Do I need an MBA?

Coach's Corner
CSPE Newsletter, May 2010

I am just returning from the Canadian Conference on Physician Leadership, held in Toronto in April.  It was an excellent conference - highly practical, educational, informative and inspirational. 

The first afternoon featured a panel session, with three physician CEO’s of major hospitals in Toronto sharing what they had learned from their transition to the top job. Of note, one CEO had suggested that one did not require an MBA degree to become a physician executive; another disagreed with him and felt the MBA training was a must. Many younger colleagues discussed these lessons eagerly afterwards.  “Do I need an MBA?” As the leaders on the panel told us, while this is not an absolute prerequisite, it can help in your path to a career as a physician executive.

Obtaining your MBA degree is a serious investment of time, money, and energy.  While you are considering whether to make this investment or not, there are still many things you can do.  It is advisable to take small steps as you progress along this path of medical management.  Initially, while you are still in your clinical practice, you can start to explore a few roles and positions and learn ‘on the job’.  As you move further ahead, you can consider acquiring more formal management skills and training, take on more leadership responsibilities, and reassess the clinical workload you are carrying.  The steps below are based on suggestions from senior leaders, and are not necessarily in chronological order.  Some of them can occur at the same time.

Step 1:  Look around you and see what management roles are currently being occupied by physicians.  Do any of these interest you?  Can you see yourself doing something similar?

Step 2: Volunteer for anything that may be available.  If you are asked if you can do something of interest to you, say yes and try it out. You are letting people know that you are interested and motivated.

Step 3: Serve on committees in your group or hospital – quality assurance, patient safety, utilization review, credentialing.  See what happens on these committees, and if you like working in management. Show others you are interested and committed.

Step 4: Lead a committee, when a position becomes available.  Your leadership skills will become a little more visible. About half of physician management roles are filled from physicians within the organization once they have been recognized as being interested and able.

Step 5: Network.  Attend physician leadership conferences, like this recent one in Toronto.  Participate actively.  Listen as colleagues introduce themselves and make note if you feel your interest are similar. Get to know people around you at the workshops or seated at your table during lunch or standing near you at coffee breaks. Follow up with them after the conference.

Step 6: Seek a mentor. Many colleagues have already made the move to executive positions.  Ask them about their career paths, how they got started, what they would advise, and get information you may require to continue to progress.

Step 7: Read books on leadership.  Browse the leadership section at Chapters.  Ask peers and mentors for suggestions for their recommendations.  Many physician leadership courses have suggested reading lists available.

Step 8:  Sign up for short introductory leadership and management courses.  These are often one-day courses, on specific topics such as negotiation, finances, strategic planning.  Longer courses are more in-depth, and are available from medical organizations.  The CMA offers the PMI courses for leadership and professional development for physicians, which are comprehensive, practical, and relevant.

Step 9: Seek positions within the organization that require greater degree of management ability.  These may include postgraduate director, department chair, medical director. Again, physicians from inside the organization are sought, as they have knowledge and relationships already in place.

Step 10: Consider a senior executive position, such as VP Medical Affairs, Chief of Staff, or Chief Executive Officer of your organization.

The MBA Program is neither an easy decision to make nor an easy ride. You may already have gained many of the skills through your experience to date; in your current heavy workload, it is time consuming and intensive; and it is financially costly. However, the benefits can be tangible and clear. Obtaining this credential allows you to stand out from the competition, and demonstrates your initiative, commitment and dedication.  It shows that you can handle stress and multiple competing demands. You gain the terms and language of business, which may have seemed foreign to that point. You learn to think strategically.  Overall, it allows you to retain and build on the skills you have gained as a clinician, and master new skills to enable you to lead your peers more effectively into the future. You will be better able to answer your initial question as you progress through the steps above, and the need and value of obtaining your MBA degree becomes more evident.