What Are We Learning from Racially and Ethnically Diverse Executives?

By Diane L. Dixon, EdD

We have an opportunity to learn a great deal from racially and ethnically diverse healthcare executives. Therefore, it is important to include them in leadership research. That’s the reason why I conducted a study to learn how they navigated the executive path to the C-suite. What experiences and leadership competencies significantly facilitated their advancement? The insights gained from them gives hope to other racial minorities seeking similar levels of leadership. Moreover, their experiences can shed light on the promise of increasing diversity at the highest levels of healthcare leadership. Why does this matter?

We know there is still more work to do to narrow the gap between our increasingly diverse population and diversity in the healthcare C-suite. The business case for diversity in healthcare leadership is well-documented and research shows that there is a relationship between diverse leadership and health equity. Learning from racially and ethnically diverse executives helps everybody on the collective mission of delivering services to maintain the health and well-being of diverse populations.

Here are a few insights based on the diverse executives I interviewed:

  • Passion for the Mission
    Passion for the mission of health and healthcare is why they got into the field and what drives their dedication to make a difference. The three P’s—Passion, Positive Outlook and Perseverance—fuel their commitment to stick with it when the going gets tough in a complex and turbulent environment.
  • Race and Ethnicity—Assets for Performance
    Performance excellence is an asset in the face of conscious and unconscious biases, negative stereotypes, microaggressions, and the forces of structural inequities based on race/ethnicity and gender. The executives I interviewed focused on performance and on doing well in service to the mission. In this way, they minimized negative biases and stereotypes by exhibiting the value of their leadership.
  • Relationships Really Matter
    Meaningful relationships with bosses, peers and colleagues these executives developed and nurtured along their executive path significantly influenced advancement. While mentors are important, sponsors open the doors to opportunities that demonstrate leadership. Sponsors provide on-the-job experiences and challenging assignments that really matter in leadership development.
  • Leadership Makes the Difference
    What stands out on the competitive executive path is leadership. Learning is essential to leadership in a fast-paced, ever-changing healthcare environment. The inherent complexity and uncertainty of this business calls for the ability to adapt and yet remain grounded and focused on the mission. These diverse leaders have the strength of character to cope with not only difficulties common in this business, but also to lead in the midst of others who may not all believe they have leadership capability. Engaging people’s hearts and minds and collaboratively achieving a collective purpose is a challenge. Building bridges across multiple organizational and community boundaries to enhance communication, teamwork and collaboration is essential. This is the type of leadership that makes a difference.

Racially and ethnically diverse executives give us valuable insights into the business of health and healthcare. It is about helping diverse people in communities across the U.S. and globally to be well and live healthy lives. Diversity on the executive path will help achieve this mission.

Diane L. Dixon, EdD, is the author of Diversity on the Executive Path: Wisdom and Insights for Navigating to the Highest Levels of Healthcare Leadership, published by Health Administration Press. Learn more about the book and how to buy. Dixon will also present a HAP talk on her book at the 2020 Congress for Healthcare Leadership. For more at Congress, register for the session 18X– 2020 Vision: Clearly Seeing the Connection Between Health Equity and C-Suite Diversity for more information on this topic.

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