'm sure many are familiar with. But few, it seems, have managed to successfully cultivate new leaders. A complex reason why this challenge exists within the human services industry: gender disparity, especially for women of color. Human services is an industry that should, above all things, champion equity and equality for its clients/consumers — no question. Yet, if those same principles are not reflected in management, a company may find itself ill-equipped to champion anything. 

It is important for us to assess how gender carries such heavy implications for the future of human services. To understand the future, we must first examine the present. It is reported that about 81 percent of the human service workforce is currently comprised of women. Let me repeat: 81 percent. To say that women are the majority would be an understatement.

Why, then, do leadership roles not reflect this more often? Leadership should reflect its team, both morally and literally. Remember, strong expertise is cultivated, and that cultivation should be internal. The statistics don't lie. If a company nurtured and strengthened its management and leadership team by investing in its staff, far more women would be represented. This approach kills two birds with one stone: greater representation for women and stronger leadership.

That leads us to an important question: How can you champion the women in your organization to become leaders? Here are a few things that I have learned can help strengthen a company while creating a pipeline of leaders.

1. Employee reviews.

What seems like a human resources (HR) responsibility that is often viewed as a burden by many leaders, the employee review process is a wonderful opportunity to grow and develop leadership skills in your staff while also learning about their desires for growth and development. Use regular employee reviews to provide honest and genuine feedback to help staff grow. Most people want to know what they need to do to improve, so respect them enough to tell them the truth. Be sure that the documented reviews include staff development goals as well as employee feedback and input. This will help to ensure that all employees are given a chance to grow and develop their careers further.

2. Mentorship.

Many women lack access to successful women who can serve as mentors. Meeting with and discussing your profession with someone who has been successful is incredibly helpful. Empower your staff to find a leader who can be a mentor and offer paid time off so they can meet regularly.

3. Professional training program.

I recently worked with a human services company that had an established and defined management training program. If staff indicated that they wanted to eventually grow into leadership, this program was comprised of courses they could take that would help them develop core skills for effective leadership.

Such a program can be developed internally. If that's not feasible, you can help staff find external training opportunities. Regardless of how you approach nurturing leadership, it's important to help create a roadmap for growth with those staff who hope to advance within your organization.

4. Fit positions, not people.

Many human services companies have experienced this scenario: There is a super strong team member but no position that fits their skillset, so a position is created. I can tell you from experience that this rarely works out. The company usually outgrows the person, and the position is not as valuable in the future.

Rather, it's better to put such a person in an existing position and help them to learn the additional skills required to effectively fill the role. I remember hiring a young college student for my human services company's front desk receptionist. As she completed her bachelor's in business, she proclaimed her desire to work in HR. Since our company was in its infancy, I was the HR department, and it was clear that we would soon need a larger team. So, she started assuming some of the HR tasks and slowly grew into the position. She not only decided to continue her college education and earn her bachelor's in HR but eventually became our vice president of HR and built out our department to align with the company's growth.

5. Networking.

The interesting thing about human services organizations is that many are founded and operated by women. I have worked with multiple owners who are women. They are not only the CEO but have worn every hat during the growth of their company. These women often lack a business background. Rather, they are therapists, nurses, or teachers who have stumbled into the needs of the industry.

When I meet these women, I try to introduce them to other women in their industry since they are often are the best support network out there. If every woman who is an owner or in a position of power took the opportunity to support and network with other women, imagine the leadership that would develop.

6. Invest.

Invest in your staff. Pay them as much as you can afford to and provide them with paid opportunities to grow and learn. I have been consulting with a company owned by two amazing women and I see how they do this often. They have brought in multiple training opportunities as they professionalize their senior management group. They often ask their teams what trainings would be most valuable and then provide this education. Such an approach shows staff that you are investing in their success and desire to learn while helping them be better at what they do.

7. Flexibility.

One thing that this pandemic has shown many of us is who can get the job done from home and who needs an office setting. Many people are thriving in this environment that holds staff accountable for their responsibilities and the work they complete as opposed to the clock-in-clock-out mentality. 

Rethinking how we evaluate job performance to focus on goals and tasks instead of time at the desk is a great start. Most women in the workforce have the primary responsibilities at home, causing further stress on developing into a male-dominated position. Providing the flexibility for staff to work from home when needed or make up missed hours at alternative times can not only help the job get done but will create a more dedicated workforce that respects an organization that supports staff and understands their professional and personal needs.

8. Growing.

Whether through organic growth or acquisition, the larger your organization becomes, the more opportunity exists for professional movement. When I have helped smaller organizations sell their business to larger entities, I often point out the new opportunities for growth and development of staff. It's always good to explain to your staff that your motivation for growth is not purely financial, but that those additional funds help to strengthen the organization to provide more opportunities for staff growth.

Closing the Gap, Reaping the Rewards

According to a LinkedIn study, the leadership gap is the biggest talent challenge that organizations are facing around the world. Eighty-six percent of companies are calling it "important" or "urgent," and an astounding 85 percent of executives report that they are "not confident in their leadership pipelines."

We cannot sit around and simply hope that the leadership gap that exists in the human services industry will close on its own in. This will not happen, and we will be wasting valuable opportunities to better our companies and the industry as a whole. Women-owned businesses account for 42 percent of all businesses (50 percent of whom are women of color), so if you can't find support within our industry, try looking outside of it. If human services leaders work together, support one another, and champion the abilities of their staff from early in their careers, we should be able to fill the gap and create some amazing female CEOs.

Rachel Boynton

Rachel Boynton CM&AA

Managing Director

As Co-Founder of LifeShare, a multi-state human services and healthcare organization, Rachel has a unique background of over 20 years of successful operational and executive experience, in addition to an MBA in Healthcare Management. She began her professional life as a home care provider, an experience that created the foundation for the innovative quality and success of LifeShare, while also changing her life. At LifeShare, she managed their Operations (Adult Day/Residential; Child Therapeutic Foster Care; HCBS; Child Therapeutic Day/Diversion Services, and Educational Programming), Finance, HR and Quality Assurance (facilitating COA accreditation and policy/procedure implementation). After selling LifeShare to Centene, Rachel remained during the transition of management and helped to provide outcome measurements and COA compliance reporting. At VERTESS she is a Managing Director providing M+A advisor and consultant services, specifically in the I/DD, behavioral health and related healthcare markets, where systems are rapidly evolving, and providers are striving to adapt strategically to diverse challenges.

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