From the time I was a young child, I wanted to be a doctor. I focused diligently on my education and graduated from medical school at the age of twenty-five. This was highly unusual for a woman in the 1980s. For a moment, I felt on top of the world, but then reality set in. My inability to navigate a complex bureaucracy and an intricate matrix of relationships became apparent and remained so through my residency, fellowship, and well into my post-training years. My entire education had focused on teaching me how to work with patients, and I felt completely unprepared as a leader. My years of medical training were almost exclusively focused on my clinical skill set. That knowledge base alone was insufficient once I had transitioned to my first post-fellowship role as an attending physician in an academic medical center.
I was expected to be an effective team leader right out of the gate but I was never taught the basic physician leadership skills to play this role. And I failed — more than once. I adopted a leadership style based on giving orders not because I was hungry for power but because it seemed to work with the clinical actions of diagnosis and treatment. When faced with a clinical challenge, I assumed that I needed to come up with the answers (diagnose) and then tell everyone on the team what to do (treat). Whenever I made a tough diagnosis or came up with a creative treatment plan for a difficult patient dilemma, my self-esteem went up. This was good progress, but it only went so far, as I started to believe (falsely) that I was solely responsible for these successes. I failed to recognize that despite some of my great ideas, a broader team was clearly involved in designing and implementing any successful patient plan.
At the time, I couldn’t recognize my poor leadership behavior as a human limitation. Although I was very dedicated to my work and tirelessly served patients to the best of my abilities, my leadership style led to interpersonal conflicts, which limited my ability to be truly successful in this professional setting. My mistake was thinking that my medical knowledge, coupled with my energy, professional savvy and business acumen would result in rapid professional advancement. I was so wrong. Despite my professional attributes, I seemed to do things that caused me to get in the way of myself. And then I realized: What if it’s me who is limiting my own career? I gradually learned to adopt a more collaborative and team-centered leadership style and saw a huge difference in my overall effectiveness.
Leadership is a learned trait, and, as a leader, I am constantly learning. I am a big fan of Marshall Goldsmith’s work, and I was recently privileged to take part in one of his “Best of Marshall” legacy events in Boston. My participation in the event led me to think about how books can be highly influential in shaping our lives.
I purchased Marshall’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There in 2007, shortly after its release. To this day, it remains one of the most influential books that I have ever read and still sits in a prominent place on my bookshelf.
In the book, Marshall encourages successful people to stop and take a long hard look at what might keep them from reaching the top of their careers. Years of hard work had gotten them to where they were, but how to make it the rest of the way? His premise: It is about a mastery of people skills — something as simple as saying “thank you” when someone on your team expresses an idea, rather than immediately jumping in with thoughts and comments about it. Marshall’s wisdom: “Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others.”
The book was pivotal in the evolution in my career, as through it I saw that some of the things I was doing at the time were actually holding me back. I began to realize that I could achieve better results by working on what I had considered “soft skills” such as listening well, expressing gratitude, thinking more before I spoke, and apologizing for my mistakes.
I now know that these skills are really essential skills for success. A dose of humility goes a long way in improving relationships at work — and in life. They are important because they strip away the barriers and boundaries we find in corporations and elsewhere and allow us, if only for a moment, to connect as people.