Bulletin of Dental Education

Q&A with the Presenters of Leaning In: A New Era of Women Leaders

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Part of the Leading Conversations ADEA Policy Center Webinar Series

Kathryn Atchison, D.D.S., M.P.H. (left) and Teresa Dolan, D.D.S., M.P.H.Kathryn Atchison, D.D.S., M.P.H. and Teresa Dolan, D.D.S., M.P.H. (far right)

Q: Have you always been a leader? 
K.A. Yes. I started early looking toward leadership, mostly because I asked questions and I read. I think it’s important for leaders to be inquisitive and never be complacent. It was important to me, early in my career (and I’d advise young people today to do the same), to read about and research both my own institution and my role, of course, but also research the industry. Higher education is a major industry. I’ve always found it important to watch what is happening and how education interfaces with the rest of the country and the economy. 

A young Teresa DolanT.D. Yes, I’d say I’d I’ve always had the work ethic and good organizational skills, combined with the willingness to take risks and accept opportunities that led me to various leadership positions. It even goes back to when I was about 10 years old, when I became captain of the baton twirling team. It wasn’t that I made captain because I was the best baton twirler; rather, it was because I was always willing and able to take charge and get things done—to keep the team together and on track. Of course, being an older child in a large family also helped me learn how to keep everyone moving forward with some order and purpose. 

Q: In what ways have you intentionally developed your skills as a leader? 
K.A.  I started participating in leadership training very early on, and have gone back for training a number of times throughout my career. A few specific opportunities come to mind: my time as Fellow of the Pew National Dental Education Leadership Program in 1991, when I was surrounded by other young, inquisitive leaders; being nominated as a Department of Health and Human Services Primary Health Care Policy Fellow (2003); and then participating in the 2004-05 Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) Program for Women in dentistry, medicine, public health—and now engineering. It’s important to realize you don’t know it all, and that you’re going to have to refresh from time to time.

T.D.  Through the years there have been various leadership development programs that have allowed for new skills development, as well as time for reflection. One very significant professional opportunity early in my career was my time as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Dental Health Services Research Scholar. It was a very personalized career development opportunity where I was assigned a local mentor, and was able to connect with respected leaders in academic dentistry. Others include the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) Program (2007), and the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) residential professional development program dedicated to advancing women leaders in higher education administration in 2010.

Q: Who has had the biggest impact on your leadership over the years? 
K.A. Two people come to mind. The first, an early mentor for me, was Dr. Max Schoen, out of UCLA, a leader in dental public health for years and who helped create some of the early industry-specific dental plans. We were involved in doing quality assurance checks for dental plans in California—often as unwelcome guests when arriving at their office as the experts to evaluate the quality of their plans. In the face of controversy, he was just so calm. He’d say, “We just have to rise above their behavior.” As leaders, it’s essential that we are calm and patient and take time to consider another’s perspective. We have to be careful to not take things too personally, and to think through what the other side’s issues are. 
The second individual is my husband, a Harvard M.B.A. entrepreneur with prototypical “type A” male style leadership. I found when I’d point out to him that he was interrupting, or not considering a woman’s perspective in his interactions, that he didn’t even realize [he was doing it]. It was completely unintentional. And so, I’ve realized that we can’t demonize people for their traits. We all have traits, some favorable and some not. It further reinforced the idea that, in these unfavorable situations, we just have to “rise above it” and move on.

T.D. I have essentially built a “patchwork quilt” of mentors over the years. There have been so many leaders in dentistry, health care and the community who have had a huge impact on my leadership and success. Some have been more helpful personally, others professionally. During my residency, for example, my program director and mentors nominated me for the RWJF Fellowship. In some situations mentors were assigned to me, and in other circumstances I took the initiative and sought out talented individuals to serve as a mentor. It is so important to have people you admire and look to emulate, that I recommend finding a mentor if the opportunity does not directly present itself. I have always looked at every situation as a learning opportunity, including our interactions with others

Q: Do you have any specific advice for someone going into a position of authority for the first time?
K.A. First, find a mentor who can be your sounding board and answer questions—to listen even if they don’t have all of the answers. Concurrently, find a leadership training program. I found it so helpful while in my vice provost position, to have this community of women leaders through ELAM who I could talk to when I had issues. Finally, be patient. Rather than walking into a leadership position with an agenda of what you are going to accomplish in the first 100 days, spend those first 100 days doing a lot of listening and then decide, once you know the various perspectives and issues, what you would like to prioritize. 

T.D.  Be open to formal leadership programs and proactively seek these opportunities. Also, listening skills are so important. Take time to listen and understand the big picture before making decisions. Finally, be sure you have people you can rely on to be honest with you, rather than those who will just tell you what you want to hear.

Q: Where do the best ideas come from for you and your organization?
K.A. Everyone and everywhere. At UCLA, it really is a confluence of ideas from students, faculty and staff. Innovation comes from having a perceived need. We recently had students competing in teams, pitching ideas for a start-up company that would make the world a better place—what could you do, what could you create, that would help make the world a better place? They all came up with such different ideas—great ideas in the IT space—an app, a game, a program. As a result two teams of four are traveling to St. Petersburg, Russia on this program. It goes to show that ideas can come from anywhere.

T.D. Some of my best ideas come from my “shower thoughts.” Our brains are working all of the time, and after a good night’s rest and quiet time in the morning shower, many new ideas or solutions to problems just emerge. As leaders, it’s also extremely important that we create working environments that allow for time to bounce ideas off one another, and to generate new ideas. I always try to surround myself with a creative team that’s open to thinking about new ideas. 

Q: Is there one mistake you see women leaders make regularly? What is it?
K.A. I think the one mistake leaders make, not just women leaders, all leaders, is to react too negatively or strongly. We need to not take things so personally, but, rather, sit back and process what has just happened before doing anything too extreme.

T.D. Being perfectionistic. Many women are not willing to try new things for fear of making mistakes. I truly believe you need to take risks and be willing to make mistakes in order to grow. 

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