Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Strategies for Coaching Brilliant Scientist Leaders

We are pleased to share an article entitled  “Strategies for Coaching Brilliant Scientist Leaders” written by Suzi Pomerantz.

How unique or different can it really be to coach healthcare professionals versus other leaders in other industries?  It’s like the difference between hard-boiled eggs and fairy tales. In other words, vastly different! As someone who has coached hundreds of executive leaders across all sectors and diverse industries, I’m here to tell you that planet Healthcare is a special planet indeed. Many coaches feel intimidated by the oversized intellectual prowess of medical and scientific leaders, who truly are the smartest of the smart.  In reality, they are gracious and appreciative coaching clients.

Decades ago my coaching clients were mostly attorneys, so I’m no stranger to working with extremely smart, intimidating leaders. If you’re lucky enough to be hired by a PhD scientist or an MD in a healthcare company, research agency, or hospital system, you’ll need the context and strategies below to help you navigate that which is unique and different about coaching healthcare leaders. While I am not a healthcare professional, I’ve learned these strategies over 30 years as an executive leadership coach. During those decades I’ve had the honor of providing customized leadership support in more than 28 different healthcare-related organizations from “Big Pharma” to medical device manufacturers to therapeutics research companies and scientific grants agencies.  That amounts to over a hundred individual scientific leaders I’ve coached for extended engagements of six months or more (several for many years). The vast majority of them have been in the National Institutes of Health, which is an umbrella organization comprised of 27 different institutes and centers. I’ve coached individual leaders and PhD scientists in 19 of those institutes and centers.  

My point here is that I’ve had plenty of practice to develop and hone the strategies I’m sharing with you. I can tell you with certainty that these healthcare clients are different from other executive clients.  Instead of serving profit and bottom line impact, they serve patient care and sometimes congressional directives.

Who are they?

First and foremost, these leaders are brilliant. Many are genius-level intelligent, they are expert scientists and medical doctors, and they are steeped in the depth of their particular scientific research and grant-making pursuits.  Some of them steward millions of dollars of research grant money, allocating funds for the most needed scientific research in our country. 

As such, they spend a great deal of time in their heads. They are thinkers; rational, logical, analytical, and often introverted. They are mission-driven and care deeply about the science as well as the impact of their work on patients.  They are often world-renowned, traveling globally to deliver presentations about their research to the larger scientific community. They do not often have the highest social-emotional intelligence when they are first promoted to supervisory status, which impacts who they are as leaders and the cultures they inadvertently create. However, they want to be good leaders and dive eagerly into learning how to lead. Empirically excellent students rely on their intellectual ability to learn and often approach leadership-like academic coursework, more systematically than creatively. As in many technical fields, when these brilliant contributors rise to the level of leadership and now find themselves supervising other brilliant contributors, they cross the line from conscious competence to conscious (and sometimes unconscious) incompetence, which is very disruptive to their confidence.  They are masterful experts in their scientific realm and have very little training in or experience with management and leadership. They become supervisors, often while still running a lab and continuing to advance their own research or grant portfolios, and this makes them uniquely grateful for any support you provide as their coach while they grapple with the challenges of leadership.

You need not be a scientist or experienced in the healthcare industry to coach them, and you needn’t be afraid of their top-tier intelligence. These three strategies will do the trick:

Strategy 1 – Just Listen

It’s lonely at the top, no matter what field your leadership role is in. Scientist leaders are often isolated in their scientific stovepipes and do not often have the time or inclination to seek out leadership peers to share common challenges and best practices. They do a lot of analytical thinking about the people issues they face in their leadership roles, and they truly value and welcome a safe space to think aloud, process their thoughts, untangle the knots of possible approaches, and craft a way forward.  This is where their genius helps you as the coach, since you can ask them to share their thinking and they will gratefully lay out the orderly mess of their inner rationale. Due to their intelligence, just by hearing themselves lay it out for you, their coach, they connect the dots, see opportunities, generate possibilities, and solve breakdowns without you needing to ask or say much of anything. Do not underestimate the power of your trained listening. Deep and generous listening creates a safe space for them to see their own thoughts reflected, such that they can see things they didn’t see before. 

Strategy 2 – Remind Them of the Mission

Most of them are so committed to the mission of their organization and how it links to patient care, they don’t need reminding. However, when they get tangled in their intricate thoughts about various employees who are perhaps causing a toxic work environment, or conflicts between employees that they get dragged into the middle of, it helps to ask them what matters most and to redirect them to their core mission. They can often find a values-aligned approach for a difficult employee that is consistent with the culture they want to foster and congruent with their mission. You can also ask them about why they became a scientist or doctor in the first place – what drew them to healthcare? For many, it seems there is a personal connection…a beloved family member who was saved by medical advances, or their own experience with healthcare that left a lasting impact and sparked a passion.  They hear themselves tell you what matters most and it redirects their thinking toward constructive solutions that fit the mission.

Strategy 3 – Design Experiments

They think in experiments. They know how to design them. They know how to tweak them and adjust them when the data reveal flaws or necessary pivots.  They can take in and process vast amounts of data, analyze, synthesize, and integrate that data, and generate innovative solutions.  Not just scientifically, but in your coaching conversations. When you identify an opportunity for growth or transformation and reflect it back to them, you can ask them how they might design an experiment to identify the root cause of an unconscious behavior, or to try a new leadership strategy in conversation with a peer or employee, or a new communication practice that might serve their relationships.  If you uncover something in a coaching engagement that they are resisting or otherwise scared to address, you can help them to hold it as an experiment and you’ll see a shift in their energy from fear to possibility.  Then the conversation will turn to the design elements of the experiment and you’re off to the races with an “action plan” built in.

The bottom line is don’t be afraid to coach scientific geniuses.  Yes, they are smarter than most of us will ever be, but their commitment to excellence that helped them advance in science and medicine also helps them strive to perform well as leaders, so they are wonderfully committed coaching clients and often quite lovely and very caring human beings.

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