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What Recruiters Look for in a Clinician Executive

Analysis  |  By Debra Shute  
   October 13, 2016

The ranks of physicians and nurses in the C-suite are growing, but aspiring leaders must be prepared for strategic roles.

As healthcare systems strive to improve outcomes and reduce costs amid the shift toward value-based care, more senior leadership positions are being occupied by physicians, nurses, and other clinicians-turned-executives.

For more insight into clinicians' growing prevalence in the C-suite, I spoke with Linda J. Komnick, MHA, and Christine Mackey-Ross, RN, BSN, MBA, both with the Illinois-based executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

HLM: What are some of your general observations about this trend?

Komnick: We've seen a significant shift in executive leadership bringing a clinical voice to the table. Systems today are looking for physician leaders who understand the full continuum of care, how to optimize funds throughout the organization, managing risk. They're really seen as the catalyst to guide the transformation we're all experiencing of volume to value.

Mackey-Ross: They're real executive jobs now. If you had a chair of a department 10 years ago, for example, that person's emphasis was really programmatic on recruiting physicians, the research component, maybe the education component in a community hospital setting.

But now, physicians are really in the thick of strategic decisions. They are expected to have the same business acumen as any other member of the leadership team.

HLM: Which is more significant: Health systems seeking leaders with clinical backgrounds or are more clinicians aspiring to lead?

Mackey-Ross: I think it's both. When Linda and I started doing this, we could count probably fewer than 200 physician executives in the way that we're talking about, with real portfolios of accountability.

And my guess is that it's probably in the thousands now. I would also guess that the largest-growing population of people attaining MBAs are probably physicians.

We have also worked with a small number of physicians who went to medical school never really intending to practice in the traditional sense, but with the intent of being physician executives.

Komnick: In the past, physicians came up to these leadership roles more based on their clinical skills than their management experience.

HLM: So how important is it for aspiring leaders to get an MBA? What are the minimum requirements?

Mackey-Ross: The minimum requirements depend on the role for which you're applying. Having an MBA will not get you the job, but it may help tip the scales. If I were advising a younger physician executive I would say to absolutely get it, as he or she would have a career limit without it, especially if aspiring to be a system CEO.

Komnick: I agree. Experience is always going to outweigh a piece of paper, but if you've got both, you're on top. And the degree doesn't have to be an MBA. I'm also a big fan of the MPH.

HLM: What does the supply and demand look like?

Komnick: There are so many organizations that are looking for these people. We used to have between eight and 10 candidates for these types of positions, now I'd say we have three to five, and they're each looking at two to three opportunities.

HLM: How specifically does an MBA or MPH help prepare a clinician for executive leadership?

Mackey-Ross: Typically, quantitative skills come very easily to physicians because they are used to analyzing data. The part that is a learning experience is the qualitative piece, which is how to work through others, how to delegate, how to redefine the meaning of team, how to build consensus, and how to manage team.

Those skills are developed well in the way most MBA programs are run, which is a team learning experience.

Debra Shute is the Senior Physicians Editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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