Physician Leadership: Through Coaching, Doctors Get a New Toolkit

This article is being shared by Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Medical Management (MMM) program, which gives physicians unparalleled education and skills to lead healthcare in the future.

Nwando Anyaoku, MD, MPH, MBA, is Chief Health Equity Officer at Swedish Health. A successful physician coach and mentor, Anyaoku is also a faculty member in Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Medical Management, a graduate degree solely for physician leaders and executives. Anyaoku recently shared her observations on how coaching can be a valuable tool not only during times of struggle, but throughout a physician’s career.

According to Anyaoku, it is not enough for physicians to get coaches when they are in trouble. Coaching has been framed as a punitive action and offered as a solution when there is friction between colleagues or after negative reviews from patients.  Anyaoku states evolution of thought in this area is needed. “We must place a true developmental lens on it, rather than waiting until somebody is burned out and doesn’t have the resources required to actually survive. Coaching can prevent physicians from becoming beaten down by providing progressive skills over their careers. This is standard in every other industry. If you’re seen as a rising star, or you’re on a track to leadership, you get a coach.”

The value of coaching became clear to Anyaoku when she first began advancing in her career and working with executive recruiters. “I found myself in this world, understanding that there’s a different required skill set for physician leaders than what it took to become a physician, and there is no training for that in medicine. The recruiter who led the interview process for my first director position said, ‘Go get a new toolkit.’  That was the beginning of my journey into coaching – it became clear that as I was learning more about leadership, it helped to have somebody with me as I was processing the changes in my career.”

One of the most important skills Anyaoku helps physicians develop is “the ability to get richer information from the people they report to, and the people who report to them. We build the muscle that allows physicians to successfully present themselves and navigate the workplace, to understand the language of leadership and business – through the lens of a physician. To better understand and find comfort in working with team members in different ways. We are trained to be the ultimate responsible source. This causes us to want to do everything ourselves to ensure it’s done right. I work with physicians to create an acceptance around the fact that there is only “x” amount of you. Coaching can help physicians avoid getting to the point where they are missing so many things, where their lives get smaller and smaller and less and less rich. Coaching can help physicians do the work that feeds their souls, whether in clinical roles, leadership roles, or both.”

Says Anyaoku, “It is disappointing to find yourself in a structure that doesn’t appear to value all you give to improve people’s lives. There is a way for physicians to navigate the workspace, and it requires thinking in different ways. We know doctors can begin to feel like a cog in a very, very, very fast wheel. Coaching provides a means for physicians to develop their voice, power, and passion because doctors are the engines that drive the machine. If doctors don’t work, none of it works.”

A large part of Anyaoku’s work focuses on mastering strategies for effective team building. This includes identifying diverse skill sets while honoring autonomy. “It can take away the fears associated with the risk of depending upon others. It creates an understanding of everyone’s language.” Anyaoku has seen coaching help physicians reclaim their voices and envisions a practice where she actually helps physicians before that reclamation is necessary. “There is a way to win,” says Anyaoku. “There is a way to feel as though you’re doing things right. That requires strong communication, so everyone has buy-in, so everyone has an opportunity to amplify their voice and share their ideas up through the chain of command and out to the external constituency.”

Anyaoku notes, “Other people talk about resilience and that the solution to the problem is resiliency. This suggests that the problem is within the physician because they aren’t resilient. I focus my coaching on building developmental models to allow a synthesis of the clinician’s ultimate goal – helping people – and the business story, which is keeping the lights on.” This, says Anyaoku, requires newfound skills and through coaching, “doctors get a new toolkit.”