Coaching for Physicians: A Game Plan for Success

By Jennifer Larson, contributor

October 25, 2011 - Physicians, especially those in official leadership positions, often find themselves called upon to delegate tasks, lead a staff of diverse people and help resolve conflict. However, not every physician has received any formal education to learn how to tackle those tasks.

Leonard Lang, PhD.
Leonard Lang, Ph.D., founder of Physician Coaching Services, says, "You have to take the stresses out so you can build the successes up."

“They’re not received that training. They’ve received training in medicine,” said Leonard Lang, Ph.D., founder of Physician Coaching Services in Minneapolis.

This lack of preparation can make their jobs very stressful, especially if they don’t feel comfortable with some of those leadership skills or are working in a new or challenging situation. And things can become even more difficult as they try to balance their demanding jobs with their personal lives. At times like these, a physician coach can step in and provide some guidance.

Many physician coaches prefer to work in a one-on-one format, which helps them provide very specialized feedback for their clients and develop personalized strategies.

“I’m like their success partner,” explained Maria Lesetz, who coaches doctors as part of her coaching business, Lovin’ Life.

Coaching for physicians is a relatively new phenomenon, but not as new as some might think.

Lesetz has been a life coach for about a decade, but about five years ago she also became a certified life coach for physicians. Internist Francine Gaillour, M.D., founded the Physician Coaching Institute in Bellevue, Wash., in 2003. And Lang found a natural progression into physician coaching from career coaching about 10 years ago.

Coaching helps the individuals who seek it out, but it can also benefit organizations, said Gaillour. Coaching can help physicians develop collegiality with their colleagues, which can foster a more positive atmosphere at work.

“That’s of a great benefit to the group,” she noted, adding that it can also improve retention if physicians are satisfied.

There are three areas in which many physician coaches provide guidance: personal fulfillment or satisfaction, leadership development and career development. Gaillour and Lesetz work in all three areas, while Lang mostly works with the latter two. And the areas can and sometimes do overlap.

Avoiding burnout

Lesetz often hears from physicians who are feeling burned out or overly stressed.

“There’s usually no balance or very little balance in their lives,” she said.

Many of them are concerned about juggling the demands of their careers with their families and personal lives. Perfectionism has helped them achieve the success they’ve achieved so far, and they’ve set very high standards for themselves.

“But it’s reached a point in their career where shooting for perfectionism isn’t serving them well anymore,” Lesetz said.

During coaching sessions, she begins with an assessment. Then she helps the physician figure out what he or she would like to achieve. Then, together, they work on ways to address the client’s own well-being and gain a sense of control over their busy lives.

Leadership development

Leadership is another area in which coaches can be very helpful. Perhaps a physician is moving into a new role. Perhaps a physician has already taken on a new leadership position and is having trouble with the transition. Or perhaps the physician is handling a potentially difficult situation, like disciplining someone.

“There are a lot of different skills [required], other than what they’re used to,” Lang said.

Gaillour helps her physician clients identify their strengths and weaknesses, noting that self-awareness is very important for people in leadership roles. They need to be aware of their blind spots so they can work on them, and they should be able to apply their strengths appropriately. Then she helps them work on communication styles--their own and those of their co-workers. She helps them learn strategies for managing their own emotions and preparing how they will communicate.

“The better a physician leader understands how the other person takes in communication, the better they can flex their own communication so they can be understood,” she said.

And like many coaches, Gaillour likes to do this coaching on a one-on-one basis. She helps her physician clients walk through certain situations step by step and tailor their strategies to help them be as effective as possible. Then, they can be more effective in meetings or interactions.

“I call it your learning lab,” she said.

Lang has a similar approach. First he helps his clients identify what triggers them--their stressors--and then he helps them prepare for those situations in advance, emotionally and intellectually. He calls this collection of ready responses their “emotional toolkit,” which can be used when they are confronted with triggers that might set them off.

“You have to take the stresses out so you can build the successes up,” he said.

Career development

Physician coaches are also used in the area of career development.

Lesetz listens to her clients talk about what they want to achieve--and the barriers that they might perceive to achieving those career goals. She often hears them discuss preconceived notions they may have about what their schedules or circumstances will or won’t allow them to do.

“That’s just a belief, and we work on that because that belief is not going to help them achieve what they want,” she said.

So she asks them to expand their thoughts and “think a little more outside the box, in an ‘anything-is-possible’ way.” Then she guides them in setting up a plan and adjusting their mindset to help them achieve that plan.

Sometimes, physicians only need this type of concentrated focus for a short period of time, like the physician who hired Lesetz to help her prepare for her boards. Others may spend longer periods of time working with their coaches--even touching base with them via email on a regular basis for additional help.

Gaillour likes to use the term “career adventure” when she describes what she helps some of her physicians discover.

Some of them have come to her because they weren’t completely satisfied and were considering transitioning out of clinical practice. She helps them explore their other interests and determine whether they really need to leave clinical practice in order to use their talents. Some ultimately do decide to leave clinical practice, while others don’t. She works with those who decide to leave to help them figure out how to make that transition.

“A big topic that we address is self-identity: if I’m not seeing patients, am I still a physician?” she said. “We spend a lot of time redefining.”