The Fading Line: Insights from Non-Profit and For-Profit Healthcare Leaders


By Nelson Mann and Margaret Base

As executive search consultants with extensive experience in both the for-profit and non-profit healthcare sectors, we have witnessed an interesting trend in recent years. The “line in the sand” that previously deterred healthcare executives from moving between the two sectors has significantly blurred. Healthcare organizations are discovering the benefits of hiring leaders from outside their traditional sphere, and executives are enjoying the career growth they experience by “switching sides.”

Given significant and constant disruptions in healthcare recently, it’s no surprise that the walls between the for-profit and non-profit sectors are crumbling. Value-based purchasing, the continued interest in consolidations/partnerships, and the entrance of new players such as Amazon are causing organizations to rightly seek talent that is consumer-focused, financially astute, and operationally efficient. Increasingly, search committees are realizing that the talent they need may come from an organization vastly different than their own.

To gain a better understanding of this trend and how it impacts executives, we sought opinions from healthcare leaders who have served both for-profit and non-profit organizations. A summary of their input is available in a new resource from Witt/Kieffer:

The Fading Line in the Sand: Insights from Non-profit and For-Profit Healthcare Leaders

The executives we spoke with told us that moving between the sectors provided a refreshing change that broadened their skill sets, but acknowledged transitional challenges.

Nelson Mann

One executive noted that moving to a non-profit required more focus on investments, pension plans, and other aspects typically handled by a corporate office in the for-profit sector. Conversely, a chief operating officer at a for-profit hospital found that the executives she hired from non-profits were accustomed to more support, and were initially challenged by the lean for-profit business model. Others noted needing time to adjust to a different pace, culture, and focus when they made the switch.

There’s no question that the experience gained from both sectors is valuable, however. As one executive said, “In the non-profit world I learned how to be a true servant leader. In the for-profit world I learned how to be an excellent steward of resources.”

Takeaways for Healthcare Executives

Margaret Base

Finding the right organization is far more important than which sector it is in, these executives advised. Before making the jump from one sector to another, learn as much as you can. Network with colleagues and make contacts with executives to make sure the move is the right career fit for you. Organizations that offer strong onboarding and job support can help reduce your learning curve and adjustment period.

When pursuing a position in the other sector, remember that there will be skeptics. “Over- communicate at every step of the process,” advises one executive. “Tell your story. Explain why you are the type of individual that can do well in both sectors.”

After landing the job, find a mentor who understands the landscape in this sector. No matter where you are, expect change. One leader sums it up this way: “Wherever you go, know that this industry will continue to evolve and be disrupted.”

We expect that this increased interchange of leaders between non-profit and for-profit healthcare organizations will continue in the years to come. Executives will broaden their career horizons, and healthcare organizations will acquire new ideas and positive influences on operations and culture.

One non-profit executive concluded: “Individuals with solid skills sets, education, and experience can work in just about any environment or organization as long as there is compatibility with the organization’s mission, vision, and values.” He added, “Great leaders can practice what they do anywhere.”

About the Authors

Nelson Mann, FACHE, senior partner in Witt/Kieffer’s Healthcare practice, has nearly 25 years of experience in healthcare executive recruiting. Nelson identifies CEOs, COOs, CFOs, and other C-suite executives and senior leaders on behalf of not-for-profit and for-profit hospitals, health systems, integrated delivery systems, managed care organizations, academic medical centers, medical schools and group practices.

Margaret Base is an executive search consultant in Witt/Kieffer’s Healthcare practice. Margaret supports Witt/Kieffer’s national Healthcare team in conducting searches for CEOs, CFOs, CNOs, COOs, and many other executive roles within hospitals, health systems, integrated delivery networks, and other organizations.

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