Let others know...

Building the Next Generation of SPD Leadership

Several years ago, a colleague gave me a lily, stating it was fitting because I was in a dead-end job. She thought she was being clever and in her own way she was trying to tell me to move on into a field where I could be more. Well, I am here to tell you that there is so much more that we can be as sterile processing leaders. Sterile processing leadership is not a dead-end job; it is an exceptional job with near unlimited potential. In sterile processing, we can be the difference. 

The sterile processing industry is at a crossroad and critically needs the next generation of sterile processing leaders to guide the industry through innovation and excellence. We need authentic leaders who care and support their teams. We need collaborative leaders who can break through barriers to bridge the gap between sterile processing, clinical leadership, and executive leadership. We need innovators and change drivers. We need leaders who make striving for excellence contagious. We need difference makers.

Authenticity
Have you ever worked for a boss that did not care about you or was fake? A boss that was in the job for the power and glory? Unfortunately, positions of power attract people that want power. Strong leaders are those who are authentic and caring, not power hungry. Authentic leaders see their team members as partners, not as a means to an end. Authentic leaders care about their teams as individuals and try to understand how best to support and develop them. This leadership style creates a departmental culture that feels safe to work in. Team members are not afraid to speak up and bring up concerns.

To build authenticity takes time and effort. The leader must be available and build connections with team members. Rounding is an effective first step. Get to know the team and what is important to them. Be available to hear their concerns and ideas. Listen with an open mind. Share your own mistakes and learnings from your experience. Understand each team member and share parts of yourself so that they can understand you, too. Authenticity goes both ways.  Encourage team members to speak up, stop the line, and problem solve openly without fear of a backlash. Reward individuals and teams that report errors and show a willingness to root cause and prevent future problems.

One of the mistakes I see new leaders make is either becoming friends with their teams or treating their teams as servants. Neither of these power dynamics work. An authentic leader creates relationships with their teams, but there is a separation. Crucial conversations must happen. Failing to have difficult conversations with team members can set them up for failure and lead to escalating problems. People want to know if they are doing something wrong, and an authentic leader is able to have those conversations. Those conversations must be handled with dignity and respect, and most importantly with an open mind to understand the team member’s perspective.

Breaking barriers
Effective sterile processing leaders must learn to break through barriers to ensure their teams are supported and set up for success. Imagine a department where equipment is held together with tape, no staff in sight, and the OR/SPD relationship is explosive. In these departments, there is typically a historical lack of leadership or leadership collaboration with the clinical leadership or executive leadership. Many sterile processing leaders take on roles without a strong background in how to analyze data to build business plans or how to build collaborative relationships to get those plans understood by key stakeholders leading to implementation. Over time, this leads to a department in crisis.

Historically, sterile processing has been a subordinate department to either materials management or perioperative services. These days we are seeing sterile processing becoming its own department, often a sterile processing director. In some large organizations, we are seeing senior director and vice president positions. As this structure becomes the norm, we need leaders to lean in and gain the leadership skills they need to get their departments the tools and resources they so critically need. Leaders need analytical and business skills in addition to their technical knowledge. Most importantly, they need to know how to build collaborative relationships based on trust and respect with key stakeholders. Those relationships are what ultimately gets the business plan heard and approved. Relationships break barriers.

Innovation and change
The sterile processing industry is changing rapidly. Innovation and change are the norm. A successful sterile processing leader does not lead change for change’s sake, but because it is the right thing to do. We cannot be stuck in our ways anymore “because we have always done it this way.” It is time for us to step up and lead our teams through this rapidly evolving world. It feels like change is churning everywhere nonstop, how do we get our teams to innovate and evolve?

Trust yourself and your team to brainstorm and build creative solutions. The more involved the team is in the idea, the more likely it will be successful. Collaborate with your team, keep your mind open to discovering new ways of looking at problems and solutions. Learn from your team. Get them to speak up about what is really happening in the workplace. Effective sterile processing leaders thrive on learning, which is contagious in their teams. Learn from the team and build understanding of each other and the problem. Be brave. Change takes courage and authenticity. Do not be afraid to take on the hard projects, lean into them. Do not be afraid of failure. An initial implementation may not always be perfect; in fact, it rarely is. Keep improving, keep course correcting and tweaking the process or innovation toward perfection. 

Leading change and innovation is not easy. Building authenticity, learning to collaborate and build relationships, analyzing data to build business plans, and trusting your team are all critical to any innovation or change implementation. Grow as a leader. Become the sterile processing leader the industry needs. Sterile processing leadership is how we can make a difference in our teams lives and our patients’ lives.


Marjorie Wall is a director of sterile processing at Kaiser Permanente and IAHCSMM board of directors member. As a sterile processing leader with over 20 years of industry experience, Marjorie pushes the boundaries for change and innovation in her organization and in the industry. Marjorie built her career turning around underperforming departments and is now an industry change driver as a writer and keynote speaker.

Marjorie has achieved a masters of organizational leadership from Azusa Pacific University, CRCST, CIS, and CHL certifications from IAHCSMM, and Six Sigma Black Belt Certification from the American Society for Quality. Marjorie has personally developed 12 frontline staff into SPD leaders and 13 SPD techs into Six Sigma Yellow Belts. 

Marjorie Wall’s life philosophy is, “Sometimes you have to take a leap and build your wings on the way down.” We have to be willing to change and improve through the toughest challenges. We have to lead SPD.

Sign up to read Marjorie Wall’s feature articles in NewSplash!NewSplash is a free weekly digital newsletter dedicated to providing useful information to CS and IP professionals who strive to keep patient safety high.