With over two decades of dedicated service in the healthcare sector, Karanja Smith stands as a seasoned professional currently holding the position of Director at Children’s National Hospital, overseeing Environmental Services (EVS), Linen, and Sustainability.
Throughout his career, Karanja has played a pivotal role in shaping and implementing crucial policies and procedures within Environmental Services. From safety measures to addressing critical issues such as Ebola and the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19, he has spearheaded comprehensive Floorcare programs. His commitment extends beyond the operational realm, as he imparts valuable insights on team building and achieving optimal outcomes as a lecturer for Children’s Quality Improvement Leadership Training.
Karanja's influence is not confined to the lecture halls; for the past three years, he has contributed as a presenter at the AHE conference, and most recently at the Press Ganey Conference HX23. Celebrating the collective efforts of his team, he underscores their dedication to providing patients with an exceptional experience through an environment of excellence.
In this interview, we will explore the significance of staff engagement, the importance of maintaining a constant and fluid line of communication, and the inclusion of EVS leadership at the decision-making table which fosters relationships and collaborations that drive progress for the department and the entire organization.
Interview with Karanja Smith, MHA, Director, EVS/Linen & Sustainability Support Services at Children’s National Hospital
Q: Congratulations on being recognized as an AHE EVS Emerging Leader. Can you share your journey and background that led to this achievement?
Karanja: Absolutely. It all began with my focus on frontline staff. During our recruitment phase, I ensured our new hires learned both theoretical and practical aspects of the job. Beyond the technicalities, I took a personal interest in them, asking about their aspirations and 3 to 5-year plans. I aimed to instill the idea that this job is a starting point, not a final destination. After about a year and a half, I ventured into public speaking. This led to an invitation to speak at the AHE conference in 2021, subsequently becoming a regular speaker. With 17 years in the industry, I've experienced diverse leadership styles, shaping my own approach. Leadership is crucial in addressing industry challenges like staff shortages and burnout. My association with AHE as an EVS Emerging Leader is a testament to this journey.
Q: The industry is grappling with staffing shortages. How do you balance recruiting quality talent amid these challenges?
Karanja: Our vacancy rate has sometimes exceeded 30%, as a director with a staff of about 225, I have to navigate the challenges of hiring, recruiting, and retaining staff. We've experimented with in-person and virtual job fair interviews, especially during COVID, where creativity was crucial in assessing engagement and commitment to our organization.
In this industry, we've faced the impact of COVID on recruitment, with healthcare workers reevaluating their careers, leading to a shrinking pool of candidates. Burnout and fatigue have affected efficiency, emphasizing the importance of leadership in keeping staff engaged. The prolonged challenges have led some to seek different career paths. In our recruitment efforts, we aim to market the healthcare environment differently, showcasing diverse opportunities within the hospital beyond clinical roles.
Q: You attended the recent AHE conference. Did you come across any innovative ideas or advancements that could reshape infection prevention or enhance EVS practices?
Karanja: Absolutely, one noteworthy innovation was a simulation training session. It involved virtual reality goggles, allowing individuals to perform tasks virtually. This approach aligns with the gaming trend and could be a captivating way to train the new generation entering the field.
Q: You mentioned your goal of creating career ladders within your department. How do you approach continuous education and training for your EVS team?
Karanja: We conduct regular quality assessments, safety audits, and inspections to ensure standards are met. Additionally, we offer specialized training programs, such as CSCT and T-CHEST, leading to certifications. These certifications are part of our evolving career ladder, with negotiations underway to link them to wage enhancements.
Q: Building career pathways within the department is an inspiring initiative. How do you encourage staff members to consider diverse career options within the hospital?
Karanja: We aim to illuminate the various functionalities within individuals and encourage them to pursue certifications and degrees. By fostering confidence and support, we want our team to explore different roles within the hospital, recognizing that a fulfilling career journey may involve lateral moves within the organization.
Q: How do you build and foster relationships with other healthcare departments to ensure a cohesive approach to cleanliness and safety?
Karanja: During the height of COVID, we collaborated closely with IP, allowing for fresh perspectives and effective training delivery. Recognizing that varied voices resonate differently, this collaborative approach ensures a comprehensive and unified approach to maintaining a safe and clean hospital environment.
Q: What are some of the current top priorities you have for your EVS team?
Karanja: In terms of top priorities, my focus right now is on fostering a culture of collaboration and continuous learning within the EVS department. It's crucial for us to work seamlessly with other departments like infection control, nursing, and facilities to ensure a safe and clean environment for our pediatric patients at Children's National.
Another priority is investing in the well-being and professional growth of my team. Building strong relationships with each team member, understanding their individual goals, and providing support is essential. I believe that a motivated and engaged team is more likely to deliver high-quality service.
Q: Are there any challenges you or your team are facing now?
Karanja: In terms of challenges, balancing budget constraints with maintaining excellence is a constant struggle. It requires effective leadership and strategic decision-making to ensure that we meet our financial goals without compromising the quality of our services. This involves finding creative solutions and making informed choices that align with the hospital's overall objectives. Additionally, recruiting and retaining skilled staff members can be challenging, especially when faced with industry-wide issues like burnout and staff shortages. To overcome this, I prioritize creating a positive work environment, emphasizing team cohesion, and demonstrating genuine care for each team member's well-being.
Q: You've mentioned purpose and growth. Who has been your hero or a significant influence in your life?
Karanja: Without a doubt, it's my parents. My mom, a retired nurse, introduced me to healthcare and patient care. She worked tirelessly, often on the bone marrow transplant unit, imparting invaluable knowledge. My dad, an engineer, brought structure into my life, balancing passion with guidance. Both played a vital role in shaping who I am today.
Q: If you could have a conversation with anyone, past or present, who would it be?
Karanja: Barack Obama. I see it as an opportunity for a conversation that could lead to access. If I can communicate my ideas, goals, and passion effectively, it could open doors for a more substantial impact. It's not just about the conversation but about leveraging it for access to make a difference.
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