How the Mayo Clinic involves doctors in action learning-based leadership

Male doctor in white lab coat
Action learning-based leadership is the way to develop physicians to lead the future of the complex healthcare industry. (Getty/Saklakova)

Want to help your physicians become effective leaders who can help transform how your healthcare organization works?

The Mayo Clinic says it has one answer: Put them on a team, give them a problem to solve and a deadline.

It’s formally called action learning, a leadership-development process in which small groups work on real-world organizational business problems, write three of the advisors for the Mayo Clinic program in NEJM Catalyst. It goes beyond the traditional leadership training that focuses on classroom lectures, role modelling, hypothetical practice scenarios and self-help activities, according to Ji Yun Kang, Ph.D., Mary Ann Djonne and Joslyn Vaught, senior leadership and organization development advisors.

Mayo Clinic calls its action-learning program “Fresh Eyes” and began the effort in September 2015 with a group of 30 participants that included physicians, scientists, administrators and nursing leaders it wanted to groom as leaders. The program assigned participants to one of six multidisciplinary teams intentionally put together to maximize diversity in terms of their roles, functional areas, geographic sites and regions, gender and ethnicity. Each team was given a business challenge with topics such as physician referrals, test utilization, patient access and integrative medicine.

Most of the participants had very limited knowledge and experience with the subject matter so that team members could bring a “fresh eye” perspective to the problem. Teams were assigned two executive sponsors and two project sponsors to guide them to information and resources and a team coach, who worked with both the team and individual members.

At the end of six months, each team delivered a business plan and a 20-minute presentation demonstrating how they would solve a problem. The program forced team members to come together, said one participant. “We were told, ‘Here’s your deadline, so you better figure it out quickly.’ Which is consistent with real life, actually,” the physician said.

The program builds skills that other leadership programs have made a priority: promoting listening, strategic thinking and building teams. “Questioning, reflecting and listening promote exploration and creativity among team members, thereby generating innovative solutions,” write the program advisers.

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