Learning the Skills of Leadership

Over the last 16 years, nine women faculty members at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) have participated in a yearlong intensive leadership boot camp designed to challenge them and their professional capabilities. There are lectures, workshops, team projects, coaching and mentoring, and participants must develop a substantial project designed to advance their medical center or school of medicine — all on top of their rigorous duties as a physician or researcher.

Why do it?

Shyrl Sistrunk, MD, has a ready answer. “Before I participated in this program, there were challenges I would never dream of undertaking. Now, they are viewed as an opportunity,” says this internal medicine physician and associate dean for curriculum and assessment at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

She looks at everything differently these days. “Before I would have asked ‘why should I?’ Now I ask ‘why not?’” she says.

Sistrunk is a 2011-2012 graduate of the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) Program for Women at Drexel University College of Medicine. She joined 53 other women in the only fellowship program in the U.S. dedicated to preparing senior faculty members for positions of leadership at academic health centers. More than 700 women have participated in ELAM since its inception in 1995.

ELAM’s stated goal is to prepare these participants — who must be nominated and supported financially, by their institutions for the competitive program — to play a leadership role in academic health organizations becoming more inclusive of different perspectives and responsive to societal needs and expectations.

Kathryn Sandberg, PhD, is an advocate of team interdisciplinary science, which she says is the emerging model for addressing the complexity that is now necessary for advancing biomedical science. So Sandberg, a current ELAM fellow, is taking that approach on her yearlong project.

Like many women in the program, she already has a string of titles behind her name — professor and vice chair of research in the department of medicine, director of graduate studies in physiology, and director of the Center for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Aging and Disease. Sandberg’s own approach to her work is somewhat unique — she is a basic scientist who studies hypertension and kidney disease and she works in the department of medicine so she can be “among clinicians, making sure my research is relevant to human conditions so that, ultimately, it can be translated to the clinic.”

Her ELAM project to create a new PhD program in translational biomedical sciences that spans all basic science departments, and is designed to train scientists on how to engage and work together with clinicians to conduct clinically significant translational research. “Because clinicians have so many competing demands these days,” she says, “it will likely be PhDs, like the ones graduating from this new type of PhD program, who will be uniquely positioned to drive translational research.”

ELAM participants meet with top administrators at their medical schools and centers to learn new skills, such as administrative organization and finances, which contributes to understanding the external climate that influences medical education and patient care.

This is important, says Bruce Luxon, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at GUMC and chairman of the department of medicine at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Luxon says that not only does the department of medicine rely on Sandberg to provide the leadership seen in her drive to create translational centers for biomedical research, the “attributes and skills that Dr. Sandberg has learned from the ELAM program are especially important for Georgetown University as we compete for limited federal research funding.”

The benefits of ELAM are also “very clear” to Howard J. Federoff, MD, PhD, the executive vice president for health sciences and executive dean of Georgetown’s School of Medicine who has attended graduation of GUMC ELAM participants in Philadelphia.

“The faculty members at GUMC who have participated in the ELAM Program for Women not only report a fruitful and exhilarating experience, they return to Georgetown with demonstrable leadership skills that I’ve observed in action,” he says. “The Medical Center is then the fortunate recipient of these newly developed — or in some cases newly refreshed — leadership skills.”

A sisterhood of high-powered women

Sistrunk, Sandberg and Bonnie Green, PhD, a 2007-2008 ELAM fellow, all agree that if there is one thing that ELAM participants walk away with from the program, it is the knowledge that there is a universe of exceptionally talented women working in academic medicine. “For me, and for others, the major takeaway from the program was the interactions with amazingly smart and accomplished women,” says Green, professor and vice chair for research in the department of psychiatry, and associate dean for faculty development.

ELAM “establishes a national network of women leaders that creates long-lasting bonds,” Green says. “We are all very supportive. When challenges come up at our institutions, we can talk to each other about them.”

Sandberg terms the fellowship “a sisterhood of high-powered women. You can access women not only in your class, but in all the classes before you.”

Such a community is needed, they say. “Women have not been mentored to the extent that men have,” Sandberg says. “In my experience, women tend to be more cautious in their careers; they worry they are not ready to advance while men seem to just jump in, apply for a job, and feel they can do it.”

Sistrunk calls it the “deer in the headlights” approach to advancement. “I think, in general, women look a little narrowly on where they are and the contributions they have made within an institution, and, importantly, how they may be viewed by others,” she says.

Sandberg, Sistrunk and Green now make it their business to mentor other female faculty members. “I feel free to pass along the confidence I have learned,” Green says.

Stephen Ray Mitchell, MD, MACP, FAAP, a professor of medicine and pediatrics, and dean for medical education, is a big fan of the fellowship. ELAM has played an enormous role in advancing “our academic community, for men and for women.” He says that, in his opinion, ELAM, combined with the active mentoring program fostered by Georgetown Women in Medicine, has led to a climate where even more women are succeeding than in the past.

While GUMC “needs to work with each faculty member to achieve his or her potential, regardless of gender,” Mitchell is clear about the power of ELAM. “We owe ELAM a debt of gratitude for helping to build a supportive village to grow us all.”

Other current GUMC faculty who have attended ELAM are Barbara Bregman, PhD; Barbara Bayer, PhD; Karen Gale, PhD; and Lucile Adams-Campbell, PhD.

By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications

(Published March 13, 2013)