Finding alignment Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

As employees climb toward the peak of Summa Health System, Kyle Klawitter controls the rope. Her job is to support employees with the skills they need to achieve the leaders’ goals.

As the system vice president of human resources at the health care provider — which has more than 10,000 employees and 2008 revenue of $1.6 billion — Klawitter oversees Summa’s Leadership Institute. The classes are open to all management levels, either by self-nomination or the nudge of a supervisor.

But without a connection to the top, Klawitter’s efforts would be futile.

“The first key is support from the senior leadership team of an organization,” she says. “They have to be the ones who provide the resources. They also have to be the ones that support the people, attending and participating and growing as leaders themselves.”

Engage the leadership team members by, first, working with them to plan the development curriculum. Klawitter conducts assessments, asking executives what they need to personally develop as well as which skills they would like their direct reports to improve.

Coordinating with executives ensures that the course material aligns with the direction of the company.

“If you’re not providing the education around what your organization is shooting for, then you’re teaching them something they’re not going to be able to use,” Klawitter says.

She suggests using your company’s strategic plan as a road map for developing curriculum. From that, you know the leaders’ main objectives and what skills are necessary for employees to execute them.

For example, one of Summa’s key strategies is integrating new hospitals and leaders into its system. In preparation for that challenge, Klawitter created a class called Philosophies of Summa Health System to align everyone along the company’s mission, vision and values.

Still, the best way to directly involve leaders is to have them teach. At Summa, for example, President and CEO Thomas Strauss heads the philosophies class. Several other executives are featured in a video vignette during the class, explaining how they embody those philosophies in their jobs.

“It’s a variety, using not only our president but also other role models at all levels and all areas to show how that skill or that value is actually demonstrated in real life every single day,” Klawitter says.

Through the connected mentoring program, the institute also coordinates a panel of executives for a Q&A session about their career paths, especially the struggles and choices they faced along the way.

Although Klawitter also brings in external authorities, the process requires finding and vetting speakers and then bringing them up to speed with Summa’s culture and vision. But even though your own executives are familiar faces already aligned with your goals, they aren’t always compelling presenters.

“One way to overcome that is pair them up with a really great presenter,” Klawitter says. “We have a good sense of who our good presenters are because we’ve seen them in other venues, making regular presentations on a business topic.”

Klawitter asks employees to fill out evaluations after each course to get suggestions for improvement. If those responses reveal holes in a certain executive’s approach, you can subtly direct the leader to a class about making presentations.

Klawitter conducts general employee surveys to gauge the program’s success, as well. She asks everyone to rate whether their managers have the skills and abilities to effectively lead the department. She also looks broadly at the company’s overall metrics, such as financials and customer service ratings.

“The ultimate success of a good leadership development program is the success of the organization,” she says. “That is the direct result of a strong leadership team, and the leadership team is strong because of the development that is offered for those people.”

How to reach: Summa Health System, (330) 375-3000 or

A closer look

For some employees, a classroom setting doesn’t provide a close enough look at leadership. So Beth Vidmar created opportunities for more intimacy.

As the director of human resources development at Summa Health System, Vidmar developed and now oversees the mentoring program. She breaks it down into a yearlong program for potential managers, called Mentoring Aspiring Professionals, and a two-year fellowship for managers seeking further promotion.

The first step is asking mentees to make a list of three interests they’d like to explore, like finance or marketing. This sets their direction and helps you select their mentor — the executive of that department.

“We prefer them not to be mentored in their own area, because they’ve already been mentored pretty much in that area,” Vidmar says. “We’re trying to broaden their perspective.”

Early on, protégés complete leadership assessments with their mentors to identify strengths and weaknesses and determine the focus of the relationship. If they want to learn how to run a meeting, for example, they may enroll in a class in the leadership institute or simply shadow their mentor by attending leadership meetings.

Their goals change as they discover what appeals to them — or doesn’t.

“We’ve had protégés who say, ‘Management’s not for me,’ after shadowing a manager,” Vidmar says. “That, to us, is just as successful as someone saying, ‘I want to be in management.’”