Are You a Cat Herder?

A physician strolled into my office late one afternoon and as he plopped down in a chair he looked over at my exasperated face and said with a wry smile, “It’s a lot like herding cats.” I looked up, somewhat quizzically, and he said, “Your job, it’s a lot like herding cats.” It was a good laugh to end the day.

However, that day more than 20 years ago I always recall in part because it was the first time I’d heard that phrase – one so commonly repeated today it’s very much a cliché, as well as one of the few times a physician acknowledged that sitting at the head of the table of a medical group was indeed a challenging role.

That challenge continues today, whether you’re a non-physician, as am I, or a physician executive. I often find among physicians that as soon as comma MD in your name is followed by comma “president,” you have suddenly become one of “them,” only slightly less reviled as those non-physicians in that job.

So, how do you herd cats. I’ve spent more than 30 years now doing just that, and although I’m decidedly a dog person, I derive great pleasure in herding the cats. My reasoning is simple. Generally speaking, I do it well because unlike many leaders in medical groups I always understood the difference between those who care for the patients and myself, and I always realized that first and foremost patient care was our mission, our reason for existing. That perspective has served me well as I approach medical group leadership not as a manager but more as a coach. Good coaches realize they can’t do what those they coach do, or at least can’t do it as well, so they learn their role is to help those in their charge to do the best they can.

For me that has meant making sure physicians have the resources they need and want to practice their best, helping physicians have the practice they want, and helping them have the lifestyle the want. It’s not always an easy task, but if you recognize each physician in your group, on your team, as a star player whose success you can help and support, some of the clouds of mystery start to disappear.

That is the very clear message of the Physician-Centered Practice™, a process and term I coined many years ago. It’s also the basic message of understanding the role of physician motivation and leadership in medical group success and it is paramount in addressing physician disruption as a shared challenge and responsibility of both the organization and the physician rather than as simply the result of a “bad apple.”

If you’re a physician executive, you might want to visit and click on the heading Physician Executives. Let me know what you think, and let me know how good a cat-herder you’ve become!