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Millennial Leaders and Employees: What Health Care Executives Should Know

By Sandee Gehrke, News and Community
June 26, 2018
David C. Pate MD, JD

This is a very important blog piece.

I have heard people refer to “Millennials” in derogatory ways. That does not match up to my experience at all. I have found them to be hard-working, smart, dedicated employees who frankly are more wise and mature than I was at their age. I have two professional daughters who are millennials, and lest it seem as if I’m biased, I’ve had this same positive experience with the millennials on the St. Luke’s team. I am really impressed. These leaders are smarter and more talented than many of the leaders of my generation at that same point in their careers.

My only concern is with the early peaking of millennials in their careers – will they be patient for what will come next? Here with great insights about millennials because she is one and works with many, is guest blogger Sandee Gehrke, vice president of operations for St. Luke’s Health System.

- David C. Pate, M.D., J.D.

Sandee Gehrke
Sandee Gehrke, Vice President of Operations, St. Luke’s Health System

Millennials get a bad rap.

They’re called self-absorbed, thin-skinned and delusional. That’s just for starters.

It’s a topic that I find interesting – I’m technically a millennial – although up until recently, I have adamantly denied that. Taking a step back and with some influence from two of my stellar leaders, I’ve become aware that understanding our largest generation is critical in my role as St. Luke’s Health System’s vice president of operations.  As our Baby Boomers approach retirement- I have an imminent need to develop and promote our millennial leaders.  Thousands of our employees are millennials, and we should be strongly motivated to want to attract, recruit and retain them, and to train and promote the best among them to leadership positions – they are the future of health care.

Some of my most favorite moments of success recently came from collaboration with millennial leaders. I have a leader, Katie, who has forged to centralize and optimize a team of schedulers while finding efficiencies and enhanced service levels for our patients. Doug, who recently transitioned from an operational role to lead our organization through the establishment of standard work, lean processes and action plans that drive the execution of our strategy. And Mary, who is my go-to right hand with a brilliant mind for building structure and putting the puzzle pieces together; is leading us through the consolidation of all of our shared services teams to one location and in that effort reducing our overall cost of ownership while finding avenues to optimize employee performance and culture.

It’s important to emphasize that we work, live and lead in a multi-generational space- my team is similar. And the engagement element of our teams and leaders can’t be emphasized enough. There is a lot out there on how to motivate and lead baby boomers, what to do with those gen-xers, but not much positive has been published about how we should be treating and engaging our millennial population.   

A few things I have come to learn about millennials generally….

Millennials are the most educated generation in history and they have high expectations. They assume there will be a career path for them and a plan for their continued progress. They are more competitive than other generations have been, they consider competition to be motivational and they compare their performance to that of their peers.

And the conditions in which they entered the work world – of 24/7 communications and connectedness, economic meltdown and then volatility, significant job uncertainty – have forged an outlook that can seem lackadaisical but that in reality has many forfeiting time off and taking fewer vacations and breaks than their older colleagues, driven in part by crushing student debt and costs of living that outstrip their ability to save and get ahead.

Millennials are loyal. Loyal to their employers, loyal to their social media networks and loyal to the organizations with which they connect, often through their social media contacts. They stay with their employers every bit as long as workers older than they are – but they are very aware of their options, and if we don’t build career paths and plans, and given the sort of robust job market the country is now experiencing, they’re quite agreeable to looking for greener pastures.

Given all that we know at a very broad level about the millennial generation, it’s critical for health care organizations to develop a game plan to build attractive working environments, career options and plans as well as clear and compelling avenues into leadership for this population of potential employees. Health care is going to need them, the Baby Boomers are going to need them and our organizations are going to need them.  Recently, Tonia and Mary presented their approach to the “millennial challenge” at this year’s ACHE’s annual Congress on Healthcare. The focus was on how they could engage, motivate and promote a team that consisted 50% of millennial leaders into a higher level of performance.

We’ve generally categorized those areas in which we can focus on as professional development, recognizing achievement, defining and coaching to goals, continuous improvement, wellness and safety, relationships and team and role clarity. But, by listening to millennial team members and zeroing in on their passions and interests, they were able to explore goals and map the paths where there was expressed interest, and the exploration logically connected to St. Luke’s annual goal-setting processes and cycle.

Our early observations are that the approach works; we’re seeing better retention in some work groups than was historically the case and improved staff satisfaction rates. Again, early findings, but a positive trend.

We also understand that flexible working conditions are important, and we are beginning to look at models that build in that more fluid approach that this generation is accustomed to.

For health care, this may be the biggest challenge. Health care is modeled on the old, Monday through Friday, traditional workday model. For the most part, clinics are open those traditional hours, surgeries are scheduled during those hours, tests and procedures are performed during those hours.

And while non-clinical functions of our health system, the activities that go on “behind the scenes,” can and often does take place during “off-hours” (think computer system upgrades and maintenance, event planning, legal research and the like), much of our work remains pinned to that old work-week structure.

While we work to make these adjustments, we are smart to remember that every generation is different, with different interests and perspectives, and to remember that millennials are individuals, and no different from patients in that respect. We don’t treat a single patient as “all patients with X health concern,” so why would we do that with those team members entrusted with caring for our patients?

It’s a challenge to change to accommodate new ways of being and working, but it’s no one’s challenge other than ours. As a health care system, it’s incumbent on us to build these new ways of working. And as a millennial and a leader of teams of millennials, it’s my job to cultivate them, to grow them and to ensure that they have that sense of value and purpose – and clear ways forward in our organization. To grow this generation of potential St. Luke’s leaders is a gift and I’m now proud to say I am a millennial leader and I am in good company.

About The Author

Sandee Gehrke is vice president of operations of St. Luke’s Health System, based in Boise, Idaho.