As a CEO, people often ask me about my pathway to success. What did I do to advance my career, and how did I move into the executive ranks? Serendipity certainly played a role and always does. And while there is no one-size-fits-all career path to senior leadership, there are specific steps or phases that tend to lead to growth: knowing where to focus your energy at each stage of your career will help you continue to advance without leaving gaps in your skillset or missed opportunities in your wake.
Phase 1: Raise your hand
As your career begins, it is important to raise your hand and say yes to as much as you can — you never know where a project will take you or who you will meet by agreeing to serve on the committee that no one else chose. Volunteer before you are asked and take the opportunity as the new member of the team to meet as many people as you can. One key benefit of this approach is that it is likely to pull you out of anonymity into a group of people interested in leadership. As a CEO, when I have an opportunity available, if I know you from seeing you at a meeting, reading your name on a research paper, or listening to you present on a panel, I am much more likely to connect you with that opportunity because you are top of mind.
The connections that you make by raising your hand can be invaluable as you progress down your career path. For example, when I moved from California and started a new position in Boston in my mid-30s, a mentor was identified for me. The first thing he did was give me a list of about 20 people I should meet. I was completely overwhelmed at first. How would I organize this, and how would I find the time? I chipped away at the suggested list over about three months, and some amazing things happened. First, everyone was delighted (or at least seemed that way) to meet, welcome and support me. Second, some immediate opportunities presented themselves from the meetings. And third, even now, almost 20 years later, a handful of those connections continue to be of enormous value. That’s an awfully good hit rate for the time that I invested.
Phase 2: Acquire the skills
As your career matures and you enter your 40s, look to add skills and knowledge. People often ask me whether they should pause and get an MBA, MPH or similar degree if they haven’t in the past. It’s both time consuming and expensive, so I advise them to think through their decision using three criteria: contacts, skills and credentials.
For example, attending a school of public health that tends to enroll junior students might not be the ideal setting for a mid-career physician in terms of contacts, while an MBA in a curriculum designed for healthcare leaders might lead to critical connections. On the other hand, if contacts don’t matter much, but skills like budgeting and finance do — there are likely less expensive and time-consuming ways to get those skills. Furthermore, does the credential matter? Increasingly, job descriptions for physician leaders include an emphasis on having an MPH, MPP or MBA. The fact that any of these three, which are very different in terms of skills, are considered equivalent suggests that the fact that you took the effort to acquire experiences and skills beyond your medical degree is what sets you up for leadership, rather than the specific degree. The reputation of the school you attended, while always somewhat important, matters less in this scenario. People understand that getting an advanced degree later in your career is influenced more by accessibility and convenience than it would have been in your 20s. Lastly, continually work on your communication skills. Being able to write and speak effectively is critical. If you have great ideas but can’t propose them in a compelling way, it’s a loss to everyone.
Phase 3: Research and development
Once you have progressed into a more senior stage in your career, be sure not to let “R&D” fall by the wayside. Chance encounters and observations spurred by curiosity can make indelible differences. I have met fantastic people and learned many new things by talking to others, traveling to give grand rounds at other institutions and reading outside of my field. I have recruited great talent in buffet lines and by taking the chance to interview someone who, on paper, didn’t seem right for the job. Similarly, people I met during job interviews for jobs I didn’t get were pivotal in opening up other positions for me — even 15 years later. Of course, some things you try won’t add much; but if everything you do is a predictable but incremental success, you probably aren’t trying enough things to be truly innovative. Staying current — even if you are in a leadership position in which you no longer see as many patients or perform surgery as often — can be helpful to your success. It will continue to help with name recognition and respect within your field and allow you to experience what is happening at the ground level.
At each stage, look for mentors and mentees. There is always more to be learned, ways to do things differently and better, and things you haven’t thought of. As you advance, your mentees will become your inner circle, which keeps you current — and they may end up being your supporters in ways you can’t predict.
In sum, as you take stock of where you are, you’re likely to find that the path that got you where you are wasn’t linear; your path forward won’t be either. But there are phases you can prepare for and take advantage of, whether peeking around the corner or boldly advancing to make your next move.