As Cleveland Clinic’s Chief Medical Operations Officer, Robert Wyllie, MD, has been instrumental in many systemwide processes, including the health system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interview with Brian Bolwell, MD, for the podcast series “Beyond Leadership: At the Intersection of Leadership and Everything Else,” Wyllie described the skills that are required to fulfill his role. One of them, he says, is a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.
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Wyllie joined Cleveland Clinic in 1981 and was the hospital’s first fellowship-trained pediatric gastroenterologist. Eventually, he started a fellowship program and a department of pediatric gastroenterology. He served as Chair of Pediatrics before becoming Chief Medical Officer in 2011.
“Each time I’ve taken a significant jump in leadership, I’ve committed myself to a full year of staying in place, getting to understand the job,” says Dr. Wyllie. “The major part of that is getting to understand the people, what they’re interested in, what their abilities are, and how to form working administrative units that can lead that organization forward.”
Brian Bolwell, MD: You’re in charge of medical operations. What were the key things that you learned and that you tried to improve on?
Robert Wyllie, MD: Being an institute chair and being the chief of medical operations are quite different jobs, and they actually involve a different leadership style. For an institute chair, if I were going to use three adjectives, I’d say it requires being motivational, inspirational and highly organized. For medical operations, it’s being quantitative, analytical and organized.
I think you have to be organized in both, but there is a little different emphasis in terms of what’s expected out of leadership as an institute or department chair versus leading an operational unit. That would involve hospital presidents, who … have to be motivational and inspirational, but they all still have to be those other things – quantitative and analytical and strategic as well.
To do that, I think you have to be kind of confident and comfortable in your own skin. I think trust is the heart of any leadership position. Then you need to try to differentiate yourself on the basis of being authentic and being comfortable with yourself, and not be afraid to take on challenges, particularly in an operational role. An operational role can be fraught with pitfalls. You may start up a project which doesn’t work. But you’ve got to be quick to start a project, and you have to be quick to stop a project as well. I encourage people to fail early and fail often, because you’re going to learn every time you fail, and then you can tweak the process, and then you can move on again.
The other thing is to have confidence in what you’re suggesting, and to have confidence you’re going to need to build a consensus. That usually starts out with people who you work with that are fairly close, and then you go to people who are supporters. Then the last thing I typically do is go to people who I know probably aren’t going to like the idea necessarily, and we’re going to get pushback.
You have to know about the timing of that, obviously, because they can also provide you valuable input, so they can help you anticipate what the objections or the concerns are going to be when you’re in front of a larger group, and to build that into your plan up front. So as you’re bringing plans forward, whether it’s this is on an institute level or an institutional level in operations, you’ve got things pretty well lined up before you’re ready to present.