Most healthcare organizations are dealing with rapid changes in their clinical labs—new technologies, new services, new organizational expectations. They're also facing inevitable changes in their lab staff, particularly at the managerial level, as many personnel approach retirement. To address the full range of challenges, the lab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is developing a formal succession planning process to fill key posts in an orderly way, including that of its Chief of Lab Medicine, Michael Bennett, PhD, whose retirement is not that far off.
"Many people who work as lab techs really only need to give two weeks notice," Bennett says. "Imagine how disastrous it would be if someone left with only two weeks notice and we had no plan to replace them."
CHOP, with 516 beds, was the nation's first hospital devoted exclusively to the care of children, and it has been the source of countless breakthroughs and firsts in pediatrics since its founding in 1855. CHOP-affiliated researchers study everything from cancer immunotherapy drugs to sickle cell disease to autism. The organization is also a leader in improving health in its community. Maintaining its leadership role is a top priority.
Bennett says the CHOP lab is starting to identify future leaders among its younger, midlevel staff, and then grooming them to take over as older managers retire or move on to high-level positions at other institutions. "That's a risk, of course, because these are potentially leaders who could be leading elsewhere," he says. But the alternative is a leadership vacuum just as the lab is in the middle of making big changes. With the backing of a department chair who believes in succession planning, Bennett has set a goal of retaining the identified future leaders until appropriate slots are available for them.
The department is also creating entirely new career pathways to accommodate new technologies, equipment, and types of testing. "We're looking for a different set of skills in our hires," Bennett says. Mass spectrometry, for example, is used increasingly to supplement or replace traditional lab testing, as the focus of testing and treatment moves to the molecular level. But Bennett says traditional lab career pathways can result in a dead-end for workers with mass spectrometry skills, who may take their expertise elsewhere if there's no prospect of promotion. "We have the same problem with next-generation sequencing individuals," Bennett says. CHOP is creating ways to retain those highly specialized workers by giving them opportunities for more responsibilities.
Aside from purely technical roles, the CHOP lab depends heavily on a skilled group of point-of-care coordinators to integrate its activities with the care process. Bennett particularly dreads losing one "absolutely outstanding" coordinator who has signaled her desire to retire and spend more time with her grandchildren. He feels fortunate that she has given him two years to find and develop a successor for her, and believes he'll need every bit of that time.
"Because of the skill sets that a really good point-of-care coordinator needs to have, we're having to do the succession planning for this person long in advance," he says. "We cannot wait."
Even for himself, Bennett expects it will take more than a standard academic year, the customary period for someone at his level, to find his successor. He fears that without someone ready to step in, the lab will lose its momentum, and ideally he would like to overlap with his successor. "Clearly there isn't a middle-level person to replace me at the moment," he says. "We're actually trying to convince the authorities that they need to hire someone to be ready to take over. We should all take succession planning very seriously to keep us at the cutting edge."
Change, whether it's from new technologies, new processes, or other new challenges, is inevitable—but with the right planning, labs can be ready for it with the right people ready to step in at the right moment.
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