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Perspectives: Sustaining Success in Leadership

Powerful insights into the skills important to achieving personal and professional development and to meeting the changes and transitions in your leadership career

Betty M. Drees, M.D.

Dean & Interim Provost
University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine
Member of the AAMC Women in Medicine Committee

How did your professional development needs change over the course of your career as a leader?

Simply stated, my professional development needs changed over time from more technical skills to greater understanding of self and systems. In my earliest leadership position, the initial development needs involved personnel and finance issues in the context of hospital administration. At that time, I was fortunate to be able to participate in clinical leadership activities within the Veterans Affairs Medical System as well as work with and learn from colleagues with more experience. When I subsequently became Dean of Academic Affairs, the responsibilities changed to primarily program management around curriculum, faculty affairs, and governance. Once again, I was fortunate that there were a number of leadership development programs available, including through the AAMC, the Harvard-Macy Institute, ELAM, and the University of Missouri System.  These programs provided training in the technical aspects of academic administration, but more importantly, heavily emphasized self awareness of leadership style and networks of colleagues. When I became the Dean at UMKC, the responsibilities included oversight of the strategic direction of the school, as well as external relationships. For these duties, the understandings of ones own leadership style is especially critical in order to build an effective leadership team. The networks of colleagues developed through my career in academic medicine are especially helpful in my continued development, since there seldom is an issue that arises that someone else has not already faced. I have tended to rely on more informal networks of colleagues and advisors based on needs as they arise rather than single mentors.

What was particularly important at times of personal and professional transitions as a leader?

At times of transition, the most important elements for me were:

  • To assure that the expectations of me in the new position were clear and mutually understood by myself and my prospective boss
  • To have an identified team of colleagues engaged in the work, so that it was feasible to successfully do the new job
  • To have a specific development plan for the areas where I had less expertise
  • And to have personal support systems in place through family, friends, colleagues and advisors.

How did your professional development needs change over the course of your career as a leader?

Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there”.  Like many of my generation, I didn’t become aware of my professional development needs until I was well into my career.  Early on, fortunate to have had great mentorship, I focused on relatively shorter-term goals relevant to my research interests and stayed on that path, without trying to spy the ultimate destination.  As I learned more about academic health centers and the various leadership positions within them, my interest in these positions increased and eventually became the focus of my career.  So in some ways, the most notable change in my career development needs was the gradually increasing awareness of what those needs were.  Knowing where I was going was critical to getting there, however I had to just get on the road and travel for a while in order to understand the rules of the road, how to read a map, how far I could go on a tank of gas, and the differences between highways and byways.”

Certain things have not changed. In this age of Google, global position systems, Blackberry’s, and instant messaging, it would seem as though it should be easier to survey possible destinations and keep from getting lost. However, to my chagrin, a few weeks ago I got lost in my new car; even though the GPS and Blackberry phone was fully operational. New technology having failed me, I had to stop and ask for directions from someone who knew their way around that location. One thing that has not changed much over the course of my career is the importance of mentorship and guidance from trusted colleagues. If you really want to get there, find someone who has already made the journey to guide you.

What was particularly important at times of personal and professional transitions as a leader?

We live in a time of rapid change. Enjoy it by courting innovation and getting excited about new projects. Expect to be challenged and don’t panic when it happens; but especially don’t whine. Things are often not as bad as they seem and many crises end up opening up new opportunities. You’re almost never in it alone, so get advice and support from your immediate superior and your mentors. Don’t allow yourself to become isolated, especially when needing to make difficult decisions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Prioritizing time with my family and maintaining personal hobbies has been tremendously important for me. Transitions to a new leadership role usually include personal transitions along with the changes in professional relationships and expectations. This can be exciting, but also disorientating and stressful. It’s easy during these transitions to lose sight of your family and personal life. Don’t let that happen. The fulfillment that comes from a long term relationship, seeing your children come of age, and becoming proficient in skills unrelated to your work life can give you the perspective and balance that you will sometimes need to maintain your focus and energy in your professional life.

Cynthia Boyd, M.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine
Associate Vice President, Chief Compliance Officer, Medical Staff Operations
Rush University Medical Center
Chair of AAMC Minority Affairs Section.

How did your professional development needs change over the course of your career as a leader?

As my career has advanced, I’ve found that I had to further develop and hone my communication and negotiating skills in order to reach or connect with a broader audience of individuals with varying roles and levels of expertise than I had been accustomed to in the past. As Chief Compliance Officer for my institution, I had to make sure I did not use the “bully pulpit” of the law and regulatory dogmas as a means to be effective in creating change and compliance. It became important for me to become a better listener, to allow for indecision at times in order for the decision-making process to evolve and be more inclusive. Building consensus is critical to reaching your goals. It is more lasting and effective because you have taken the time to build relationships, and because you have taken the time to collaborate and to understand the perspective and thoughts of others who are critical to the success of the institution and what you are trying to accomplish on behalf of your institution.

In addition to developing these skills, I had to reeducate myself on the fundamentals of management, the how and when to delegate, when to intervene and how to empower others. I found it much more difficult to find peers who were experiencing the challenges I faced, someone to advise and mentor my development. I had on-the-job training, with little or no preparation for the job and responsibilities I faced. I had to seek out other resources to fill this gap.

What was particularly important at times of personal and professional transitions as a leader?

It was particularly important for me to maintain a routine and stability that kept me grounded in my personal life. I made sure that I had dinner every night with my family and that I attended my children’s school functions and activities. I tried to exercise on a regular basis. It was important that we took vacations as a family rather than postponing them until the “time was right.” Professionally, I made a point of telling people when they did a good job, supporting them with praise, promotions and merit increases when appropriate. Building a good working team is critical to successful leadership. Finally, I made sure everyone knew that when we achieved success, it was due to a collective, team effort and not a single individual or activity.

Robert M. D'Allesandri, M.D.

President and Founding Dean, (MEDC)
The Commonwealth Medical College 

How did your professional development needs change over the course of your career as a leader?

As with most faculty, I had little experience in management and administration.  Most of my mentoring focused on teaching and research.  As I was assigned administrative responsibilities, I sought advice from other leaders in my institution.  I realized that there is a wealth of knowledge and experience in an academic institution related to project development and management that I was not exposed to in any way.

Perhaps the most important skill a leader in education must develop is the ability to build strong and effective relationships with faculty, staff and students. It is surprising how deficient many academic “leaders” are in establishing effective working relationships.

What was particularly important at times of personal and professional transitions as a leader?

I have found that the ability to consult with someone who has been through leadership transitions is very helpful. As important as it is for those in transition to seek out experienced leaders, I believe it is equally important, if not more so, for leadership to reach out to those in need of mentoring. Over the years, I have tried to provide insights to faculty interested in administrative roles regarding the challenges it presents not only professionally, but also personally. Leadership responsibilities often have a profound impact on one’s personal life.

My most recent transition was to develop and establish a totally new medical college. As I pondered whether to accept this most unique opportunity, I was highly fortunate to be able to consult a former Dean colleague of mine, who was involved in the planning for this institution and his insights proved helpful in my decision to take on this position.

My recommendation to aspiring academic leaders is to identify effective leaders in your institution and approach them for advice and guidance. There can be no greater compliment to a leader than to be approached for mentoring.

Faculty Vitae

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To inquire about updates to information published in Faculty Vitae, please e-mail Valarie Clark at vclark@aamc.org.

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