Is physician leadership in your future?

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Is physician leadership in your future?

A Ready-Set-Go Approach to the Executive Track for Practicing Physicians with Administrative Goals

By Dennis J. Kain, Senior Vice President, FACHE, MHA – Tyler & Company Physician Executive and Medical Group Leadership Practice Chair

If you’re a physician wondering if the executive track is a good fit, take some time to walk through these steps before making a career switch.

Get Ready

Like other big decisions in life, shifting from clinical work to administration deserves some tough internal dialogue. This isn’t a change to make without real thought and reflection. Asking yourself hard questions up front will save heartache in the end. Here are the standout considerations. 

  • Be realistic about compensation and the overall culture in administration. If you are a specialist or surgeon, you will likely take a step back in income. Work hours might increase and the more autonomous situation you enjoyed as a specialist will give way to regularly answering to executives and/or boards of directors. Be honest with yourself as you think about these very real changes, and determine now what you’re willing to accept in terms of compensation and adjustments in supervision.
  • Think about your practice and professional credentials. For many physicians, losing clinical hours and credibility is the scariest proposition about moving into administration. For others, it’s the most attractive. Determine where you are on this spectrum and create a plan that fits. If maintaining credentials and credibility is high on your list, craft a plan that allows for a few clinical hours. Leadership roles are no longer restricted to the conventional C-suite, which allows you to find the right combination of administration and physician practice. Finally, talk to others who’ve made the change and get their perspective.
  • Consider your interests, then set specific goals based on them. Before you architect your administrative vision, take time to consider your interests. What motivates you now as a practicing physician will fuel your fulfillment as an administrator—or not if you neglect to incorporate those crucial aspects. Ask yourself what elements have been most satisfying about your current role and consider how they might evolve in an administrative role. What will champion?  Quality? Better access? Patient satisfaction? With that in mind, build your plan accordingly and specifically.

Get Set

Now that you’ve thought through how you and your interests and expectations fit in the world of healthcare administration, it’s time to start building on your plan. Phase two is all about real preparation.

  • Consider additional advanced degrees. While not every administrator has an MBA, most do, and increasingly, it’s a standard prerequisite for today’s executive searches. Additionally, a Master in Health Administration is also valuable. The MHA degree can be worthwhile for physicians, but keep in mind hospitals are now looking to other businesses for direction on how to improve delivery and cut costs.
  • Get first-hand experience. Look for ways to learn the business of healthcare.Volunteer to be on committees and expose yourself to leadership opportunities, including those you might find within the professional societies to which you belong. Find a management “partner” who will introduce you to non-clinical operations. In addition to highlighting your ambition to current executives, it will offer you the opportunity to get valuable experience.
  • Find a mentor. One of the most important relationships in any successful career is that of the mentor. Nowhere is it more beneficial than when you’re considering a shift from your primary profession into administration. This person might be your management partner from above, or it may be someone altogether different. Consider someone a few years older, or at least with several years’ experience in a role you can visualize yourself in one day. Ultimately, this is someone who will care about your personal growth enough to be honest with you along the way.


With credentials in place and some firsthand experience, it’s time to start implementing based on the goals you set and the preparations you’ve made. Here are some final thoughts to keep in mind as you move along.

  • Soft skills are more important than anything else. Studies show that across industries, managers with the highest emotional quotients—those who excel in interpersonal communication, boosting staff morale, building camaraderie and motivating their employees—are the ones who get ahead the fastest and stay there. Don’t take these skills for granted or assume you are proficient. The objective, scientific mind that hones stellar physicians often runs counter to these skills. This may be a new muscle you have to exercise hard and consistently to get into shape.
  • The traditional ladder is a relic in most healthcare environments. Moving up in physician leadership no longer resembles the typical corporate ladder. Leadership opportunities are everywhere. Consider the new roles that are emerging almost daily for physician leaders, like chief strategy officer, chief patient experience officer and chief quality officer.
  • Get active. Successful leaders contribute their time and knowledge. Join and get active in the leadership associations, including the American College of Healthcare Executives and the American Academy of Physician Leaders.

Positively influencing others can begin right now while you are still in clinical practice. If you’ve decided the executive track is for you, remember leadership is not a destination or a title. Be prepared for a journey. Making the change from a clinical role to leadership will take time, multiple steps and a continual revisiting of how your aspirations and goals line up with where the market is today and where it’s headed tomorrow.

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