Five steps emerging physician leaders take.

Physicians are often considered natural born leaders, as medical training historically has required autonomy and focused on the needs of “one captain” of the ship. Yet few work in broad leadership positions in which they oversee more than a few staff or tackle major administrative projects. This is a dilemma as new healthcare models require not only changes in the autonomous physician-driven care model but also transformational physician leaders to guide and ensure alignment for optimized clinical outcomes, better productivity, sustainable growth across the continuum of care, and other strategic priorities. I see more physicians looking to get into administration – some even straight out of medical school – but the sheer need is greater than the interest so far.

The result can be that “an individual who has not been well prepared to lead is thrust into a very challenging leadership situation,” said a recent Mayo Clinic report. In the senior executive recruitments that my firm conducts, we have fewer qualified candidates for given positions compared to even a few years ago.

To solve this problem more physicians need opportunities and encouragement to bridge into administration, whether they are pursuing roles as medical directors, heads of group practices, service line chiefs, and so on. Many hospitals and health systems understand this and have started their own physician leadership academies and training programs. (Some require their physician executives to complete this training prior to taking on leadership role.) There are also of course MBA, MMM (Master of Medical Management), and other relevant graduate programs, while medical schools are providing more business and management training for students and residents. It is a lot to ask of a physician to practice and obtain another advanced degree, but many do and I advise it. An MBA won’t get someone the position they want but it certainly helps.

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What are health systems and other employers – and the recruiters working for them – considering to signal readiness? It has more to do with the display of a variety of hard and soft leadership skills, and a pattern of development and career progression. Perhaps the most asked-for skills that I see in job descriptions for physician leaders are soft skills such as emotional intelligence (values, self-awareness), communicativeness and interpersonal skills, collaborativeness, and empathy.

One organization recruiting recently for a Chief Clinical Officer asked for the following in the job description: “We seek candidates who possess exceptional relationship and team building skills, and bring a systems approach to problem solving, consensus building and process improvement.” The ideal candidate would be an individual “who acknowledges the value each member brings to the success of the larger organization.”

Some physicians are naturally gifted with softer leadership qualities, but like almost anything there is a learning and development component. What steps should emerging physician leaders take?

  1. Leverage self assessment. Assessment methodologies are becoming increasingly used by employers and executive search consultants to gauge the capabilities of potential hires, as well as their suitability to a given position. Aspiring physician leaders should seek such assessments out themselves, or take advantage of them when requested, simply as a means of knowing themselves better. What are your gaps, areas needing growth? (Knowing them is the first step to ensuring they are not career derailers.) What strengths should you play up more in your work? Assessment can provide physician leaders true insight into themselves.
  2. Seek out committee leadership. Doctors are used to and expected to make quick, confident decisions, either by themselves or with a closely defined group of colleagues (eg, peers and nursing staff). Committee work can introduce physicians to a broader, more consensus-driven environment. Examples of committees on which doctors may be asked to serve include quality improvement, community relations, program development, strategic planning, and ad-hoc groups around special projects and initiatives. In a recruiter’s eyes, committee work builds breadth and shows a dedication to the greater good of the organization.
  3. Embrace coaching. Many executives in the corporate world owe their success to coaching. While coaching can serve many purposes, most of all it gives an up-and-coming executive an objective consultant to bounce ideas off of and confide in. A coaching session can be a safe space to discuss executive ideas.
  4. Explore mentoring. Mentoring can take many forms. It is akin to coaching but from a peer or colleague whom one trusts. For aspiring physician executives, a mentor could be a more senior administrator (physician or not). And it could be someone internal or external to one’s organization. Peer-to-peer and even “reverse” mentoring in which younger professionals provide counsel to more seasoned ones, are possible. A good resource on types of mentoring can be found on the website of the Wake Forest School of Medicine.
  5. Leverage search consultants. Executive search consultants can provide honest input to physician executive candidates on their merits for career advancement. This includes the soft skills. We can also provide constructive criticism and advice to candidates in the name of supporting their careers.

Qualified physician leaders are in short supply and great demand. Those executives with the full complement of experience, clinical expertise, and hard and soft administrative and leadership skills can chart their own career advancement.