When Dr. Rachel Salas first encountered the idea of seeing a coach, she was skeptical, to say the least.
“How could it really be that meaningful?” thought Salas, associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “This person is not a physician. They don’t know the issues I have.”
The coaching was part of a leadership training program she was already attending, so she decided to give it a try. At just 30 minutes, that session turned out to be a game changer – so much so that she would eventually become a certified coach herself. While she does do some occasional physician coaching, the benefits, she says, are most realized in her everyday work as a clinician and clerkship director.
Executive and leadership coaching has been around a long time, but it is only recently that physicians have begun to see its value.
“Coaching now is where working out at a gym was 30 years ago,” says Keri Bischoff, a certified coach who has worked with the American Academy of Neurology since 2016.
A few decades ago, people looked at you sideways if you talked about your personal trainer or yoga teacher. “Now it is just part of our norm,” Bischoff adds. “That is what coaching is going to be. It has already happened in the business world. It is still relatively new in medicine.”
Bischoff coached Salas and after the first session Salas says she went home “and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I reached out to Keri and said, ‘Why didn’t I have this 20 years ago when I was a student?’”
This conversation led to a collaboration, and eventually a paper, in a PreDoc Program coaching college students. The paper, published in March 2019, showed how the implementation of a formal coaching program could be used to increase students’ interest in and readiness to pursue healthcare careers. The study took place at Johns Hopkins, where Salas works as a clerkship director and continues to use her coaching skills with students.
It was actually near the start of this clerkship job at Hopkins that Salas met Bischoff. Their first coaching session was part of a clerkship director leadership training program, sponsored by the American Academy of Neurology.
Salas says the coaching helped her overcome some of the “imposter syndrome” she was experiencing in her new job. And it helped her become more confident in her new role by helping her identify her strengths. To do this, she took Gallup’s CliftonStrengths test.
“Anyone can take this test,” Salas says. “I’ve seen lots of people take it, and they say, ‘Yep, that’s me.’ Then they put the report in a drawer and move on.”
It is the coaching, she adds, that delivers the real value.
Salas recently earned her own certificate as a CliftonStrengths coach and uses these skills with her students, but also with her patients. She is listed on the CliftonStrengths website as a coach and she occasionally gets calls, but that’s not why she pursued the certificate. She did it more as a deep dive into this particular methodology, which she says really resonated with her.
Unlike mentoring, which most physicians are familiar with, coaching offers a way of getting more objective feedback. A coach is typically someone outside your own department and even outside your profession – someone with whom you can talk openly, without fear of judgement or professional repercussions.
“I use it in everything I do,” Salas adds. “I love it, but it’s just a tool. It is the particular one I chose, but there are lots of different types of coaching.”
Salas is a coaching convert, but she knows that physicians can be a tough crowd to convince: We don’t just go online and pick a service based on who has the best Groupon. But she urges physicians, particularly those struggling with their work, to consider coaching as an option.
Ask around or contact The American Academy of Neurology. They offer free coaching sessions at their annual meeting and as part of their leadership programs. You might be surprised by just how many physicians are using coaches today.