Ladies Who Lead

“A lot of career pathways that lead to leadership roles are somewhat organic; you have to be ready to jump at any given time and say ‘yes’ when the opportunity presents itself,” said Mary Corcoran, Ph.D., associate dean for faculty development for health sciences and professor of clinical research and leadership at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), at the first annual Women Leaders Panel luncheon, Oct. 23. Corcoran wanted to make sure she was doing the types of things she really enjoyed in her career. “I realized early in my career that I really enjoyed mentoring people so I did as much of that as I possibly could until my skills got noticed and I was able to say ‘yes’ to some opportunities.”

Hosted by the SMHS Office of Faculty Affairs, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National Health System (CTSI-CN), and the newly formed SMHS Women's Faculty Group, the forum was part of a larger effort by CTSI-CN to foster mentorship and collaboration among the SMHS community.  

Corcoran was part of a panel of SMHS senior leadership that also included Linda Werling, Ph.D, associate dean for graduate studies; Yolanda Haywood, M.D., associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and student affairs; Alison Ehrlich, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology; and Nancy D. Gaba M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology, vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and associate dean for graduate medical education, who shared their professional and personal paths to becoming effective leaders.

“My younger sister used to refer to me as the boss of everything all the time,” Gaba said in jest, describing her path to leadership. Since the 8th grade, Gaba wanted to be a clinician, but for her, a career in medicine was only about being a clinician because that was all she knew. “It wasn’t until people started recognizing certain qualities and skills in me that doors started to open with opportunities to lead,” she recalled. The most exciting part of being a leader for Gaba is having the opportunity to effect change and to work with people who are in positions to make things happen.

During the informal discussion moderated by Lisa S. Schwartz, Ed.D., M.S., associate director of research education, training, and career development at CTSI-CN and assistant research professor of clinical research and leadership at SMHS, the women took turns discussing how they balance their work responsibilities with the demands of raising a family and addressed opportunities and challenges that come with pursuing a career in academic medicine.

Making quick decisions can be harmful in many leadership situations said Gaba. “I have had to learn to say to colleagues, ‘let me think about it’ or ‘can you give me more information regarding that’,” she said, explaining the leadership skills she has developed during her career. Gaba encouraged women to seek advice from people they respect and trust and who can bring a different perspective to a particular situation. “It’s empowering to ask other people for advice,” she added. “When you make snap decisions, you often haven’t considered all sides.”

Haywood echoed Gaba’s remarks. “An effective leader is someone who develops relationships with people in a way that reinforces trust and lets them know that you are sincere,” she said. For Haywood, being an effective leader is also “knowing when you’re right and being able to admit when you’re wrong.”

“What skills do you have to possess or develop to be a leader?” asked Schwartz. Being able to effectively communicate is vital to progressing in a leadership role, says Ehrlich. “It’s important to know when to pick up the phone or set up a meeting when electronic communication isn’t working.” 

“Organized individuals tend to end up in leadership roles,” said Werling. “It’s a skill that you develop over time.” What works for Werling is prioritizing “what do I need to deal with at that given time and finally being able to take a step back and see the big picture,” she added.

For attendee Sarah Todd, a fourth-year medical student at SMHS, developing leadership skills is vital for managing teams in the hospital and working alongside other leaders to influence curriculum and policy. “These skills are ones we learn a lot about in medical school but hearing someone else's experiences both good and bad as an attending physician is often not shared,” she said.

 Switching gears, the ladies turned the talk to how they balance work and home life. “I had to learn I wasn’t superwoman,” said Haywood, addressing how she balanced a career in medicine while raising three children. Her advice to junior faculty, residents, and medical students who want to raise a family and have a successful career, “you need to have support by virtue of your family, friends, or loved ones. I don’t believe you can or need to try to do everything by yourself.”

Haywood’s remarks resonated with Corcoran. “I really think you can do it all, if you carefully define what it is and it doesn’t include having to do everything yourself,” she added. It’s important to learn how to delegate and surround yourself with people who are supporting your efforts, says Corcoran.

As the session came to a close, the women reminded the audience to not be afraid to make a mistake or a wrong decision because they are opportunities to learn. “They build character,” added Corcoran.

“I really appreciated the honesty and candor with which the panelists expressed their experiences, goals, and words of wisdom,” Todd said.