How to Get in the Room Where it Happens: A Conversation with Don Lloyd-Jones About Becoming An Influencer

We’ve all had those moments – where someone we work with, someone in a position to make decisions – big decisions, not the marginal ones – makes THE wrong decision. A new department is created with no resources undermining its long-term viability, or an entire program is eliminated for short-term cost savings. No, I’m not talking about corporations or government. I’m talking about hospitals, clinics, and universities – the places early career clinician scientists hope to work after completing what seems like endless training. Poor leadership is endemic and early career scientists are likely to confront the question, “How to I position myself to influence the issues I’m passionate about?”

To understand this issue, I spoke with Don Lloyd-Jones of Northwestern University. For the past 15 years, Dr. Lloyd-Jones has served in leadership positions on numerous American Heart Association committees including the Statistics Committee, Council on Epidemiology and Prevention (EPI), and co-Chaired the Writing Group for 2013 ACC/AHA Guidelines on the Assessment of Cardiovascular Risk. Given his background of service, it was not surprising that he enthusiastically recommended that all early career clinician scientists become involved with a professional association whose mission resonates with them.  However, it’s important to be strategic about developing your leadership experiences and he offered the following tips.

Tip #1: Be Bold, Work Hard, and if Necessary, Open Your Own Doors

Like other leaders, Don Lloyd-Jones’ mentors introduced him to professional organizations. They advocated he work on the Statistics Committee of the EPI Council, where he helped write the annual Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update.  This was hard work, often completed during off-hours but in a timely fashion, and through it Lloyd-Jones established a reputation as a dependable team player. In 2008, as he chaired the stats committee, the AHA was thinking about the strategic impact it wanted to have on cardiovascular health over the next several decades. Described as a “moment of serendipity,” Lloyd-Jones was asked to chair what would become The American Heart Association’s Strategic Impact Goal Through 2020 and Beyond. For him, this was a “career-defining experience where we helped to pivot the AHA from preventing death to promoting cardiovascular health.”

While having a mentor connect you to committees and networks is an efficient way to get involved, it is not the only way to get in the room. For AHA and other professional organizations, introducing yourself to the committee’s Chair, Vice-Chair, Past-Chair and the nominating committee can get you on their radar. Then follow up with an email letting them know that you would love to work on their committee, asking how you can get more involved. When a door opens, even if it’s not exactly the one you wanted, “show up, do the work, share what drives you, create a reputation as a contributing team member, and in doing so you will have almost limitless opportunities to meaningfully effect change.”

Tip #2: Find Your Niche First

While every early career professional should plan to become involved with professional organizations, it is important to first establish a clinical niche or stabilize a successful lab before assuming a leadership position. Once that is accomplished, plan to quickly engage with professional societies because at that time, you have developed a substantive understanding of your field and will bring a voice to the table that will be respected, valued, and sought after. This inflection point often occurs mid-way to the end of one’s Career Development Award and should be planned for and strategically pursued.

Tip #3: Know What You Want

Reflecting on yourself – your goals, capabilities, and weaknesses – is a common theme in leadership books. A critical look at what you want from a leadership experience will help you select the right one and maximize its benefits. In the short-term, if you want highly-cited publications, working with the stats committee might be a great fit. Or if you have a long-term vision of assuming national leadership roles, you may want to try out different committees to see which one aligns with your preferred areas of strategic influence. However, all true leadership engagement, whether at a regional or national level, will lead to a meaningful and expanded professional network. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones stated, “Serving allows you to make connections in robust ways. These new connections can be called upon for letters of support for promotions and tenure or for grant applications. And the personal connections developed through engagement will matter far more than the name of the person who is writing because they bring a lot more color to the applicant.” And over time these professional colleagues can become friends. He shared, “The friendships that you make in AHA, perhaps due to its altruistic nature, are quite unique. AHA draws remarkable people who share a vision to promote health and many become lifelong friends. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?”

Tip #4: Be Open to Change

While many people pursue leadership experiences because they want to change the outcome, oftentimes we are changed by the process of leading with others. Yes, we will have bigger networks, busier travel schedules, and fewer free hours but all of this also changes us — our empathy, perspective, time-management skills, and our ability to adapt to new and ever-changing contexts. For Lloyd-Jones, his two years working on the 2020 strategic impact goals, “Substantially changed the focus of my research, what I talk about, what my whole department is focused on, which is increasingly on children and helping them get a healthier start in life. It’s been a wonderful gift.“

In their review article, Warren and Carnell describe the non-technical skills needed for health care leadership including “creating and communicating a vision, setting clear direction, service redesign and healthcare improvement, effective negotiation, awareness of both self and others, working collaboratively and networking.” No one is born knowing how to create and clearly communicate an inspiring long-term vision for change and collaborating to turn that vision into reality. It takes time, practice, failure, courage, and continued investment. Should you choose to pursue your own leadership path, I hope the time, work, and energy you spend developing influence will be among the most fulfilling investments in your career.

Or as Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote:

“….When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game
But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game
Oh, you get love for it, you get hate for it
You get nothing if you
Wait for it.”