Right now, Medicaid programs — which provide a pathway to coverage and care for many individuals and families impacted by the pandemic — are “all hands on deck” in addressing the seemingly endless tasks necessary to keep up with emergency response efforts and maintain essential operations. Although the first priority for these activities is directly linked to protecting lives during the pandemic, there also may be opportunities to accomplish a long-term strategic goal most Medicaid programs struggle with: identifying and developing emerging leaders.
For the Medicaid directors and other senior leaders who may not have a lot of spare time to read blogs right now, let me cut right to the point: Most Medicaid programs rely heavily on a handful of proven go-to staff members. These are the individuals trusted to get work done. In emergency situations like today, the circle of go-to staff has to expand to include junior and/or less experienced staff to help with essential tasks. Many of these staff will prove that they possess leadership capacity that previously may not have been visible to others.
Cultivate Leaders who Rise to the Occasion in Times of Crisis
Following are tips for nurturing today’s rising stars to become the leaders your organization needs, not just now, but for years to come:
- Make sure they feel noticed: It is great that you noticed them, but it’s even better if you let them know that you recognize their contributions and potential. Make a personal connection and acknowledge the value they bring to the organization now and in the future. Recognition is a key motivator and your small time investment will go a long way to building their resilience in the short term and opening a pathway for future growth.
- Give them a starter project: Nothing communicates support for development more than empowering an emerging leader to be accountable for a meaningful piece of work. Make sure that it involves a combination of tasks they can successfully handle and responsibilities that represent stretch goals. Be mindful to create an appropriate safety net, but not to the point that undermines their autonomy and ownership. Luckily, there are plenty of important tasks to spread around these days.
- Help them make connections: In times like these, we ask emerging leaders to engage with internal and external leaders who they haven’t partnered with before, which means they don’t have the benefit of past experiences. Providing helpful background, hints, and even tips about personality quirks, will help them avoid trouble and make them much more effective. Introductions to key people will further increase their effectiveness, since they can leverage your endorsement and credibility.
- Give clear direction: Your regular go-to staff can likely predict what you want without much direction. It may take a few extra minutes of your time, but being very clear about what you need will help emerging leaders avoid wasting time in the longer term. This may include providing clarity about the scope of work, whom they should consult with, and how to communicate with you along the way. It can also mean decoding jargon that others take for granted.
- Actively engage them about what they are learning: Creating rapid-cycle feedback loops for emerging leaders helps accelerate their learning process and increases your ability to assess their development. Their confidence will grow quickly and you will have better information about their capabilities and how best to use them. This doesn’t need to be a lengthy discussion. In fact, it can often be a conversation while walking between meetings. What’s most important is that you or an experienced member of your team is routinely helping them reflect and integrate new information.
- Make a plan for the future: At some point, life will start to return to normal. Avoid letting your emerging leaders disappear into the background. Be clear with your senior leaders that you expect them to identify development opportunities for these rising leaders and follow-up to ensure new roles for them. This will require you and your senior team to delegate tasks to the rising leaders and there will always be excuses for avoiding this. Ask new emerging leaders what roles they would like to have in the future and identify the support they need from you and your team to get there.
Tomorrow’s Medicaid Leaders
Today’s pandemic is an all-consuming event for Medicaid leaders (as well as leaders across state government) as so many help to “flatten the curve,” but this may also be a unique opportunity to expand your core group of future leaders. When I served as Vermont’s Medicaid director, it was a pleasure to identify and nurture several rising leaders who proved their abilities during the chaotic months following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Back then, they were emerging leaders; today these individuals are core contributors to Vermont’s Medicaid program. With a little intentionality and time, it is possible to accomplish one of the most difficult tasks of a senior leader: building the next generation of leaders to ensure the long-term success of the organization.