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When Your Mentor is Named CEO: Reflections

Contributor Karen K. Miller, MD
8 minute read

Last week, Anne Klibanski, MD, CEO of Mass General Brigham (formerly Partners HealthCare), was named one of “The Top 25 Women in Healthcare” by Modern Healthcare.

Dr. Klibanski, who has been my mentor since I started my endocrine fellowship in 1995, is clearly an exceptional scientist and a visionary leader.

As she received this award, I asked myself: "How did she succeed and rise to these levels, despite the very real impediments that her gender presented — and how did she build research and administrative teams to support her missions with such great effectiveness, and that have such great affection for her? How can we learn from her example and her success?"

I remember her telling me that at the inception of her career, she had no role models and limited encouragement to become a physician-scientist. In fact, her primary female mentor told her that she had to choose between a successful career and a family. She didn’t listen – perhaps that is one of the keys to her success – and built a career that led her to become the first woman in the department of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital to become a full professor at Harvard Medical School.

In order to build her own neuroendocrine unit within the Mass General endocrine division, she — a young and very junior woman — approached the chief of neurosurgery at Mass General at that time, Nicholas Zervas, MD, for support. She leveraged the half-day per week of administrative support he granted her to create the first and only multidisciplinary pituitary disorder tertiary center and unit in the U.S., which included a fundamental and translational neuroendocrine research program. Her entrepreneurial drive and skills, as well as her unwillingness to be thwarted by convention, were a formidable combination.

At the same time, she was determined to force institutional change that would promote the success of younger women, and she was critical in establishing a number of programs that made a dent in impediments to the advancement of women.

Studies have shown that although approximately 50% of medical school, residency and fellowship graduates are female, few women make full professor, and women frequently fall off the advancement ladder when they have young children.

Dr. Klibanski recognized that this was a key stage at which intervention was necessary, and she played a key role in the establishment of institutions to counteract this impediment to success.

Working closely with Jane Claflin, an honorary Trustee at Mass General, Dr. Klibanski was a force behind the establishment of the Mass General Office of Women’s Careers, which provided educational leadership programming and advocacy for women negotiating the promotion process. The success of this Office led to the recognition that all junior faculty, regardless of gender, could benefit from such services.

The Office was transformed into the Center for Faculty Development, which to this day serves faculty, as well as trainees, at Mass General.

Working with departmental leadership, she also played a critical role in the establishment of an on-site back-up childcare center at Mass General and in the creation of the Claflin Distinguished Scholar Awards. These competitive institutional awards provide two years of support for research assistance to women with significant child-rearing responsibilities and promising research careers. I received one of these awards in the late nineties, and it was the single most critical factor, other than Dr. Klibanski’s mentorship itself, that allowed me to continue to be productive despite the birth of a premature child.

In addition to building her own research and clinical programs, Dr. Klibanski rapidly became an institutional leader. What were the keys to this? I once asked her for advice about how to obtain leadership positions. She told me that her strategy had been to seek opportunities to serve the institution and then to work hard.

As a result, when leadership positions presented themselves, her name would be among those that would arise for consideration. She took me through her leadership trajectory, from serving as a co-director of the Mass General Clinical Research Center; to leading the integration of the many Harvard-wide clinical research centers in the NIH-funded Harvard Catalyst program, including the huge number of hours writing portions of the grant applications; to becoming Partners Healthcare Chief Academic Officer. I remembered this conversation and followed her rubric.

Other lessons I took to heart include:

  • Focus on what you care about
  • Focus on what matters
  • Take a seat at the table and speak up, but only when you have something useful to say; don’t speak just to speak.
  • Do what you can to the best of your ability and don’t worry about whether the attempt will succeed. If you do not get the grant/position/paper you sought, just move on and try again.

In addition to her drive and capacity to build, I am convinced that one of the keys to her success has been her extraordinary mentorship, which has enabled her to build teams in every one of her roles; I have greatly benefited from this.

What is the secret to her success in this realm? Here are some tips I have gleaned from working for and with her all of these years.

  • Judge productivity by what someone accomplishes, not when it is accomplished. This approach recognizes the potential of trainees who have family responsibilities that prevent them from being the first to arrive in the office and the last to leave but are very productive nevertheless.
  • Be present. Listening will help you understand each mentee’s goals and impediments to achieving them.
  • Individualize your approach. Create a mentorship recipe that will best support each mentee’s development: What proportion of reassurance, detailed advice, independence, and constructive criticism will be best for each?
  • Advise team members on how best to spend their limited work time: What invitations to seek and accept and, perhaps more importantly, which ones to turn down?
  • Set high standards and provide specific roadmaps to reach personalized benchmarks
  • Provide hands-on help and be accessible (e.g., provide templates and feedback, such as on grant applications, papers and talks, etc.)
  • Recognize that life—good and bad– happens to everyone, and some people are more private than others, so you may not be aware when a personal challenge, or even tragedy, has occurred. When mentees clearly demonstrate promise but have a bad day, week, or month, give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Do not tolerate bad character or dishonesty
  • Always take the high road
  • Recognize that the success of the others on your team is your success
  • No good deed goes unpunished, but don’t let that fact deter you from continuing to do your best for others

As I now take on her prior role as chief of the neuroendocrine unit at Mass General, I understand that the most powerful lessons were conveyed by example. She mentored by modeling a leadership approach that enables all faculty members to thrive and to develop to their full potentials.

Finally, I realize that Dr. Klibanski’s powerful example – and the institutional advances she has been instrumental in creating – have been critical to helping me raise my two daughters to be more lovely and accomplished than I ever could have imagined.

Her mentorship approach provides a roadmap to help us all reach our personal and professional potentials.


Faculty member, Neuroendocrine Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital