The predominant model for lowering costs, improving outcomes and streamlining care, the accountable care organization has elevated the role of physician leaders. These men and women must use all their persuasion, collaboration, teamwork, change management and knowledge-sharing skills to help their colleagues thrive under the new care structure.

Managers of health care organizations know they need strong physician leaders. They also know these leaders need certain skills that usually are not addressed during medical training. Accordingly, organizations looking to strengthen the ranks of their physician leaders must:

  • identify which of their physicians have the potential to become effective leaders;
  • ensure that these candidates receive the training and support they need.

Finding Candidates

Aurora Medical Group, with 1,200 employed physicians as a part of Aurora Health Care in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, selects its physician leaders from the management committees that oversee its departments. "We need a lot of physician leaders, and one way we find these leaders is by taking a close look at the physicians who serve on our management committees for each specialty or geographic market," says Jon Kluge, vice president of clinical operations at Aurora Medical Group.

In the anesthesiology department, for example, the management committee might include eight anesthesiologists who manage their clinical practice and who participate in decision-making that affects the health care system (currently, the management committee is evaluating options to improve efficiency and lower operational costs). Lessons learned will be shared with all hospital leaders across Aurora, and together they will develop action plans with timelines and metrics.

"By observing the thought processes and engagement levels of committee participants," notes Kluge, "we can obtain insights into which physicians have the interest, the fortitude, the collaboration skills and the vision to develop into physician leaders. The management committees give physicians an opportunity to get involved in leadership and decision-making, and together we can evaluate their interest and ability for a larger leadership role."

Leadership 101

While Aurora's experience shows that organizations can identify potential leaders through their participation on departmental committees, Peter Bates, vice president of medical and academic affairs and chief medical officer at Maine Medical Center in Portland, believes that organizations might have access to a larger pool if physicians were introduced to the leadership path at the earliest stages of their training.

"The industry needs to do a better job of creating awareness about the leadership track and identifying doctors who might be suited for that track at the earliest levels, including medical school," says Bates. "The good news is that the candidate pool is getting more diverse, as many of these students have experiences beyond college, including MBAs and finance backgrounds that could prove advantageous in a leadership position. Unfortunately, in many parts of medical training, leadership is actually characterized as an unfavorable or undesirable career track."

Inspiring Classes Are Not Enough

At Maine Medical, physicians interested in leadership typically pursue training through one- or two-week intensive classes at the American College of Physician Executives or the Harvard School of Public Health. "Physicians who enter the program with some unformed interest in leadership tend to come back inspired and energized. They understand what needs to be done to make health systems work better, and they want to be part of the solution," says Bates.

However, while the classes are powerful in changing the trajectory of a career path, Bates does not believe they necessarily have a long-lasting impact. Mentorship projects that allow physicians to hone their leadership skills and cultivate their interest in leadership challenges have a greater impact: "Having a mentor work with someone on the application of competencies, such as emotional intelligence, to a specific project is much more powerful as a learning tool than just talking about these skills as abstract concepts," says Bates.

Designing a Mentorship Program

Kluge and Bates recognize the importance of mentorship in developing physician leaders, but both executives acknowledge that the health care industry has a long way to go to improve the effectiveness of mentoring programs. Ideally, a mentoring program should provide early- and mid-career physicians with development opportunities and role models with whom they can explore the leadership track and decide whether they are well-suited for a leadership position.

Because mentoring programs are crucial to the development of key leaders, health care providers would be wise to take a hard look at whether their existing mentorship processes are sufficient or whether they could be strengthened to create stronger relationships between mentors and mentees. Hay Group research and client engagement results show that formally trained mentors can enable their mentees to reach a higher level of leadership more quickly than ad hoc mentorship programs can provide.

It is worth noting that being a mentor is not for everyone, just as not all physicians are suited to becoming leaders. Bates suggests that health care systems evaluate mentors' skills as well as those of the mentees.

Investing in Education

This year, Aurora Health Care is launching an in-house physician leadership education program. More than 100 physicians are enrolled in the six-day course. The curriculum is multifaceted with a mix of classroom presentations, readings, reference guides and project-based assignments. Participants will be asked to analyze their own performance on these projects for the class. By the end of 2012, Kluge expects to have a formal mentorship program in place for graduates of this leadership academy.

Of course, some graduates of leadership training programs could decide against a leadership career path, but that does not mean that time or money has been wasted. Having a physician discover that he is not meant for a leadership post before he takes on that role can help organizations avoid a host of problems. In addition, leadership skills are beneficial to physicians who increasingly are required to function in teams with nurses, technicians, other care providers and administrative staff. Learning how to motivate, inspire, listen and foster good communication among the team inherently will improve performance throughout an organization.

Stephanie Sloan, Ph.D., is a senior consultant at Hay Group in Atlanta. Rod Fralicx, Ph.D., is a vice president at Hay Group in Chicago.