Corner Office: Integris CMO Dr. Tommy Ibrahim on how burnout as a young executive made him stronger

Leo Vartorella -

Young physicians across the nation dream of the opportunity to rise to the C-suite as quickly as Tommy Ibrahim, MD. However, his speedy ascent came with a steep learning curve, and it was only after he discovered the importance of delegation that he began to come into his own as a leader.

Dr. Ibrahim began his administrative career at the age of 29 as the director of hospitalist services and associate medical director at Springfield, Ill.-based Hospital Sisters Health System Medical Group before going on to become chief of staff at Springfield-based RehabCare and Kindred Hospital Rehabilitiation Services; chief physician executive of the Central Illinois Division at HSHS St. John's Hospital in Springfield.; and chief physician officer at Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines (Iowa) before moving on to his current position at Integris in December 2017.

Dr. Ibrahim earned his bachelor's of medical science degree and medical degree at St. Christopher's College of Medicine in Luton, England, as well as a master's in healthcare administration from South Orange, N.J.-based Seton Hall University.

Dr. Ibrahim recently spoke with Becker's and answered our seven "Corner Office" questions.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for length and style

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

Dr. Tommy Ibrahim: I really love the opportunity that we have in healthcare today. The landscape is changing and the dynamic front that we're currently encountering is quite exciting to be part of. To have the opportunity to shape the future of healthcare and how we drive toward more of a value-based system, engage physicians in clinical transformation and embrace innovation is quite exhilarating.

Actually, it was through my own personal healthcare experience that I identified my interest in pursuing a career in healthcare. I was sixteen and had a pretty significant car accident that was eye opening for me. It was one of those experiences that helps you appreciate life a lot more. I've always had a deep connection to helping others, but wasn't quite clear on how I was going to fulfill my passion until I had my own experience as a patient. It was through that that I connected with medicine and decided to pursue that career and go to medical school.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Oklahoma City?

TI: What really drew me to this town is the healthcare system. Integris has an amazing reputation and a great amount of clinical expertise and breadth of services. I'd say we're really doing some fascinating work from the bread and butter of healthcare to cutting-edge research. As the dominant player in Oklahoma, it was that, the culture and the people that really pulled me to this organization. I was pretty happy where I was [in Iowa] — at a great healthcare organization with great relationships with people there — but this was an amazing opportunity I couldn't pass up.

Oklahoma City is a great, up-and-coming town with a lot of growth. The weather's a lot nicer than where I came from and they have a pretty fun basketball team, so there's a lot going on.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

TI: If I could sum it up in one word, it would be the schizophrenia within the industry right now. There are a lot of dynamic moving parts, and it seems like there's a lot of change occurring at multiple levels, whether it's federal or state. There's some misdirection as well. If I could eliminate the uncertainty and have a clear path forward, we could navigate the system with much more ease.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

TI: The first thing that comes to mind is my ability to develop relationships. I like to think of myself as an authentic person, and I think authenticity and that ability to develop personal relationships in and out of the workplace is critically important to leadership. One of the reasons why I entered leadership is because I actually love the ability to work with others and have a positive influence, while guiding our course toward shared successes.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

TI: I actually have a set structure that I try to adhere to in terms of professional wellness and avoiding burnout. There's a strict morning routine that incorporates an exercise regimen. I also make sure that I spend time with my own personal faith and have a lot of time for family and friends. I try to schedule a trip every four or five months to have something to look forward to. It's important that I have that time away from work to decompress and rejuvenate.

My wife and I actually took a pretty extensive three-week trip to Europe this past summer. We hit about 11 different countries; it was incredible.

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

TI: One of the most important things for success is having a core group of talented people around you. It's really about building a strong team, and I take a great amount of pride in putting the resources in place to support my team members and make sure they have what they need to be successful. I spend an enormous amount of time in one-on-one meetings coaching my team members, being their biggest cheerleader but also their biggest critic when necessary. I think that's an important aspect of being a strong leader.

As you move further up into an organization, it becomes clear that you have to become master delegator at the higher level. Particularly when you hit the C-suite, you have to depend on the people who work with you and for you, and I think I actually learned that the hard way because I was a young leader.

I became a CMO at age 29, and I always thought I had to do everything on my own to get it right. I tried to take on more and more, and it became quite clear that was a recipe for failure. I burnt myself out significantly, so I had to really begin delegating and depending more on my team members, encourage them to do the work themselves and not micromanage them. Even though I held a master's degree in health administration, I hadn't learned the skills I needed to be a C-suite executive, so a lot of it was really the school of hard knocks. I 'm a better leader for it.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Integris so far?

TI: We're moving to implement a robust physician leadership structure across the organization right now. We're focused on clinical transformation and on improving quality, improving the services we provide and aligning incentives and objectives across the system. To be able to do that effectively, provide value and reduce cost, and transform clinically, we have to absolutely have physicians at the table making those decisions. The first phase of the plan is approved and we're moving quickly. The support from the executive leadership team on down has been phenomenal, so I'm excited about it.

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