Less than 15 percent of board members overseeing the nation’s top hospitals have a professional background in healthcare, while more than half have a background in finance or business services, according to a study published Feb. 8 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
The study’s authors represent Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. They wrote that they sought to understand which professions are represented most among hospital boards because they may influence the organization’s goals and overall strategy — there also had been little research done around the topic previously.
The study began in July by examining the 20 top-rated hospitals by US News & World Report in 2022, which are all nonprofit academic medical centers in urban areas.
Only 15 of the 20 facilities publish board information online, and IRS filings for the remaining were incomplete or outdated.
For the 15 hospitals that provide information on their board members, the authors sorted their professional backgrounds across 11 industry sectors using the North American Industry Classification System, which is the federal standard. For board members with healthcare backgrounds, they were further categorized as trained physicians, nurses, or other workers.
Four key takeaways:
1. At the 15 examined hospitals, there were 567 board members. The study was able to sort 529 into professional categories.
2. Among the 529 board members, 44 percent had a background in finance. Among them, more than 80 percent led private equity funds, wealth management firms, or multinational banks. The remainder were in real estate (14.7 percent) or insurance (5.2 percent).
3. The second and third most common sectors were health services (16.4 percent) and professional and business services (12.6 percent).
4. Across the 15 hospitals, 14.6 percent of board members were healthcare professionals — primarily physicians (13.3 percent) and followed by nurses (0.9 percent).
The study noted that its findings may not represent all hospitals because it only studied the highest-ranked, and some of those hospitals do not publicly report information on their board members. The study also did not examine “the community ties of board members to gauge local accountability of board decisions.”
The authors also noted that they did not examine the racial and gender makeup of boards, which they said merits further review — in 2018, 42 percent of U.S. hospital boards had all-white members and 70 percent of members were male.
Contract or “temp” employment used to be viewed as a means of supplemental income: a side hustle to an average day job, or a way to pay the bills while searching for full-time work. Now, gig work is back in style, and more workers want in on the flexibility — including C-suite executives, Korn Ferry recently reported.
The gig economy surged when older millennials, born in the 1980s, began rejecting the one-firm careers their parents had, according to Korn Ferry. Although they are currently midcareer, older millennials have switched jobs 7.8 times on average. Baby boomers are also using temporary work to keep busy during retirement, and Generation Z appreciates the flexibility that comes with contract labor.
As temporary work grows in popularity, its influence is spreading to the C-suite. Interim executives are becoming more likely to be tapped when a leader departs, Korn Ferry reported. This gives organizations like health systems, which urgently need leadership in a rapidly changing industry, more time to conduct their searches for full-time replacements.
Sixty percent of executives predict that the number of interim workers at their companies will “substantially increase” within the next three years, Korn Ferry reported. In a period of economic instability, temporary labor can mean less commitment and cost than a permanent worker. But there are downsides to contract labor, too. Since they lack benefits, many contract workers demand higher pay — which can trickle down and lead their permanent counterparts to ask for matched salaries. In the healthcare industry, this is visible in travel nurses’ paychecks, and their controversial effects on health systems’ finances.
For better or for worse, contract labor does not appear to be dying out anytime soon. Fifty-eight million U.S. workers now consider themselves “independent,” Korn Ferry reported — an estimated 36 percent of the total workforce.
Interim CFOs can cut through politics to help navigate companies through murky waters, experts say.
As they face financial difficulties, leadership crises or other inter-company developments, many firms have ceded their financial reins to interim executives over recent months.
Retailer Bed, Bath & Beyond quickly named their chief accounting officer as interim CFO following the death of their previous financial head earlier in September, for example, while real estate investment trust (REIT) Tanger’s chief accounting officer also recently served a stint as their interim financial head after the REIT ousted their previous CFO, a 28-year company veteran.
One of the reasons to tap an interim CFO is simply to provide peace of mind for the company and its shareholders while the search to find a more permanent candidate is ongoing, said Shawn Cole, president of boutique executive search firm Cowen Partners in a recent interview.
While some searches are as short as 38 days, the majority of executive searches can take between four to six months, a period where remaining without financial leadership is untenable. Firms seeking interims must still consider several key factors when choosing such an executive, however, Cole said.
Companies seeking external candidates, for example — which can be due to inter-company turmoil or, as is often the case, because the company may lack the bench strength to pull forward an internal candidate, Cole noted — should take care to consider “professional interims” for the position as opposed to an unattached CFO, he advised.
“I would just be very cautious that you are not just hiring an unemployed CFO,” Cole said. “There’s plenty of wonderful professional interim CFOs out there that are excellent at consulting. You don’t necessarily want to get yourself into a position where you are engaging just an unemployed CFO, that needs a job.”
Getting a fresh perspective
Bringing in an external interim can also grant companies benefits they may not see with internal candidates, for that matter, explained Mike Harris, CEO of Patina Solutions. Patina, which focuses primarily on placing interim executvies, was acquired by fellow executive search company Korn Ferry this past April.
It can help other executives, notably the CEO, to get “fresh perspectives and viewpoints,” he said.
“If someone is coming in for six months they can tell it like it is, they can come in and make a quick assessment,” he said. “Candidly, it does take out the politics if you’re in there on a limited basis.”
