How to land your first health care management job

Put those technical skills in your back pocket, it’s time to work on your people (and other “soft”) skills.

How to land your first health care management job

Those who work in health care management don’t directly care for patients, but they have a strong influence on the way an organization provides care. And, as in all industries, it takes a whole different skill set to become a manager in health care.

Duties for a manager working at a health care institution may include improving the organizational structure of the institution, shaping policy or procedures of a department or facility, or helping to plan health services. And every organization needs management. A manager in a health care setting may work in any of a variety of organizations, including hospitals, ambulatory care centers, public health departments and universities—and in a few non-traditional settings, as well, such as schools or other unrelated businesses.

In short: If you’re interested in taking on this new challenge, then it’s time to work on your people skills.

Roger Samuel, managing director and practice leader at Gallagher MSA Search, a health care executive search firm in Kansas City, Missouri, says the No. 1 attribute employers are looking for in director-level positions and above is the ability to build credible, collaborative relationships. And all that tactical clinical or administrative work experience you’ve come to know and love isn’t as critical to your performance. “Specific jobs require specific skills and experience, but the differentiator will be the softer skills,” Samuel says.

If you’re ready to grow your career toward a manager’s track any health care setting, these are two steps that can help get you there.

Get your degrees, plural

A master’s degree is rapidly becoming required for many health management positions, so be ready to go back to school. Public health and health care administration are two popular degrees, says Robert Boroff, managing director of Reaction Search International, an executive search firm in San Ramon, California. A master’s in health administration can prepare you for a broad array of leadership roles across the continuum of care and finance system, he says. Coursework in business or public administration supplemented with health management can also be helpful.

Be willing to start low and climb

Even with a master’s degree, your first job is likely to be low on the ladder. You may start out as an administrative assistant in a financial department, or as an assistant administrator for a small facility, says Michael Hoff, health care manager of business development at Chicago-based Addison Group, which recruits nonclinical health care employees.

Boroff says many health care employers are focused on cost, so they’re willing to look at people straight out of college or grad school who are willing to commit for the long haul. “If you want to be in health care in that setting, find any door to get your foot into,” he says. “Work hard and work your way up the ladder.”

At grad school, look for internships, residencies or fellowships that can help you get your foot in the door and establish a career history. If you’re crossing over to health care management, highlight your stability in your previous roles. Networking may also come in handy in terms of breaking into the field. Many health care management employees once began their careers in public accounting or consulting, then moved into health care through client contacts, Samuel says.

Above all else, employers that are hiring health care management candidates are looking for stability, even in entry-level positions, Boroff says. They want people who have been in jobs for several years or who have some kind of progressive work history, he says: “They don’t want to hire someone who’s been jumping around.”

Find the right jobs, plural

So you went back to school and you’re willing to start low down on the org chart. Your next step is an obvious one: Find the right gig.

Often, the management job you’re after will have “manager,”  “supervisor” or “strategist”  in the title, so shoot for those to start. Also, you’ll want to tailor your resume appropriately depending on the job—or jobs, (you’ll probably be applying to more than one after all.) For example, if you’re applying to a nurse manager position, think about the times you’ve helped manage people and situations in your current or prior jobs. Do you have experience managing a budget? Build that into your resume, too.

Again, your next boss knows (or at least assumes) you can do the day-to-day job. You’ve got the credentials and track record to prove it. So be prepared to show that you’ve got that whole other set of skills in your toolkit, you just haven’t been given the title to match.

And though, as a manager, you may not be working directly with patients anymore, you’ll be working with other health care professionals to make them better at working with patients. It’s a win-win for everyone.

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