September 15, 2021
4 min read
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Leadership: Communicate openly, take the risk, keep your priorities

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In spring 2020, I entered a new role as Chair of Medicine, learning a new position and campus, and moving a family across the country during a pandemic. As a physician, woman, spouse and mother, I have learned so much about what we need from leaders and what we need to do as leaders.

Anyone in leadership knows they are judged for what happens in the first 90 days. However, instead of being able to jump into implementation of a 90-day plan, I had to leap into crisis management, pivoting to address growing numbers of COVID-19 infection in the state to which I had moved.

Amy S. Oxentenko, MD
Amy S. Oxentenko

I went to an office every day, which felt more like a ghost town, with staff working from home and others behind closed doors of their offices to get a reprieve from daily mask wearing. It necessitated leading from behind a screen on Zoom instead of in conference rooms or meeting halls. Rather than exploring the town and new restaurants, our family safely sheltered in place for dinner each night in a new town, a new state and a new life.

All these factors taught me that leadership, first and foremost, needs to be adaptable.

Communicate Openly

Overlying the COVID pandemic, the widely publicized wrongful deaths of Black individuals compounded many the feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty. In my new chair role, social media provided me an important lens to see what people were expecting from their leaders at that time.

It was clear that there was disappointment in leaders who did not address the issues openly. Silence spoke more loudly than any words. So many leaders were afraid to misstep in their communication, paralyzed by that fear. I learned that is better to create a forum of open dialogue and be well-intentioned, and hope for grace if the words were not perfect. My own concerns were secondary to wanting my department to feel valued, important, protected and understood. It allowed me to see what I needed to do in a role where my department was still getting to know me. They needed to know I would be responsive and receptive to all their needs and their unique fears they may have outside of COVID.

I was mindful to communicate regularly and often and normalized those fears and anxiety. I may never be able to fully appreciate how another group may be experiencing a situation given our uniqueness, but being open to hearing their fears and perspectives was a great leadership lesson for me.

It is in this communication that we can draw on our nurturing sides as women. The world needed nurturing through this last year and still does. People needed a safe space and someone to listen. That nurturing leadership may have filled that void that they could not get from family or from work due to social isolation.

Take the Risk

As women – and likely also true for those who are from underrepresented populations – we tend to not put ourselves out there for leadership roles when we should because we don’t feel qualified. Whether it stems from imposter syndrome or a fear of disappointment, oftentimes we wait until we are overqualified, which impedes the leadership advancement and promotional steps we could make by putting ourselves out there sooner.

Heed the advice of others. We may not feel ready to lead or may not feel like it is the ideal time to lead (of note, it will never feel like the ideal time), but if someone – a mentor or colleague – suggests that you are a great candidate for a role, take the advice. Bridge the gap of uncertainty and take the risk.

It’s scary to apply for a leadership role and there will be disappointments. As you move into higher levels of leadership, you’re competing against very talented individuals. But even in those situations where you go through the interview experience – even if not selected - you gain valuable experience, knowledge and insight to make yourself more successful next time.

Take the risk. It’s ok to fail. Seize the opportunity and if you see a role that speaks to you, put yourself out there. It’s worth the experience even if the opportunity doesn’t always come to fruition. If you don’t try, you will never get that future leadership role.

Live by Your Values

Once you do get the offer for that next step in your career, it is natural to fear the change. As women, we talk about the third shift – an extra 8 hours of household and childcare responsibilities in a week compared with male counterparts. That’s like working an extra day per week that does not exist, so that comes out of the valuable time outside of traditional work hours, where leadership duties may also fall.

Knowing that, we often hesitate and worry. “If I take this role, what can I give up? How much of my personal life will I need to sacrifice?”

Leadership roles come with additional responsibilities – early morning calls, weekend travel, late nights. Especially in a pandemic or crisis, you may need to be available 24-7.

Leadership is not always an easy path, but it is a rewarding one. And in looking at all the accomplishments women and underrepresented groups have made, we can do those hard things. This is no different. You can find the balance so it’s not at the sacrifice of everything you hold valuable.

Look at who else is leading at the institution. Look at the leaders and their lives. Is there diversity? How have they prioritized things in their work-life integration? Those answers can give some insight into the values held by those in positions of leadership.

Think about whether you’re the leader or you’re being led. Is your institution mindful of the restraints working parents have? What is the flexibility at the institution? Not all of us have a personal support system on-hand. Having support within the workplace is very important. Can the workplace pivot to help their workforce?

We all have to make personal decisions. Some of them are challenging. While career is important and so rewarding, we all have our own prioritization of work, family, health, religion and many other things. Most importantly – and I’ve learned this recently – you will feel at peace with whatever decisions you make for yourself if you follow your core values. Define what is most important to you and hold those things tight. Those are the glass balls that should never be dropped or jeopardized.

That’s what can make certain leaders more authentic – one who speaks their truth and knows their value system and then exemplifies that in their actions. It is walking the walk, and it gives those you are leading the confidence and reassurance to do the same.

Be that leader for the next generation of diverse gastroenterologists. Communicate openly. Take the risks. Live your truth.

– Amy S. Oxentenko, MD, FACP, FACG, AGAF
Chair, Department of Medicine
Mayo Clinic, Arizona