Getting Involved in Organizational Leadership: Why, When, and How

By Mara B. Antonoff, MD

November 24, 2020

As cardiothoracic surgeons, we are pulled in numerous directions. From a clinical perspective, there are patients to be seen, operations to perform, notes to dictate, and referring physicians with whom to communicate. For those of us in academic practices, there are often investigations to plan, data to analyze, presentations to prepare, and papers to write. The education of trainees adds obligatory commitments to teaching rounds, didactics, journal clubs, and more. When all is said and done, we have little time for administrative activity—such as completing mandatory training and departmental meetings. Why, you might ask, would an early career surgeon give any of his/her remaining time to a professional organization? 

WHY: An often-touted reason for getting involved in national and international medical specialty organizations is the notion of strength in numbers. By connecting with individuals who are facing the same issues in the same specialty, we can work together to make a difference—for our workforce and patients. For example, the STS mission is to “advance cardiothoracic surgeons' delivery of the highest quality patient care through collaboration, education, research, and advocacy.” These clearly shared goals within our specialty can best be achieved collectively. 

By working collectively toward the goals of our specialty, you can change the future for practitioners and patients for generations to come. 

Beyond becoming a member of these societies, there are innumerable opportunities to get involved in their leadership. By taking part in committees and projects, surgeon leaders get the chance to interact with one another and build networks of friends, colleagues, and collaborators at external institutions. For those seeking to rise to the ranks of leadership roles within their own institutions, societal leadership can be a stepping stone, providing opportunities to grow and learn as a leader, while simultaneously building experiences on one’s curriculum vitae. Societal involvement also can provide a community to those who may lack such a network at their own workplace, such as women and other minority groups currently underrepresented in cardiothoracic surgery. And, while it serves as a pathway of connecting individual surgeons who may have things in common, at the same time, it is also a means of exposing oneself to a diversity of ideas and expanding one’s reach beyond the doors of a single hospital or institution. Moreover, as we think about why so many of us went into medicine, “to make a difference in patients’ lives,” there lies a very pressing argument for societal leadership: If you do one operation well, you’ve impacted a few lives. If you teach other surgeons, you’ve impacted even more lives. If you publish practice-changing articles, you may further impact the course of a disease. And by working collectively toward the goals of our specialty, you can change the future for practitioners and patients for generations to come. 

WHEN: At the beginning of your career, getting into societal leadership might seem like a formidable task. However, there’s actually a need for committed, energetic surgeons at all stages of their careers to contribute to societal leadership. There is no “perfect time,” as your job will always be busy with some task, some deadline, or some obligation. However, if it’s important to you, there are plenty of opportunities, which range in the amount of hours and effort required. Some positions entail conference calls every couple of months, while others may carry weekly responsibilities. Certainly, if you are interested in getting involved, there are a wide variety of roles that can fill your needs and capacity at any point in your career. While some might think it is best to wait until you are a more seasoned or established surgeon, there are a lot of great benefits to becoming involved in societal leadership early in your career. First of all, it is an opportunity to gain familiarity with the system and structure, and to position yourself for other leadership roles as you advance in your career. In addition, as mentioned earlier, it’s a way to build your network of colleagues, collaborators, and supporters—which are instrumental to any developing surgical career. It’s also a way to add experience early in your career that will help you with local leadership activities and possibilities for promotion and tenure. And, lastly, having early career surgeons involved in the leadership of societies ensures that the activities of the organization represent the needs of all of its members—and this requires a diversity of ages, experience levels, and practice settings, as well as diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. In sum, there’s no time like the present!

Do some online searching, contact the organization’s leaders to let them know of your interest, and participate in self-nomination activities. 

HOW: While every organization has a slightly different governance structure and processes for leadership nomination, these processes are usually quite transparent and can be identified via a brief online search. For example, every year during the month of September, STS invites members to volunteer for service within the STS governance structure using an online self-nomination process. Similar practices are used for other organizations. Self-nomination is not a guarantee of being offered a position though, and it’s important not to get discouraged if you do not find yourself immediately given a leadership role. I’d recommend looking at the organization’s various committees and workforces and then identifying those that speak to your interests. There are groups working on a seemingly endless list of projects in cardiothoracic surgery, ranging, for example, from health policy to resident education, from database work to patient safety, and from media relations to career development. The members of such committees, as well as their chairs, are usually published online and readily accessible. If you find a group that is of particular interest to you, don’t be shy in reaching out to the group’s leadership, sharing your enthusiasm, and offering your help with the efforts and endeavors of the committee. At STS, while workforces are formal and require nomination at annually in September, a number of great activities are done by the task forces within the workforces—and participation on these task forces can occur at the discretion of the workforce leadership. Thus, one of the best ways of securing a formal nomination is to volunteer to help, and then follow through by giving your best efforts and contributing to the team. 

An important point to be made is that, once you are on a committee or workforce, jobs that are well done may often lead to additional opportunities for leadership. However, joining a leadership body in name but without providing commitment and effort will also be noticed. It’s important to only commit to activities to which you plan to be team player, as it will neither benefit you, the organization, nor the specialty to have a leadership seat filled by someone without the time or prioritization for the tasks at hand. It may seem like a complicated process, but it’s actually rather simple: Do some online searching, contact the organization’s leaders to let them know of your interest, and participate in self-nomination activities. 

Ultimately, becoming involved in societal leadership is a phenomenal privilege and one that is open to everyone who is eager and interested in making a difference for our specialty and our patients. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

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