Coaching, executive coaching, Senior Executives, Uncategorized

Developing Physician Executives

Healthcare has been going through many transformational changes over the last 20 to 30 years.  Leaders have been working to manage internal costs, control the cost of care, advance value-based care, and most recently, find a way to do all of the above while dealing with a worldwide pandemic. The clinical implications of these changes continues to demonstrate the importance of exceptional physician leadership.

Yes, physicians are by their nature highly intelligent individuals committed to patient care and safety, and they understand their responsibility as the “captain of the ship”. Unfortunately, although each physician leader is different and has their own unique skill sets, clinical training typically does not support the skills necessary to lead physicians and other colleagues through an organizational transformation.

For example, physician training

  • Involves a dramatically different approach to implementation.
  • Consistently challenges physicians to “know all the answers” and builds their ego.

Physician training

Physicians are trained to learn by doing everybody’s work, and the more you do, the more you learn. That might be by starting an IV (which is typically the work of nurses) or taking copious notes and documenting all the details; both tasks that are typically the work of support staff following their training.

As a physician executive, clearly the role is to lead, not to do.  It can be difficult to transition to the role of delegating and leading, while still staying fully engaged with the details. Because it can be hard for colleagues to give feedback to physician executives, executive coaches can be a valuable resource here.


As a practicing physician, one’s daily focus is on seeing patients, making decisions about patient care, converting those decisions into orders, and then, many times, walking away while others (nurses, lab techs, imaging techs, etc.) implement those orders or complete the next steps. The physician is then brought back into the care process when there is another decision to be made or action he/she specifically needs to take.

As transformational leaders, physicians need to develop skills for a vastly different leadership style. Rarely are decisions implemented immediately (as is the case with patient care) and rarely are executive colleagues standing by to be told what to do. Physician executives have to learn how the organization works, which requires skills in relationship building, maneuvering through complex organizational processes, and understanding the roles of both formal and informal leaders.

Physician training bolsters the ego

During training, physicians are consistently put in a competitive environment where they feel that they always have to be right and they strive to be in the top tier of their class. These habits/behaviors do not translate to relational, team-focused leadership.

Instead physician executives need to learn how to create a collaborative environment, build strong teams and personal relationships with peers and other colleagues. It is very important that they develop humility, and grow in self-awareness. Leaders thrive by truly understanding who they are and what they value and by becoming acutely aware of their blind spots. Executive coaches can facilitate this self-reflection and help physician leaders understand how their own behaviors and relationships impact what they are trying to achieve for the organization.

In summary, physicians typically have the right motives to lead, however they need different tactical training and a new approach to learning. It’s also hard for them to find the time for an MBA or Executive MBA program. Skilled executive coaches that understand physicians and how large organizations work can help physician leaders at any level (Medical Director, Chief Medical Officer, Medical Group Executive, etc.) realize their potential to be successful. Unlike formal training programs, strong executive coaching relationships allow executives to develop over time, learning as they grow to be more effective leaders.

Guest Co-Author: Dan Varnum

Dan Varnum, MBA, FACHE, has more than 30 years of executive leadership experience in healthcare organizations, including 16 years as CEO/CAO of large provider organizations where his responsibilities included coaching individual executives, physician executives, and executive leadership teams. Varnum has a passion for organizational culture transformation and continuous improvement. He holds an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering.