The medical director is the cornerstone of any hospital department's success. In addition to managing efficient, stable, and patient-centric operations, a strong director will lead the staff toward meeting departmental goals in a way that is personally satisfying to clinicians—and instills a sense of mission-driven achievement in the group.

Attaining success as a medical director is a high bar by anyone's estimation. As a new medical director, how do you reach it?

In part, by heeding advice from two veteran SCP Health leaders: Dr. Randy Pilgrim, Enterprise Chief Medical Officer, and Jill Maraist, Director of Engagement and Organizational Development. Together, they share words of wisdom gleaned from years of experience in selecting and priming medical directors and other healthcare leaders.

Know the Type of Leader You Want to Be

Maraist says that along with understanding changes in the relationship paradigm, new medical directors must also determine the type of leader he or she wants to be, even before stepping into the role.

"What are your core values?" she asks. "We often don’t think about this ahead of time, but it’s really important to have personal clarity around your values and how you want to ‘show up’ as a leader. These will be your guiding principles as you work through tough challenges in your role."

Be Present; Be Visible

In addition to problem-solving, Maraist highlights the need to be "intentionally present" in your role. She recommends that new medical directors get involved at the larger facility level and build relationships with key stakeholders – fellow physicians, hospital administration, and nursing staff, to name a few.

"Be visible to your clinicians, be a resource to them, and listen to them," she stresses.

She also recommends regular meetings, both formal and informal, with key stakeholders to establish respect and demonstrate interest in the relationship. Doing this, Maraist says, will "build a network of people who support you, talk to you, and trust you."

Be a ‘Picky’ Problem-Solver

In short, leaders create solutions and make things better. If you do this well, your leadership will be recognized quickly. Problem-solving is a key aspect that offers a fundamental entrée into a new medical leadership role.

Dr. Pilgrim shared, "most of the time, a huge number of hospital and departmental dynamics produce a never-ending series of problems and issues. It’s almost a bottomless pit. To the best of your ability, pick and choose your efforts very wisely and prioritize them well. Don’t solve every problem at once; just the important ones. It takes judgement and experience to know how to navigate this effectively.” He adds, “always keep your mission and vision in mind, lead with humility, and tackle the big issues first.”

Further, he underlines the need to work collaboratively on problems. It is critical to let people know how they can help and be a great example of a committed team member.

"When you’re solving problems, be sure that your team feels like they are locking arms with you, while actively facing the problem together,” Dr. Pilgrim advises. “Creating this aligned approach prevents finger-pointing, values alternative views, and makes success more likely.”

Learn How to Lead

Medical directors don't have to be natural-born leaders; that role can be learned, according to Maraist.

"Physicians aren’t often given medical leadership training, they’re taught how to deliver quality medicine," she says. "Recognize that you have to become educated about leadership and find tools to help. Leadership can and should be learned, but you have to seek those things out."

Maraist says there are two specific areas where equipping yourself for success is necessary: difficult conversations and self-awareness.

"Difficult conversations are uncomfortable for everyone, but if you have tools that can help, you’ll be more effective at handling conflict and performance issues," she says.

To that end, she recommends the book "Crucial Conversations" as a guide. Regarding self-awareness, she suggests that new medical directors take a personality or leadership assessment.

“Personality assessments give you time for personal reflection and can help you to identify blind spots. Leadership assessments provide awareness to constraints that may impede your success as a leader and allow you augment your skillset," she says.

Be a Leader, Not Just a Colleague

Dr. Pilgrim advises new medical directors to recognize that their leadership role must exhibit different characteristics than that of a collegial staff physician role.

“There are times when you have to put a bit of distance between you and your physicians,” he says. “Your job isn’t to be everybody’s friend, but a supporter, servant leader, and a difference-maker. Clearly, this can be uncomfortable at times, and many new directors don’t realize that this will be an important shift as they take on a new role."

Dr. Pilgrim further adds that medical directors must focus on mission-driven effectiveness rather than feel-good collegial relationships.  

Medical Leadership Resources

There's no doubt that the advice from Dr. Pilgrim and Jill Maraist will get you well on your way to becoming a capable medical director, but some additional resources can also help on your journey of leadership in healthcare. Consider these three:

Medical Director Checklist

SCP Health has developed a leadership checklist for hospital executives to measure how effectively medical directors do their jobs. It's also a handy resource for directors themselves. Download it here in PDF form.

Medical Director Absolutes

Dr. Pilgrim put together an extensive list of what he calls “Absolutes”, “Really Good Ideas” (not quite absolutes), and “Vignettes” of advice for medical directors at SCP Health.

While the full list is long, here’s a sampling:

  • Make a commitment of time to talk regularly with team members. (All too often, weeks or even months will go by without individually engaging certain team members, which is problematic when you need to tackle problems.)
  • Never lose control of your temper; it will always haunt you later.
  • Walk around with administrators frequently, soliciting views and ideas while building relationships in the department.
  • (It may be trite, but) simple human values make the difference in patients in the ED or on the floor — consideration, kindness, humor, humility, respect, and enthusiasm.
  • Keep things simple, especially written information to colleagues.
  • In dealing with patients, detect absurdity, but do not forfeit compassion.

Philosophies, Beliefs, and Commitments

SCP Health's core values are the guiding principles for every decision we make and everything we do. Another resource, built for SCP Health clinicians by Dr. Pilgrim, outlines what those look like in applied terms as they relate to our philosophies, beliefs, and commitments.

Again, here’s a sampling for your edification broken down by category:

Mission / Vision / Approach

  • Our job is serving patients.
  • Everyone deserves dignity and respectful treatment.
  • Provide both high quality medical care and excellent service.

Appearance

  • Make every effort to appear professional at all times (wear a clean lab coat and clearly readable name tag).
  • Be aware that you are being observed, even when you may not realize it.

Patient Interactions / Communication

  • Make a good first impression.
  • Address patients respectfully (Mr., Mrs., etc.).
  • Address the concerns of those accompanying the patient.

Sense of Ownership

  • Adhere to policies and procedures. Live the mission and vision of your department.
  • Respect the team, but don’t protect untoward behavior or results.
  • Above all, find the right thing to do and make it happen.

Conclusion

Perhaps no other person has more influence on a hospital's culture than the medical director. That’s why, as a new director, you should strive to be a leader who deserves respect, even if those under your charge don't always agree with the decisions you make. However, be collaborative in your decision-making and problem-solving to ensure buy-in—and build relationships to be the best of your ability.

Rely on your core values as a guide, strive to be a continual learner, and always be “intentionally present” — visible to your team, other departmental leaders, and hospital executives. Above all, remember that everything you do must serve the best interests of your patients. Do that, and you are sure to be a success!

If you are a medical director seeking a place to grow professionally and personally or a physician who wants to step into that role, look no further than SCP Health. We have several medical director jobs currently available.