Similar to Cole, Harris pointed to a growing population of what Harris terms as “career interims,” who are working in that capacity because they enjoy the flexibility of movement — they get to go in and get critical projects done for the company, he said.
Turning to an external interim can also help companies execute on particular goals such as a restructuring, said Harris, nothing that what companies need from someone taking on the position for six months could be “very different” than what firms may be looking for out of a permanent CFO. Their short tenure means interims can be “very objective” and have a “big impact” at a company in a short period of time, he said.
“The reason [interims are] usually coming in there is because they have something in their background that’s going to be very helpful for the situation that company is facing,” he said.
Companies may also take advantage of an interim CFOs’ skills as a sort of mentorship for their existing CFO — the executive in the permanent seat may lack M&A or other key experience, for example, that an interim may be able to provide during their short-term tenure.
Tapping insider knowledge
Pulling forward internal candidates to fill the CFO gap can also have benefits for firms if possible, as such candidates have intimate knowledge of the companies’ status and needs that outside executives may lack.
This may be the case for struggling payment processor PayPal, another example of a firm who recently appointed an interim CFO — moving Gabrielle Rabinovitch, their SVP of capital markets into the seat for a second time after the newly-minted CFO departed for medical leave.
In PayPal’s case, the company needs “stability” in its financial chair, which has been lacking since the departure of its previous CFO John Rainey to retailer Walmart, said Josh Crist, managing director for Crist|Kolder Associates.
“It may be time to think about a young internal player as an interim,” Crist wrote in an email regarding PayPal’s CFO woes. “Institutional knowledge should be key given strategic issues the company faces.”
Such a candidate may prove to be a permanent fit at the company, for that matter, he said.
“I believe the current interim might actually be correct for the full time gig! I believe they need an internal player who has seen the nuts and bolts/knows the operating and strategic plan and can help execute,” Crist wrote in an email. “I don’t believe they need a high-level strategist.”
The future of the CFO seat
While companies must carefully consider what it is they are seeking out of an interim — or even a permanent — CFO candidate, qualified executives also have their pick of potential options as the market for executive talent grows more competitive.
CFOs who would have potentially retired or left their current roles years earlier, but were stymied by the pandemic, have now begun to do so, contributing to a narrowing of the potential talent pool. For that matter, the list of responsibilities handed to modern CFOs has grown over recent years, but companies may not have fully adjusted their leadership structure accordingly, Cole said.
“The CFO is no longer the chief accounting officer,” Cole said. “They really effectively should be the right hand to the CEO. While many companies have increased demands of the CFO, they haven’t necessarily brought the CFO into that light. And so I think companies that can show a CFO candidate that they will have a position of significance of their organization, be that strategic business partner to the CEO, I think that goes a long way.”
In just the first half of this year, more than 60 hospital CEOs have retired or left their roles, according to search firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. Retirements are up 48 percent from the same time last year. Part of this is generational, as many Baby Boomer leaders are at retirement age, but the latest wave comes after many delayed planned exits during the pandemic to guide their organizations through the crisis. 2
Now, after two-plus grueling years of leading through COVID, executives are ready to pass the baton. The latest high-profile announcement came this week, with Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare’s CEO Marc Harrison announcing his plans to leave the system for a role at venture firm General Catalyst.
The Gist: As a recent piece from Modern Healthcare points out, many systems have known their CEOs were exiting well in advance, but the significant cultural and financial consequences associated with choosing a new leader, especially during a period of industry-wide change, are presenting boards with hiring decisions as difficult as they are important.
Astute organizations have been planning ahead for these transitions, developing a bench of next-generation leaders, and providing them exposure to the board. COVID also served as a helpful stress test to identify talent who rose to the occasion to lead confidently and calmly through the crisis, while simultaneously weeding others out who floundered under uncertainty.
The next generation of leaders will need different skills to navigate current and future challenges, including rethinking the role of the health system in response to a new class of disruptors, and managing through a workforce crisis that will require evolving the labor model while meeting new demands for workforce diversity and engagement.
A consultant colleague recently recounted a call from a health system looking for support in physician alignment. He mused, “It’s never a good sign when I hear that the medical group reports to the system CFO [chief financial officer].” We agree. It’s not that CFOs are necessarily bad managers of physician networks, or aren’t collaborative with doctors—as you’d expect from any group of leaders, there are CFOs who excel at these capabilities, and ones that don’t.
The reporting relationship reveals less about the individual executive, and more about how the system views its medical group: less as a strategic partner, and more as “an asset to feed the [hospital] mothership.” Or worse, as a high-cost asset that is underperforming, with the CFO brought in as a “fixer”, taking over management of the physician group to “stop the bleed.”
Ideally the medical group would be led by a senior physician leader, often with the title of chief clinical officer or chief physician executive, who has oversight of all of the system’s physician network relationships, and can coordinate work across all these entities, sitting at the highest level of the executive team, reporting to the CEO. Of course, these kinds of physician leaders—with executive presence, management acumen, respected by physician and executive peers—can be difficult to find.
Having a respected physician leader at the helm is even more important in a time of crisis, whether they lead alone or are paired with the CFO or another executive. Systems should have a plan to build the leadership talent needed to guide doctors through the coming clinical, generational, and strategic shifts in practice.