From clinician to leader

Recently we had the privilege of spending a day with clinicians working in emergency departments from across Australia and other countries.

They identified one of their greatest challenges, as in many other professions, is the transition from working as a technical specialist to a leader of technical specialists.

The traits that make doctors great clinicians don’t always translate to motivating and supporting others to do their best and be part of a team. For example, an orthopedic surgeon who excels at meticulously re-assembling tiny shattered bone fragments may find herself at odds with her team members or colleagues if she attempts to manage them with the same eye for detail and compulsion for control.

When teasing out some of the issues they raised the following:-

  • We don’t speak the same language as the medical administrators
  • I don’t understand the broader system in which I work
  • How to deal better with conflict, especially when we are time pressured?
  • How do I engage effectively and motivate my people?
  • How do I make changes and engage my colleagues and people in the change?
  • How can I be more credible and influential?
  • How do we get our people to work better together?
  • How to deal with the silos and complexity of a big hospital system?
  • How to manage the paradox of patient centred care in a large bureaucracy?

Over the coming months we will attempt to provide some ideas, insights and guidance on these issues.

In the meantime however, there are some pointers that clinicians, and any technical expert moving to a leadership role, can take to help start to move through the transition.

1. Understand the role of a leader

Understand that the role of a leader is to help others to perform at their best – not necessarily to be the best yourself. Understand that you are not managing or supervising tasks, your primary role is to help others excel.

2.  Build relationships through regular face to face interaction

Put priority on speaking  (and listening!) regularly and informally to the people you are leading, your colleagues and medical administrators to understand better their perspectives, and what is important for them – medical administrators will not go away. This is the basic requirement for building relationships – without which you will not be able to lead. No one can lead without the permission of the group or team; it is really the team who empowers you to lead not your position. And … do not try to do this by email!

3.  Actively seek support

Seek out the support of others – those with different experience and skills from you. This may be through colleagues, team members, administrators, other professionals, coaches, training programs, and reading.  It may be in the form of advice, frameworks, observation, and using the skills of others.

4.  Start to identify priority issues to be resolved

Start to identify those issues that if tackled could make a real difference to the care you provide to patients. This process may occur through conversation with your team or others, through some simple data analysis, through advocacy, but should focus on those issues that are yours to solve.

5.  Begin formulating a vision for a future

It is critical to put aside some time for your own reflection and begin conversations with colleagues on how you want the future to be. What could it be if you actually dared to dream? What might be possible? It is in the conversations that the future is created.

Groups who speak mostly in the past tense will forever remain stuck. Those who speak in the present tense are little better off, but those who speak mostly of the future generally find the resources and ways of being to create it. Creating, maintaining and nurturing this conversation of the future is a key function of leadership.

Jill Tideman

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