In an earlier era, many physician leaders enjoyed a relatively stable operating environment and straightforward expectations. But as change has continued to accelerate through healthcare, practice leaders face a deluge of new responsibilities, problems and pressures.

“Leadership is more important than ever today due to the many new demands that physicians must deal with,” said LuAnne Anderson, executive director, client management, for McKesson Business Performance Services (McKesson). “From quality reporting to new delivery and reimbursement methods, practices are being forced to adapt at a rapid pace. And managing that kind of change can be very difficult.”

As a result, fine-tuning effective leadership skills has become critical for organizational success. First and foremost, Anderson said, leaders must find ways to empower staff. That means making sure that each employee, from the top producers to the data entry personnel, understands their role and their impact on the business.

“Let everyone know how you’re doing financially and hold everyone accountable,” she said. “Goals need to be clearly articulated, along with the paths for reaching those goals. During my 30 years in healthcare, one of the most common organizational problems I’ve seen has been lack of knowledge. When people don’t know what the goals are, where you stand today or what the vision is, they can’t help you get there.”

Communicate and motivate

Empowerment is grounded in communication, Anderson said, so effective leaders need to create a climate that allows for bottom-up communication and encourages all employees to share insight and information. Good communication, in turn, begins with integrity and mutual respect, she said.

“You should treat everyone with respect so they know that they are a valued resource, regardless of where they stand in the organization,” she said. “If you lead with a closed mind and don’t show respect to others and their ideas, they’re going to hesitate to speak out and they’ll slowly retreat into themselves. And pretty soon they’re not going to care about the business or your vision.”

Along with empowering individuals, keeping them motivated is essential to accomplishing group objectives, and a leader’s attitudes and personality can play a central role in that process. According to Anderson, the best leaders remain upbeat, regardless of the challenge, take reasonable risks, keep cool in difficult situations and perhaps most importantly, convey passion about the opportunities and tasks ahead.

“If you show passion in what you’re doing, that is going to filter down to everyone else,” Anderson said. “They can see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice, and it really is contagious. They may not buy into everything you’re saying, but if they trust your vision is well-thought out, they’ll be more likely to get on board.”

At the same time, she said, leaders need to be humble and willing to own up when mistakes are made. And they shouldn’t shy away from difficult tasks or discussions when dealing with providers or under-producing staff members.

If addressed properly, difficult situations can provide for great operational improvements,” Anderson said. “Don’t be afraid to deal with a situation that clearly needs to be addressed. If you sweep things under the rug, your people will sense that and you’ll ultimately lose their respect and commitment.”

A holistic approach

One of the traps that Anderson said she’s seen leaders fall into is to focus on financial issues like collections and compensation at the expense of everything else. While the financials are critically important, a leader must take a holistic view and pay attention to all aspects of the business, from the latest medical techniques to employee morale, patient experience and overall customer service. Yet that doesn’t mean they need to be an expert in all areas, she said.

Instead, practice leaders should develop lieutenants that can be relied upon to stay on top of specific operational areas, to keep leadership informed and to help shape policies and actions. Trusting those to whom you delegate and then paying close attention to ensure that they follow through on a task from start to finish are essential leadership traits, Anderson said.

An important exercise for leaders is to continually work to identify those areas or processes where the organization doesn’t do well. If internal solutions prove difficult to achieve, consider bringing in outside expertise. This can be particularly important with mission-critical functions like information technology and billing.

“The goal is to make things easier for your physicians and support staff so they can focus on the provision of care,” Anderson said. “Automation is the key. You need to work to eliminate the manual touches at every level.”

This will likely require an investment, but it will pay off many times over through happier and more productive employees and providers and more satisfied patients, she added.

Ultimately, Anderson said, effective physician leadership in today’s environment is about being willing to grow as leader and challenge your own fears and limitations. At the same time, you must trust those who help you lead.

“If you can build a solid organization of committed and creative people and empower them, you can make miracles happen,” she said. “I’ve seen it many times.”


About the author

McKesson Business Performance Services offers services and consulting to help hospitals, health systems, and physician practices improve business performance, boost margins and transition successfully to value-based care.