From Physician to Physician Leader: Developing Your Skills for Success

Many physician leaders are highly skilled clinicians, but haven’t had extensive training in management.

As academic health centers are challenged by the dynamic health care environment, they must find ways to adapt in order to thrive. This has resulted in the growing trend of bringing physicians into leadership roles with the goal of introducing change and setting new directions for the institution.

Physician leaders ranging from department chairs to division chiefs all play an important role in driving an institution forward in all areas, including finance, patient safety and quality, organizational behavior, and beyond. This not only calls for new skills, but also comes with new challenges for leaders.

Transitioning to Leadership

While physician training gives doctors the skills they need to master their individual roles as providers, researchers, and teachers, that training isn’t generally applicable to becoming a manager.

When one becomes a leader, they gain responsibility for much broader areas, including strategy, operations, and finances. It’s important to understand not only the key components of those areas, but also the right questions to ask.

“In order to succeed, physician leaders need enough training to know what questions to ask, what they’ll need from others, and what potential strategies they can use,” says Mary C. Finlay, MBA, Program Director of Leadership Development for Physicians in Academic Health Centers and Lecturer in the Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “They also need to understand broader market trends and changes that could impact their ability to grow or develop their division or department.”

Once they have a grasp on these key areas, leaders can start to conduct analyses and take stock of potential problems or areas for improvement within their department.

In order to succeed, physician leaders need enough training to know what questions to ask, what they’ll need from others, and what potential strategies they can use.

“When you buy a house, you do an assessment or walk-through,” says Vinod K. Sahney, PhD, a faculty member on Leadership Development for Physicians in Academic Health Centers, an adjunct Professor of Health Policy and Management in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Chan School and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. “You have to do the same when you become a leader. You have to figure out the most important issues to tackle, and what new training, technology, and facilities are needed.”

The Benefits of Physician Leaders

Physician leaders bring a unique perspective to leadership at academic health centers. Because of their experience working with other clinicians, they have an astute understanding of how provider teams operate, allowing them to optimize operations in their division or department and influence other caregivers to drive change.

Physician leaders also identify where there are potential problems. For example, if there are issues with obtaining necessary supplies or with patient flow, they have insight into the daily impacts of those challenges and what solutions need to be prioritized.

And even beyond the viewpoint and experience they bring as physicians, new leaders are often beneficial to an organization.

“Sometimes, if leaders have been in place for a while, they don’t feel incentivized to make improvements,” says Sahney. “New energy is good.”

Developing Leadership Skills

While physicians may need both medical and operational knowledge to effectively run a division or department, there are also five key leadership competencies they should develop in order to succeed:

  • Emotional intelligence: Emotional intelligence, which is the awareness of and ability to manage both your own and other’s emotions, is crucial to successful leadership. Developing this form of intelligence can help physician leaders work with and lead others. In turn, this will help them develop teams to carry out the work of the division or department.
  • Self-awareness: An understanding of their strengths and weaknesses can help leaders avoid blind spots and find the appropriate people to assist them. It’s also important for a leader to understand how others see them, so they can adjust as necessary.
  • Conflict management: In any organization, there will always be conflicts between individuals or teams. Leaders must understand the tools and techniques they can use to help resolve those conflicts.
  • Decision-making skills: By focusing on evaluating difficult situations that arise in their organizations, physician leaders are better equipped to assess and select options to ameliorate the problem.
  • Influence: In order to move others along in new directions, and to get others to carry out their decisions, leaders sometimes need to use influence rather than direct power. In order to cultivate influence, leaders need to understand that people represent different areas, interests, and opinions. They also need to be able to work through that complexity to reach a goal.

Just as physicians have to learn clinical expertise in order to practice medicine, they have to learn leadership disciplines and skills in order to lead a division or department.

The Challenges of Being a Physician Leader                                            

Being a leader will always come with challenges, whether they’re resource-, personnel-, or market-based. A frequent challenge is the simple fact that it can be hard to get people to change. It’s important to get employees behind new directions a division or department is taking, but they may be resistant to doing things differently.

However, says Sahney, “Physician leaders have a responsibility to change the direction of the institution. When there are problems, they don’t have to accept that it’s always like that. They should utilize technology, other people’s expertise, and whatever resources are available to help.”

Another unique challenge that physician leaders often face is the shift from being individual contributors to leading and working with others. This significant step can lead to lack of confidence. In addition, moving to a leadership role necessitates having a different knowledge base, such as financial terms. The process of learning necessary new knowledge can also lead to a temporary loss of confidence.

The key to overcoming these challenges, says Finlay, is to learn. Just as physicians have to learn clinical expertise in order to practice medicine, they have to learn leadership disciplines and skills in order to lead a division or department. In addition, they need to learn tools and techniques that can be applied in different situations that might arise.

The last thing that can help physician leaders succeed, according to Finlay and Sahney, is a strong network to help throughout the transition and beyond. Just as physicians seek consults from other specialties, they benefit from consulting other “sub specialties of management” to help them carry out their goals and be the best leader they can be.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Leadership Development for Physicians in Academic Health Centers, a leadership development program for physicians in administrative positions in academic health centers. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.