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How to Identify and Develop Physician Executive Candidates

Jackson Physician Search
December 21, 2023

As more and more hospitals and healthcare systems recognize the benefits of physician leadership, demand for qualified and experienced physician executive candidates increases. Physicians complete years of training focused on patient care but spend little to no time learning the business of healthcare; for the most part, this is learned on the job. Those who excel at (and enjoy) both sides of the equation make up a very small pool of highly sought-after candidates for a growing number of physician executive jobs. Despite the trend toward MD/MBA and MD/MPH programs designed to provide this training earlier in physicians’ careers, there are simply not enough qualified physician executive candidates to meet the demand.

Physicians with their eyes on physician executive jobs may enroll in MBA or MPH programs or work toward certification through the American Association of Physician Leadership. However, many don’t wish to spend the additional time and tuition for these credentials – which may not be necessary. The corporatization of healthcare means most physicians get a crash course in business whether they want it or not. With the right development, most physicians have the potential to serve as physician executives should they want to pursue that path.

Not every physician will have the interest or aptitude to learn the business side of healthcare. Still, it’s important to identify those who do so you can focus on developing them. For example, larger organizations may have sufficient potential physician executive candidates to create a cohort that will follow a set curriculum. Smaller organizations may identify one or two and lean heavily into a mentor program to be sure critical areas are covered. 

6 Qualities to Look for:

Regardless of how your organization opts to develop potential leaders, the first step is to identify those physicians with interest and aptitude. The following traits are strong indicators that a physician has potential as an executive.

1. Clinical Excellence

While leadership skills are vital, physician leaders must first be able to make sound medical decisions, stay abreast of the latest advancements in the field, and provide high-quality patient care. A good physician leader should serve as a role model for their colleagues, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to excellence in clinical practice.

2. Curiosity

Good leaders are in a constant state of learning. Their innate curiosity drives them to seek out the opinions of others and look for alternative solutions to complex problems. While they are confident in their ability to make decisions, they are genuinely interested in hearing the opinions of others. They are good listeners – not simply because it is considerate, but because they want to learn. 

3. Credibility 

Future physician leaders consistently do their jobs well and without complaining – and their peers notice. These physicians aren’t perfect, but when they fall short, they own their mistakes and are eager to learn from them. They are respectful of others regardless of title or position – administrators, physician peers, patients, nurses, or other staff. Their consistent professionalism gives them credibility with their peers and staff, positioning them well for future leadership roles.

4. Communication Skills

Potential physician leaders should clearly convey information in a way that resonates with both medical and non-medical staff. They are direct without being insensitive, ensuring others know where their performance stands and areas for improvement. They are adept at active listening, encouraging open dialogue and feedback within the healthcare team.

5. Adaptability

The healthcare landscape is dynamic, with constant advancements in technology, changes in regulations, and evolving patient needs. Successful physician leaders must be adaptable and innovative, capable of leading their teams through change and finding creative solutions to emerging challenges. A forward-thinking mindset is essential to improve patient outcomes, operational efficiency, and healthcare delivery.

6. Emotional Intelligence

Physician leaders must navigate a complex web of relationships, from interacting with patients and their families to collaborating with diverse healthcare professionals. Emotional intelligence, including empathy, self-awareness, and social skills, is crucial for building strong interpersonal connections. Leaders who understand their team’s and patients’ emotional needs can create a positive and supportive work environment, leading to better outcomes overall.

Physicians with these six qualities have the potential to be great leaders, but to be successful leaders, they also need the following from you:

A Strong Mentor

Physicians exhibiting strong leadership potential need a mentor invested in their growth and development. Pair these physicians with physicians currently in executive roles, setting guidelines for how frequently the pair should meet as well as specific topics to address.  


Perhaps the most important part of developing physicians into leaders is giving them a clear view of the business side of the organization. This doesn’t mean physicians should be at every board meeting, but there should be clear communication about what occurs in meetings and how and why policies are implemented. Regardless of their leadership aspirations, physicians value this transparency from leaders, but for physicians interested in becoming executives, the transparency is not only appreciated but also necessary. Give these physicians a clear view into the decision-making process, and when ready, invite them to participate in the discussion.

Developing strong physician leaders is a strategic imperative for healthcare organizations aiming to thrive in the ever-changing healthcare landscape. Identify physicians with these six qualities and partner them with a strong mentor willing to teach them what they need to know. Most importantly, give potential physician leaders a clear view of the decision-making process and invite them to participate in those conversations. With time, the physician you hired out of residency just a few years ago may be the physician executive you need to lead your organization into the future.

Is your organization seeking to hire a physician executive? Reach out to the Physician Executive Search team at Jackson Physician Search today to learn how our experience, expertise, and relationships with physicians in all stages of their careers can ease and accelerate your search.


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