Physicians who pursue an MBA seek more than career advancement, but a new way to approach healthcare. Christopher McDowell, MD, MBA’19, enrolled in the Physician MBA Program at the Kelley School of Business in 2018 as he was taking the helm as the David L. Griffen Chair of Emergency Medicine at Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Medicine. As he explained in a previous blog, he had the role, now he needed the business tools to lead.
“I went into the program to develop financial skills and competency in several areas of business, but the leadership development you gain is really a highlight,” said Dr. McDowell. “You learn more about your own leadership style; you get exposed to other styles, and it really broadens your appreciation for what leadership is.”
In fact, Dr. McDowell says he’s applied lessons gained from the Physician MBA’s executive coaching courses to such a degree that he was recently named a new co-director of his university’s Center for Human and Organizational Potential’s Leadership and Excellence Pillar. In this new role, Dr. McDowell creates professional development opportunities for SIU School of Medicine employees and promotes a healthy workplace culture.
“I’ll have a larger role in leadership development across the medical school, and I plan to pursue a coaching certification,” said Dr. McDowell. “There’s no doubt that [Executive Coach] Jennifer Robin’s impact on me and the value I got from those sessions at Kelley spurred me to develop this skill set.”
Dr. McDowell says the Physician MBA executive coaching, in which physicians are paired one-on-one with coaches to develop executive presence and leadership capabilities, drove his love for encouraging growth in other leaders. Having had his own sounding board and individualized focus on his own development, Dr. McDowell wants to provide the same for others.
“As a leader, you hope the people around you are on a path to improve their own skill sets,” he said. “If you can do something to help them get to the next level of their careers or develop a better sense of accomplishment in what they’re trying to do, that’s really exciting. I think coaching allows you to do that.”
The leadership lessons gained in the Physician MBA Program extend to many areas of Dr. McDowell’s role. The experience helped him gain significant institutional support to create roles in his department where they didn’t exist before. He also applies a fresh voice at the new tables he’s invited to, where he can provide blended perspectives on business and medicine.
“The program gave me the confidence to get to the table in a lot of leadership discussions throughout the university. For example, we just completed a search for a new CMO. I was able to have very in-depth conversations with the dean about the process while it was happening, and afterwards, I provided a breakdown on our perspectives of the candidates,” he said. “This was invaluable to my own development as a leader. When you have executive-level relationships and can lead those conversations, it’s a skill set I can carry forward into any future roles.”
The program gave me the confidence to get to the table in a lot of leadership discussions throughout the university.”
Shortly after completing the Physician MBA Program, the COVID-19 pandemic offered another opportunity for Dr. McDowell to address new challenges. He found plenty of uses for his change management skill sets as he and his emergency medicine department navigated clinical and academic needs in the early days of shutdown.
“Throughout the pandemic, we had to do a lot of things on the fly. Initially, we converted our residency didactics online with Zoom and started using the platform Slack to enhance culture development in new ways,” he said. “We were at the forefront of our institution, and we were moving so fast the institution wanted to know how we were doing it. I was running the program from my basement while quarantined and ensuring the school and students were still getting value.”
While there are many specific business skills Dr. McDowell gained from the Physician MBA, such as financial accounting, economic forecasting and process improvement, the long-term shift in thinking has allowed him to approach healthcare differently. He’s a different leader—someone more patient and confident in the outcomes of current groundwork.
“The MBA has made me more patient and able to see a longer game. Conflicts arise in any organization, and I think when you’re able to take a step back to understand them, perhaps they don’t even matter in the big scheme of things. That’s essential,” he said. “And the ability to do that at a higher level later in your career is critical to being successful as a leader. Certainly, I’m always growing in this capacity, but I recognize my ability to prioritize these conflicts is far greater than when I began the program.”
Plus, Dr. McDowell does not have to do this alone. Like many Physician MBA alumni, his cohort of physicians keep in touch to share ideas, challenges and questions. Since they graduated right before the pandemic began, Dr. McDowell’s cohort has not had as many in-person reunions as they’d like, but they maintain active email chains, group texts and journal collaborations to share viewpoints and updates.
“The Kelley network is one of the hidden benefits of this program. You hope to gain some new relationships when you enroll in an MBA program, but once you’re there, the value of it really emerges,” said Dr. McDowell. “When you face a particularly thorny challenge at your own institution or maybe you just need a sounding board from someone outside your organization, there’s great value in being able to do that over a drink after class. Or getting someone’s perspective who’s faced that same challenge before in their own institution — it’s a big benefit.”
As he looks toward earning certification as an executive coach and moving his department forward, Dr. McDowell looks back on his time in the Physician MBA Program as a moment that recommitted him to his career.
“My goal with the MBA was a commitment to myself to reinvigorate my own career growth, develop some new skills that would make me more valuable to my organization and change the trajectory of the next phase of my career,” he said. “I certainly got all of that and much more out of the program. I would go back to the classroom tomorrow.”