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How to Spot a Promising Physician Leader

Analysis  |  By Debra Shute  
   July 13, 2017

Formal advanced business education isn't essential for clinicians to succeed in the C-suite. But certain personality traits do matter.

It's one thing to scan a physician's CV and learn what business credentials he or she would bring to a leadership role. It's another to assess whether a person's character traits are right for the job.

Selecting successful clinician leaders requires a bit of both.

"Sometimes, unfortunately, it's a bit of trial and error," says Cynthia Hundorfean, MBA, president and CEO of Allegheny Health Network, a Pittsburgh-based integrated health system with seven hospitals and numerous outpatient sites across Erie and western Pennsylvania.

"But you have to be very good at selecting leaders who you think have the personalities, as well as the qualifications, to be able to lead efforts that are beyond their basic skill set," she says.

More Than Intelligence

It is a process of both art and science.

"Every doctor is intelligent," says Lynn Massingale, MD, cofounder and chairman of Knoxville-based TeamHealth, which offers outsourced clinical care across a variety of specialties to approximately 3,400 acute and postacute facilities and physician groups nationwide. "At the same time, they don't all have the right personalities or interpersonal skills for leadership."

At TeamHealth, clinicians identified for leadership positions undergo evaluations—such as DiSC profiling, a personality and behavior assessment tool—that help illuminate traits of one's potential leadership style.

"We actually use some tools for testing prospective physician and business leaders, but we look for high emotional IQ, empathy, ability to build consensus, etc., as starting points," says Massingale.

"Then we take those prospective physician leaders and help them understand what their strengths and weaknesses are, show them the areas they need to work on to be better leaders, and over a number of courses, augment their skills in conflict resolution and communication, to fill in the gaps."

The Right Stuff

But personality traits in and of themselves aren't necessarily good or bad for leadership. One person might tend to behave more analytically, for example, while another communicates best on an emotional level. These are qualities to consider when matching the right person to the right team or opportunity.

Some qualities that are consistently linked to success, in Hundorfean's opinion, are a candidate's willingness to be self-aware, reflective, and coachable.

"To be a strong physician leader, you need to be a good physician. I also look for people with warmth and energy," says Hundorfean.

"But most of all, I look for leaders who are direct. I like people who say what they mean, and don't waste time," she says. "When you're dealing with patients, physicians have to be direct with them, and I want our physician leaders to do the same when they are talking to me, or to employees."

Ability to Engage

Promising leaders also understand their own assets.

For example, Mark Rubino, MD, MMM, became president of AHN's Forbes Hospital in 2016, and holds specific standards for himself in carrying out the goals of the promotion.

"If we're going to move the organization forward, it comes down to the engagement of frontline staff," Rubino says.

"It can get a little overwhelming in regard to the amount of tasks that are necessary to perform this job, but I get very uncomfortable if part of my day isn't spent walking those floors, interacting with the nurses, doctors, and other caregivers. I learn more from that than I do almost anything else," he says.

Debra Shute is the Senior Physicians Editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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