November 30, 2023

How to Build Better Physician Leaders

Clinician Leadership

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Despite brilliant careers as clinicians, most doctors in the U.S. have no leadership training, reports the Harvard Business Review. Additionally, they rise through the ranks uniformly, often lacking the ability to effectively coordinate teams, coach and receive feedback, communicate and display emotional intelligence, the HBR explains.

Not surprisingly, there’s a tremendous need for integrating clinical experience with leadership mastery in healthcare. It’s a common reason why many physician leaders seek out leadership coaching.

A unique perspective to patient care and organization outcomes

To be fair, I believe all physicians are leaders in some capacity. It starts with being a practicing clinician or researcher, where physicians use their clinical expertise as team leaders. As clinical leaders, physicians have a unique perspective that helps to bridge the gap between clinical expertise and organizational goals. Physician leaders are vital to ensuring clinical operations align with the overall mission and vision of the organization.

Physicians also play a pivotal role in quality, patient safety, innovation, and research. Just as important, studies show that doctors want to be led by doctors, trusting their peers to make the right decisions in balancing patient outcomes and costs. 

With shared governance, physician leaders are in a unique position to drive engagement among medical staff and improve a slew of components that make up effective healthcare delivery: quality, safety, wellbeing and staff retention, to name a few.

Challenges for physician leaders

As physicians take on progressive leadership roles and responsibilities, they have a unique set of challenges in leading a healthcare organization. The following are common roadblocks we often see in our coaching practice:

Limited leadership experience or expertise

As alluded earlier, when I went through medical school and residency, there was no training in how to lead teams effectively. Rather, we learned how to be independent, and how to debate and defend our  clinical perspectives from opposing conclusions. Other critical leadership skills such as strategic planning, relationship management, emotional intelligence (EQ), workplace culture, and business principles were not taught.

Trained to give orders, not build consensus

Physicians are trained to give orders, which are then carried out by others. Authoritarian leadership styles — the “because I said so” type — isn’t a recipe for sustained team engagement, though it has its place when responding to emergencies. By contrast, high-performing physician leaders collaborate with others and lead through influence.

Limited (if any) training in providing effective feedback, especially to colleagues

Physicians are in a unique position to develop their colleagues, shape work experiences and the culture of an organization. However, there is an underlying reluctance to provide feedback to other physician peers when it would be beneficial to them and the organization. Most of the time, feedback falls to peer review bodies or medical staff processes, where it is prone to be felt as disciplinary.

No shortcuts or quick fixes to long-term challenges

Each day, physicians in your organization manage acute problems, which are resolved relatively quickly (e.g., the management of acute myocardial infarction, sepsis, etc.). It’s a different story for physician leaders who are tasked with leading change initiatives and organizational strategies that may take years to come to fruition. Many (if not most) leadership problems don’t have a quick fix. Instead, they require both short-term and long-term solutions.

Becoming or building better physician leaders

I have been working with some organizations who have been successful developing a bench of future physician leaders. What I’ve observed is that they have made it a priority and they are intentional. The physician leaders in those organizations proactively identify and develop other physicians, equipping them to step into leadership roles. More specifically, they help them develop their EQ, business acumen, relational skills and strategic mindset.

At MEDI Leadership we have had the privilege of being part of the solution by working with physicians in various capacities. For leaders who already occupy senior or executive leadership roles, we engage in individual coaching where the goals are unique to each of those leaders, their current role and organization. We also engage with physician leaders as part of a broader team engagement which involves both individual and team coaching. Lastly, we have engaged with many physicians who have been invited to take part in an organizational cohort of future leaders. 

Giving physician leaders the best chance to succeed

In their quest to become better physician leaders, many have leaned on executive coaching for their best chance of driving meaningful change and sustaining new behaviors long-term — both in themselves and in those they lead. While there are many good coaches without a healthcare background, it sure helps to know your executive coach has been in your shoes as a fellow clinician leader and understands the complexities of healthcare environments.

Because MEDI Leadership coaches have long careers in healthcare, we have a deep understanding of the unique challenges affecting your reputation, relationships and impact as a physician leader. Put simply, we’ve sat in your chair before and can easily understand what you’re up against.

As you contemplate the changes you want to make in your career path or organization in the months ahead, physician leadership coaching can function as a “wilderness guide,” helping you avoid hidden pitfalls and dead ends, and shepherding you through the surest path to your desired destination.

To explore what’s possible with physician leadership coaching, drop us a note. We’ll discuss your options and help you clarify next steps. 

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About the author

Gary Hoffman, MD

Gary Hoffman, MD, is a seasoned executive coach with rich, first-hand experience as a physician executive. His expertise is working with fast-changing healthcare organizations, executive and physician leaders, and clinical leaders transitioning from clinical to executive roles.

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