Talking Leadership with Barry McLellan, Executive-in-Residence

Sep 13, 2017

Professor Barry McLellanProfessor Barry McLellan

Professor Barry McLellan became executive-in-residence at the Faculty of Medicine on July 1, 2017, after a decade as president and CEO of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Before that he was the chief coroner for Ontario. He spoke with writer Jim Oldfield about his new role, his thoughts on leadership and what he hopes to accomplish at U of T.

What is executive-in-residence?

Executive-in-residence has traditionally been a role more common in well-established university business schools and we’re treading into somewhat new territory introducing it at the Faculty of Medicine. The concept of bringing someone with relevant executive experience into the Faculty with a mentorship role is, however, very applicable as the Faculty expands its role in growing the health leaders of the future. I have always enjoyed teaching medical students and residents and specifically mentoring those with an interest in management and leadership and the opportunity to do more of this through the executive-in-residence position is a great privilege. Over the summer months I have been meeting with students, residents in training and university faculty in leadership positions and I look forward to growing this mentoring role in a more structured way over the upcoming months.

Do you have a specific focus at this point?

There will clearly be many opportunities but one specific area where someone with my background can add value is with the Faculty's essential and growing relationships with hospitals, both the fully affiliated and community sites. These partnerships are critical for the mutual benefit of the Faculty and the hospitals and the world renowned teaching and research for which our university is recognized. 

How often are you here?

Although defined as one half day per week I anticipate being on site two or three times most weeks. I am also working with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in a few roles including chairing the team negotiating a patient services agreement with the OMA, and I will also be assisting at the Dana Lana School of Public Health. My central office location at the C. David Naylor Building will mean I can be available frequently throughout the week.

Any surprises here so far?

Not so far. I've been working very closely with the Dean and Dean’s Office for many years and active with my own teaching and research in the past, so I have had many ties to the university for decades. The biggest adjustment so far has perhaps been spending more time in the actual downtown core. 

Your role here is about leadership. How are we doing in that regard?

When I graduated from the U of T medical school in 1981, there was no focus around the importance of growing medical leaders, especially early in their careers. Many physicians entered into leadership positions somewhat reluctantly and rarely sought out leadership opportunities early in their careers. In some cases when a hospital was looking for a department chief it was, 'Gee, maybe Bob will do it this time.' That's changed dramatically and this is a positive change. There is a new recognition that medical leadership is important and that through effective leadership you can positively influence and help shape practice, policy and more broadly the health care system. Medical students and residents now recognize that potential, something we did not see 20 or 30 years ago, which is great. As president and CEO at Sunnybrook I was meeting with students, residents and junior faculty who wanted to discuss how they could introduce leadership into their careers and this change in thinking is in no small way the result of the Faculty introducing this thinking earlier in training. 

What is the best way to learn leadership?

Leadership skills evolve and grow over time, especially in medicine. I learned the most by watching others that I respected and seeing how they led and what they accomplished. That probably is the best way to learn, to develop your style based on the actions of role model leaders in different situations. We talk about leadership as being a bit like golf — you need to be adaptable, to pull out the right club for the right shot at the right moment. You need experience for that, to have seen others and learned from them, so that's usually what I recommend. It's less about didactic learning. It's about identifying and being exposed to role models and mentors, early on. The university is providing and can provide even more of those opportunities — as early as possible.

What is Toronto's greatest strength as a hub for academic medicine?

There are many strengths but one of the more notable is partnerships. Organizations working together, synergistically, for the common good. There will always be a healthy level of competition, wanting to be at the forefront of discovery and practice. But that spirit of cooperation, wanting to work together, is a real strength in Toronto and not common in other university centres. Firstly, we have a critical mass of excellence here in Toronto. In some U.S. centres there may be more competition for money from insurance or the private sector. Toronto has unique strengths with TAHSN [Toronto Academic Health Science Network] being a very tangible example, where it is all about the hospitals and university planning together around how we can do things better. TAHSN is the envy of many across the country, for very good reasons. 

What else are you doing these days?

I'm staying very much engaged in health and health care (through this position, working with government and some consulting) but not working as hard as I was as a hospital president and CEO, which is very much a 24/7 position. The pace is different and I now have a bit more time and flexibility for travel. I will soon be off to Africa for three weeks and that's a trip I could never have done in the past.
 

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