How Sparrow Promoted a Gender-Diverse Leadership Pipeline

two women healthcare workers happily working together on a tablet

The Need

Women leaders were underrepresented in the healthcare organization’s leadership pipeline.

The Solution

A leadership development program, coupled with a program to support women leaders, incorporating sessions from DDI’s Women In Leadership.

The Result

 95% participant retention rate (well above organizational average); 24% of participants have been promoted; participant engagement scores 49 percentile points higher than the organizational overall.

“The program is not that they check the box to say they went, but that they build relationships with other women in the organization that will last throughout their careers.”

Kristie Cutler, Manager, Learning & Organizational Development.

Healthcare has long been a profession that attracts more women than men. But while most nurses, technicians, and other clinical and non-clinical roles are mostly held by women, most executive leadership roles tend to be held by men.

This phenomenon was on display at Lansing, Michigan-based Sparrow Health System. While more than three-quarters of non-leader positions were held by women, the percentage of women in leadership roles at successive levels steadily declined. At the executive level men held more than three-quarters of executive roles.

But the lack of diversity in the executive ranks was just one challenge facing the six-hospital, 8,600 employee health system when it came to leadership. It also had a retention issue and employee engagement was relatively low. Looming retirements also meant there was potential for a mass exodus of leaders.

What’s more, Sparrow realized it was important to develop its early-career leaders, which comprised a significant port of the overall leadership population.

 “What became obvious to us as we spent a lot of time with data analytics is that a third of our supervisors and managers were in their role three years or less,” says Teresa Znidarsic, Executive Director, Human Resources, at Sparrow. “So, we realized we had a significant group of individuals who are very new to leadership. And in the healthcare space, it’s really common for individuals to be promoted from non-leader roles.”

To begin addressing its challenges, Sparrow instituted development programs for leaders at multiple levels, drawing on courses from DDI’s Interaction Management® and Business Impact Leadership® development systems.

While the leadership development programs were received positively, the organization still saw a need to give additional support to its new and emerging leaders, which was a predominantly female leader population, and to also get more women into the leadership pipeline to position them to rise to higher-level roles.

“We deployed general leadership development as the first step in our journey. And then our Women in Leadership program was an additional offering we wanted to provide to address the needs of women in particular,” says Kristie Cutler, Manager, Learning & Organizational Development.

Recruiting champions and building a diverse cohort

“We wanted to provide them with an opportunity where they could work together in a cohort fashion,” says Znidarsic. “So, they would be learning not only from the content we were providing, but from each other, as well.”

To build support and momentum for an initiative specifically targeted to women leaders, Znidarsic and her team first attained executive buy-in by building a business case and showing the impact the leadership development programs were having. They also approached the organization’s female executives to be champions for the initiative. These female executives proved to be both supportive and willing to play an active part. 

Managers and supervisors were able to nominate themselves for the program. A total of 42 women from different parts of the organization were included in this cohort. The program spanned six months with participants meeting once per month, during which they experienced content from DDI’s Women In Leadership solution. 

The first month included the #LeadLikeAGirl keynote to kick off the program and build excitement among participants, and the Declare Your Brand session, in which participants take an in-depth look at what they value most, connect with their purpose as a leader, and craft a personal brand statement that embodies the impact they want to achieve in the workplace.

Over the ensuing months, sessions included a Radiate Confidence session where participants explore the neuroscience behind women and confidence, quieting the inner critic, and conquering self-doubt to advance their career path. The Fail Forward session explores the consequences of fear and failure and the impact a fixed versus growth mindset can have on their ability to take risks.

The Super-Power Your Network session, meanwhile, showed participants how to sell their value to potential champions to receive invitations to connect, and stay connected.

“We know the value of the program is not that they check the box to say they went,” says Cutler, “but that they build relationships with other women in the organization that will last throughout their careers and that they can continue to seek their feedback and input as they face different situations.”

Znidarsic says the female executives played pivotal roles in bringing the course content to life.

“We brought in a different female executive to kick off each month’s session and they share their personal story, to align with that month’s content. So, it’s very relatable to a group that may never really get to interact with a senior executive.”

For example, the executive speaking as part of the Declare Your Brand session talked about her journey, how having a personal leadership brand helped her to make difficult decisions, and how establishing her brand impacted her career.

“We spend about 30 minutes one-on-one time with the executive teeing up the content. And then Kristie and I co-facilitate the remainder of the session that focuses on the DDI content,” says Znidarsic.

For the Men as Allies session, they took a unique approach by assembling a panel of male executives who answered participants questions and shared their thoughts and perspectives on how men can help women advance their careers.  

The six-month program was capped off by a graduation ceremony for participants.

Learning from each other

While the women leaders in the program experienced content and learning on a wide range of topics to help them take charge of their careers, build confidence, and ignite their impact, they especially valued the opportunities to build their networks and learn from each other. This insight that was confirmed through session evaluations.

“What we heard after the first few sessions was that participants wanted more time to network with each other and more time together to share ideas,” says Cutler. “So, we modified the content to provide more time for them to interact and get to know each other.”

It also was clear that these interactions would have impact that extended beyond the time participants were in the program.

“We really want to make sure that when women graduate from this program that it’s not just about something singular they’ve done. It is truly a cohort, truly a group that they have bonded with,” says Cutler.

Better retention and engagement scores—and more promotions

After two cohorts of women leaders completed the program, Sparrow saw that it was a tremendous success.

There was a 97-percent graduation rate, and the overall participant satisfaction rating for the sessions was 4.7 on a five-point scale. Plus, Sparrow saw the program impact both engagement and retention among participants. Participant retention rate was 95 percent—well above that of the organization as a whole.

The program also led to incredibly high levels of engagement among participants. Women who participated in the program scored 49 percentile points higher than the Sparrow average on a recent engagement survey. Areas where they reported the highest levels of engagement included their growth and development and having opportunities to learn.

Even more important was the impact the program had on the individual women leaders. Twenty-four percent of the women who participated in this program achieved a promotion during or after completion of the program, including two women promoted into key director roles. The feedback and stories shared by participants further underscored the program’s value.

“After going through the program, one participant shared that she had applied for a job within Sparrow she wouldn’t have applied for previously because she wouldn’t have felt like she was qualified,” says Znidarsic.

“It’s had a big impact on me just watching people be able to connect and build those strong relationships of trust,” says Cutler.

“It’s okay to lead from our authentic selves, that we don’t have to be something that we’re not,” says Znidarsic. “And, again, it goes back to building those relationships in a safe place and being able to have meaningful conversations. As a facilitator for the program, I learn from every session. Every time I learn and grow.”