Trauma surgeons are accustomed to managing emergencies and leading teams through difficult situations. Especially when they’re experienced in leading an entire system as chief medical officer. Sometimes that leadership involves speaking up about uncomfortable truths.
When Jason Smith, MD, PhD, MBA’19, and his team at the University of Louisville finished treating the victims of the April 10 mass shooting in at the Old National Bank, he shared impromptu—and candidly honest—frustrations with gun violence in his community and a plea for policy change. It was an unscripted moment to be the voice of his team and the people he represents each day across the third largest health system in Kentucky. It also offered a humanizing glimpse into executive leadership.
“It’s important for people you work with to understand you are feeling and experiencing what they’re feeling and experiencing. Speaking out about that was as much about letting them know that I’m right there with them and as frustrated as they are, or more so,” Dr. Smith said.
The story went viral, and Dr. Smith’s comments were captured locally and nationally as people connected with a message delivered straight from the front lines. He acknowledges it can be a fine line for leaders to walk amid such a divisive issue as gun control, but it’s important for staff to know their leader is willing to speak up.
“Oftentimes you get into this debate when there’s a strong encampment on both sides of an issue on whether or not to talk about it and upset those two sides, whether it’s building a new hospital or encouraging gun control,” Dr. Smith said. “But somewhere in the middle is where 80% of folks in the room exist, and they’re willing to come to a compromise. It’s the job of a leader to get them talking. I don’t need to tell them what my ideas are; the job of a leader is to get everyone talking to find the best solution for everyone.”
An alum of the Physician MBA Program, Dr. Smith uses the skills he gained in leadership and executive presence to support his teams at University of Louisville Health. As the chief clinical officer, he oversees five hospitals, nine urgent cares, two ambulatory surgery centers, two freestanding emergency rooms and more than 200 clinical practices. He says the lessons in leadership from Kelley are particularly helpful when it comes to leading by example to support staff through burnout.
“The Physician MBA is a leadership program that teaches you to recognize when team members need help, and how to get them help. It’s like leading people through burnout, which is a huge problem,” Dr. Smith said. “You can’t be doing it alone. You have to teach the other leaders to recognize burnout and then develop a safety net for people who need it. That can be offering Zen rooms in our emergency department and encouraging people to take a break for as long as they need. It’s little things like that help in real times of crisis.”
When he began in his initial role of hospital CMO, it became clear to Dr. Smith how little medical school prepared physicians to make financial decisions for health systems. As his career took on more administrative responsibilities, he sought a foundation of business knowledge from which he could build.
“In medicine, we spend a lot of time talking in jargon: “What did the CBC show? Is the AG bad? How did the ex lap go? So, they had a CAPG prior to cath?” It makes things easier, I understand it, other clinicians understand it, it’s how we talk. Business is just like that—it has the same type of jargon,” Dr. Smith said. “Part of it is understanding this new language of business and applying it to deliver better healthcare.”
Dr. Smith researched several MBAs for doctors and chose the Kelley School of Business, which required a 115-mile drive to Indianapolis every month. “Kelley offered the phenomenal reputation and experience,” he said. “There really isn’t a program that’s better than the Physician MBA Program.”
As he gained lessons in finance, accounting, and marketing, Dr. Smith was also experiencing hands-on lessons on how to apply these business foundations in healthcare. Accounting taught him how to evaluate and interprete financial reports to gain insights into an organization’s strategic decisions. Finance prepared him to link healthcare decisions with financial outcomes. In marketing, strategy connects patients with the right healthcare products. Dr. Smith says he was gaining a well-rounded business education.
“When you get into medicine, you are hyper focused on a very narrow field, and you know everything about that very narrow field. That’s your job. But that’s not how business works. I need to know a little bit about marketing and finance and be able to pull that team together,” he said. “I’m never going to be the finance guy, but I need to know what they know so I can utilize them in the team. For me, the biggest takeaway from the MBA is how to take various expertise and build a well-rounded, fully functional team in whatever you do.”
When Dr. Smith offers a financial proposal with a calculated return on investment, he feels confident putting it in front of his CFO. In fact, he says he still uses data and spreadsheets he created during the MBA program to project strategic growth and salary estimates. Doctors with MBAs can speak to both sides of the business of medicine—the clinical and the administrative—and as a result, gain greater credibility with leadership. Plus, he’s also gained the business jargon to add to the medical terminology.
“A lot of times physicians, get held at arm’s length in business meetings because they don’t talk the talk. Being integrated into that team makes you a more valuable member of that team moving forward,” he said. “The administrative team becomes more comfortable talking to you. I always say I become ‘Jason,’ not ‘Dr. Smith.’ Don’t get me wrong: Dr. Smith has a lot of say in what’s going on clinically. But when someone comes to my office with a non-clinical question, and they want my opinion, that’s when you know you’re more integrated into the team.”
Dr. Smith graduated with his MBA in 2019. In the fall of that year, his hospital system purchased a larger healthcare system, merging the two and elevating him to system CMO. This meant more locations to manage, new processes to learn, and new systems to combine. Within months, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, expanding Dr. Smith’s role to state-level management of vaccine distribution, COVID testing, and helping Louisville serve as a hub for COVID response. He says the MBA influenced his management growth and how he navigated it.
“I’ve gotten a lot more leadership opportunities after the MBA. I’m a more conscientious leader now,” he said. “I used to think you were either a natural leader, or you weren’t one at all. But one of the things leadership courses taught in the MBA was how to look at different perspectives to figure out, how does this person work? How can I get the best out of them in a team that works for everybody? As opposed to how I want to do it. That’s been the biggest change in my leadership style is integrating the whole team.”
A critical element of the Physician MBA Program is peer learning. Physicians learn from expert Kelley faculty with expertise in the business of medicine, but they also learn from each other. A physician-only program that attracts experienced doctors from across the country, the Kelley program creates connections among physicians that last for years.
Dr. Smith has hired two physicians from his cohort, and he still stays in touch with several classmates. Not only is this a good way to keep in touch with old friends, but it also creates a safe space for sharing learnings and collaborating with other physician leaders to solve relatable problems. If a physician is already considering an MBA, Dr. Smith says it’s time to enroll.
“I knew this was something I needed to do. You can try to talk yourself out of it, but you probably know earning an MBA is something you’re going to do. If that’s the case, take the plunge and go to a place like Kelley, who can really give you not only that business background but also a truly unique experience,” Dr. Smith said. “That’s the best part about the Physician MBA Program: as a CMO, I get a program tailored to my needs. A physician entrepreneur gets a slightly different program because we need different things. It’s about taking that first step. You won’t regret it.”