Balancing Professional and Personal Success as a Health Care Leader

[left] Health care professional walking down a hallway, [right] person in suit with briefcase walking towards car

Many successful health care leaders today share a common trait—having a high need for achievement. But while being so driven probably drew them to their jobs in the first place, it can also get in their way, explains Thomas DeLong, PhD, the Baker Foundation Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. He has spent the last few decades researching the challenges facing such high-achievement focused individuals and providing important insights to help leaders better navigate the many demands on their time.

DeLong also serves on the faculty of Harvard Medical School’s Safety, Quality, Informatics, and Leadership program. In this role, he shares his expertise with participants from around the world to help them become stronger leaders. This can help them make strategic changes to shift their focus and increase their effectiveness—both personally and professionally.

Challenges Facing High-Achievement Personalities

“People who have a high need for achievement have a DNA chip inside them and an extraordinary burn [to achieve]. Most of their life, success is defined by what they accomplish,” he explains. Often, this ambition comes at the expense of the person’s personal life. This makes it important to find ways to balance both career and relationships so both can co-exist in a healthy way.

DeLong knows first-hand just how challenging finding this balance can be for people with a high-needs personality who are also trying to also raise a family. In fact, he harkens back to an incident that took place more than two decades ago when his teenage daughter was confiding in him about something that had upset her. As he was listening to her, the phone rang.

“I said to her, ‘Sara can you just hold your emotions for just a moment while I answer the phone?’” While the phone call turned out to be a telemarketer and he hung up quickly, the damage was already done. Sara had left the room and the conversation was over.

Tips to Help Leaders Balance Personal and Professional Success

DeLong points out that despite years of studying interpersonal behavior and didactic relationships, he still couldn’t overcome the need to focus on work instead of meeting his daughter’s needs. This scenario is common for people who are especially driven. But DeLong stresses that they don’t have to give up and accept this fate.

Over the years, he has learned ways to better balance work and family, and he is committed to helping other leaders do the same by making some simple—but strategic—changes.

These include:

1. Moving from image management to essence management

Many health care leaders can start to believe that what they have accomplished defines who they are, DeLong points out. But he stresses that it’s essential to move from image management to essence management. Essence management requires developing self-awareness and focusing on self-achievement, as well as being interested in other people. These traits can actually be important for success both on the job and at home.

2. Finding—and closing—any gaps between your ideal and your reality

What are the values you look up to? And what are the values you live by in your daily life? By answering both of these questions you can identify where the gaps are and then figure out how to decrease the variance. This is essential to help you be more mindful of your decisions and what you truly stand for.

3. Accepting that some things are out of your control

Many high-achievers require a strong sense of control in their lives. Yet while you can control your actions, you can’t always control the variables that will ultimately affect the outcome. DeLong points out that the need to control the outcome is where many people with a high need for achievement get into trouble. It’s necessary to relinquish the need to control everything and we prepared to respond to different scenarios that may occur.

4. Recognizing that some conflict is unavoidable

If you find yourself telling white lies to avoid conflict, you are certainly not alone. “I have a tendency to do this myself,” DeLong admits. Yet he points out that while this avoidance may be much easier to deal with than initially facing the consequences that the conflict could cause, the benefits will usually be short-lived. Often the conflict will grow over time and can ultimately lead to even bigger negative consequences down the road.

5. Practicing patience

People who are driven to achieve are often especially impatient, DeLong says.  This makes it important for them to become more aware of this trait and to make a concerted effort to slow down and actually listen. While this won’t come naturally to most high-achieving personality types, as DeLong learned all those years ago with his daughter, mastering this skill may ultimately avoid disappointments and lead to stronger relationships.

Putting Best Practices to Work

When people with high-achieving personalities take the time to work on all of these areas, DeLong says that can improve the quality of their relationships and in the process, can achieve increased satisfaction—both at work and also at home.

Written by Lisa D. Ellis


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