Michael Lalor, Chief Medical Officer
For many physicians, there may come a time in their careers when transitioning to a leadership or administrative role seems attractive. After years of rigorous schooling and grueling rounds for hours on end, the idea of sitting behind a desk contending with paperwork and meetings might sound like a leisurely alternative to grappling with an endless stream of sick patients.
Generally, it is physicians who have climbed to the top of their field that are given this option. Walking into that first leadership position, it can be easy to think, “I am here because I am the best.”
But it is important for anyone making this career pivot to recognize that their years of experience in the field don’t translate directly to leadership success, and the methods they’ve relied on to rise through the clinical ranks might be completely ineffective in this new role. When making this jump, it is important to leave your ego at the door and follow the advice below to achieve real leadership success.
Forget About ‘Should’
As doctors, we spend our whole careers writing the book of “should” for everyone else in the room. Constantly, we are telling patients refrains such as, “You should drink less”; “You should stop smoking”; or “You should exercise more.” But in a leadership scenario, this approach may not fly. No longer is it about being the smartest person in the room with all the answers. To the contrary, that is a quick way to alienate others and lose your footing. When you are in a boardroom or talking with your team, there is going to be much more grey area than at the bedside of a patient. Now it is about collaboration and making everyone else feel like their voice is heard, even if you make the ultimate decision.
Be Okay With Being Wrong
In a clinical setting, being wrong can mean your patient gets sicker, or in an extreme case, dies. In medical school, this is pounded into your head, and as a result, when faced with a decision, you grow skilled at coming to the right answer after enough research and study. But in leadership, sometimes no matter how long you spend grappling with a series of choices, you might never get any closer to a magical “right” answer.
It is important to remember that much of what you do as a leader won’t be as clear-cut as in medicine. Oftentimes, neither choice is “wrong.” It can be a hard concept to grasp, for instance, that two people can have widely different views of the same exact topic, and both can be correct. As a leader, you have to recognize that often there’s truth in each person’s viewpoint. And too much analysis can lead to decision paralysis. Sometimes you have to just pick a path and course correct later if needed.
Trust Your Gut
Physicians are taught to question their judgment. For instance, a patient might come into the ICU and your initial diagnosis is that this person has pneumonia. But you don’t just diagnose them with pneumonia. You create a “differential diagnosis” and run through everything else it could be; then you have to rule out all those other possibilities.
In leadership, you’ll be better served by listening and respecting that voice in your head. Whether it’s a new hire or a budgeting decision—your initial instincts shouldn’t be ignored. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do the work and the analysis and examine all the facts. But many times you’ll be asked to make a decision that doesn’t involve black-and-white-facts. And that’s where you’ll need to have the confidence to trust your gut.
Accept New Metrics of Success
A full-time practicing clinician knows where her boundaries begin and end. Her responsibility is to herself and her patients. She is focused on her performance, and she has total control over the outcome. For most clinical physicians, if they work hard, if they do good work, they will succeed. But that’s not always the case with leadership roles. You can work as hard as possible and do everything you can to improve and move in the right direction—and still fail miserably.
There’s a key reason for that: So much of your effectiveness as a leader is based on your individual ability to change and influence others. That’s a huge shift for people who have transitioned out of clinical practice. If they fail to recognize that difference, they’ll lean on their old ways of just working harder, without the perspective to do better. Leadership roles become so much less about individual performance and more about one’s ability to help others achieve their own success, and as a result, the team’s success.