Ascension CEO: I spend ‘probably 25% of my time’ on leadership development

Two top executives from the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. emphasized that developing new leaders isn’t the responsibility of the human resources department, but a system-wide necessity in their presentation at the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) Congress in Chicago.

Anthony Tersigni, EdD, president and CEO of St. Louis-based Ascension and Patricia Maryland, president and CEO of Ascension Healthcare, said the 153-hospital system with $22.6 billion in operating revenue, has a number of leadership programs designed to build new competencies for potential leaders in the organization.

Among those programs is the Ascension Leadership Academy, a three-year program for “high potential senior executives to cultivate critical strategic abilities.” All who have completed the program, Tersigni said, have been promoted or now serve in new executive roles. It does come with a commitment from the participants, however, to be placed wherever Ascension sees a need for them.

“We’ll give you one pass for family reasons,” Tersigni said, “but at the end of that time, if you take the assignment, you can stay where you are but you’re not going to take any other assignments. That’s just not how we’re built because we’re trying to build a sense of community.”

Other programs include the Ascension Leadership Institute, which Tersigni said was based off a similar program at General Electric, and the ASPIRE program to encourage more diverse candidates in leadership. Maryland said ASPIRE is meant for potential leaders who find themselves having trouble “breaking through to that VP, senior VP level.”

“The need is huge here,” Maryland said. “As we think about the diversity in the populations that we serve, we’ve got to have leadership to mimic that.”  

The ASPIRE program involves candidates being matched with a mentor. Maryland said her own experience with Tersigni as her mentor was invaluable to her career path, being recruited from Detroit Medical Center and climbing up the ladder to run Ascension’s Michigan operations beginning in 2008—a year where, as the Great Recession hit, regional operations were supposed to post a $112 million and ended up breaking even.

Tersigni said over time, his philosophy on leadership development has changed. Where once he estimated spending about 2 percent of his time on this area, it’s “probably 25 percent now,” saying he feels “energized” by engaging with young leaders in healthcare.

It’s also a necessity for the company, Tersigni said, as the ways he learned to run a health system aren’t applicable now.

“I had the opportunity for on-the-job training (OJT). What we figured out at Ascension is we just don’t have the time for OJT anymore,” Tersigni said.