Feature Interview | Why to Consider Physician Coaching

FEATURE | In this feature interview, cardiologists Toniya Singh, MBBS, FACC, a Partner at St. Louis Heart and Vascular, and Sangeeta B. Shah, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at Ochsner Health System, discuss how they discovered career coaching through different avenues, but have both experienced valuable benefits as a result.

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What inspired you to pursue a physician coach?

Toniya Singh, MBBS, FACC: One day, I was introduced by a friend to this young woman who was fundraising for a workspace for women. She was extremely poised, and as a part of our discussion on how she made the switch from being a high school geometry teacher to an entrepreneur, she brought up the fact that she had a personal coach.

At this time, a new chapter was starting for ACC Missouri Women in Cardiology (WIC), my older son was leaving for college, I had been appointed chief of staff at one the hospitals I work at, and I was doing more work in the management of our practice.

I felt the need for someone or something, but I was unsure what I was looking for.

Sangeeta B. Shah, MD, FACC: "Change 2015" – this was my new work password in December 2014. In a semi-academic environment, I was doing my best balancing a clinical volume, academic endeavors and family.

I had not hit a wall, I was not in despair and I was not "burnt out." However, I did not feel a sense of contentment. The obstacles in my career were no longer challenges I welcomed. As 2016 started, I found myself asking questions.

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What does it mean to be successful?

  • Should I just feel successful and content with what I have already accomplished?
  • Is there a new skill set that I need to obtain such as an MBA?
  • Do I need to find a new job?

I have to admit, I looked around and spent time looking at careers of colleagues, mentors and leaders within my institution to define success. I began conversations with Father Anthony about the framework of meaningful work.

I reached out to my mentor after several years of casual "hellos" at conferences. My question to him was very vague:

Where should I go from here? What picture of success should I be painting?

In decades past, using a career coach was reserved for top-level business executives. Now, thousands of workers – regardless of their leadership level or industry – are employing coaches to help navigate their career paths.

Coaching has become increasingly popular for professionals who are looking for new jobs, facing challenges in their current position or are working towards promotion. Career coaching typically incorporates methodology from both consulting and therapy.

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Consulting methods used may consist of giving advice, setting goals and determining the right career path. Therapy methods used may include exploring subjective experiences, tackling difficult issues and focusing on individual behavioral change.

The International Coach Federation, the largest professional coaching organization in the U.S., estimates that there are at least 17,500 professional coaches in North America, and their ranks are growing every year.

Leaders in business-related industries most often use career coaches but they are increasingly utilized by other groups as well, including Human Resource departments, mid-level managers, school systems and physicians.

Due to the rapid changes happening within the health care system – and the increased pressures on doctors – there is little time to develop oneself, and physician burnout is rampant.

Working with a career coach can help physicians successfully navigate their specific challenges, whether that includes overcoming burnout, adjusting their work-life balance or developing the skills needed to be a successful leader.

Were you previously aware of physician coaching? How did you first become aware that physicians were using coaches?

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Singh: I was not aware! I was an investor in a female-focused co-working space and was introduced to my coach through that network. I just happened to connect with her at a pivotal point in my career.

Shah: No. I was aware of mentors and their role in my career development but not a coach. I was introduced to a physician whose enthusiasm I remember to this day. He came to my office and told me his story of finding a coach.

It was after Katrina, the burdens at work had increased and he needed some assistance with the changing landscape. He told me how he won a coaching session at a fundraiser, and explained that the coach had helped him understand himself, his environment and his colleagues. This had afforded him great personal and career grow over the last 13 years.

Why did you think you could benefit from a coach?

Singh: I was on a fast-track to leadership positions within the ACC and I wanted to bolster some skill sets that I did not use day-to-day in my practice.

Shah: I was not experiencing burnout, but I had reached a point in my career where I was not sure what I wanted to do next. I needed some help clarifying what success meant to me, and what I needed to do to attain it.

How frequently do you see your coach?

Singh: One hour once a month.

Shah: Thirty minutes every week over the phone.

What is the most valuable benefit you have received from coaching?

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Singh: It helps to keep me on track and ensure I am making the progress I want. Every month, I am forced to stop and think about my priorities and how I am going to address them with my coach.

The fact that I am spending time clarifying these concerns is perhaps just as valuable as the coaching itself!

Shah: Coaching has taught me the tools I needed to define my success. Every week before my coaching session, I take time to stop, review the week and think about the skill set I need to develop.

The wonderful thing is that I have a someone who gets to know me and develops my skills in a way I can understand and implement.

What have you learned from your coaching experience?

Singh: I have learned that it is infinitely valuable to define what I need to do and my barriers to doing those things, at regular intervals. I have come to understand the difference between position and influence, and how to recognize what I can influence.

I have also learned that when you have authentic conversations with professionals outside of the medical field, your network quadruples – I am connected with many other professionals in the business community now.

Shah: I completely agree with Singh. In addition, I learned two important lessons: one, if something is important to my professional success, own it and be the voice; and two, never sacrifice humility at the expense of honesty.

Why do you think coaching is valuable for physicians?

Singh: So often, I see physicians getting leadership coaching when they are in – or being primed for – a leadership position. However, I think coaching is valuable for all physicians, whether leadership is in their future or not.

It is helpful for all physicians to get an outside perspective on self-confidence, work challenges and more. I want physicians to know that coaches exist and that utilizing them can be life changing!

Shah: Success is not becoming like someone else. We know of fitness coaches who help us stay physically healthy, and we should consider physician coaches to not only help us reach our best potential but also to help us navigate our work environments by understanding our teams and processes.

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Physicians may feel that they do not have the time for career coaching, but even short meetings, whether in-person, over the phone or via video conference, can offer significant benefits.

Studies show that utilizing a personal coach can decrease physician burnout by increasing resilience, self-awareness and self-care. Career coaching is also extremely beneficial for physician leaders.

In today's health care industry, effective leaders must draw on emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills to successfully navigate the complexities of management.

Career coaches can assist physicians in developing these "soft" skills. Regardless of whether physicians are on a leadership track or not, are in early or mid-career, coaches can be a valuable resource in attaining personal and professional success.