Harvard's Dr. Alexa Kimball talks mentorship, balancing roles and toppling barriers women face

Alexa Kimball, MD, is a renowned leader at Harvard Medical School — and her excellence has been recognized in more than one department.

Dr. Kimball, a dermatologist, is also a professor, researcher and mentor at the Boston-based medical school. She serves as president and CEO of the 2,000-member Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians at Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which was recently recognized as one of the Boston Globe and Women's Edge's top 100 women-led businesses in Massachusetts. On Nov. 15, Dr. Kimball was named one of 10 recipients of the Commonwealth Institute's Extraordinary Women Advancing Healthcare award. 

"From her leadership during the pandemic and advancements in telehealth, to groundbreaking research and innovations in her specialty, to a voluminous number of academic and lay publications sharing her knowledge and experience, to teaching young doctors, Dr. Kimball has had a major impact on healthcare in Massachusetts and nationwide," Barbara Spivak, MD, president of the Mount Auburn Cambridge Independent Practice Association and incoming president-elect of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a news release shared with Becker's

Becker's recently connected with Dr. Kimball to learn more about her leadership style and career successes — and the barriers she and other female leaders face . 

Q: You wear a number of hats: president and CEO, clinician, researcher, professor, mentor. How do you juggle these roles while still achieving excellence across the board?

Dr. Alexa Kimball: The secret is that each role makes me better at the others. For example, because I see patients, I am always anchored to our mission as a physician organization, and I can also see ways to make the experience better for our physicians, supporting them in our common mission of providing the best possible patient care. And, of course, I have amazing teams in every area, which I can't thank enough for supporting me, our organization and our patients — making it all work every day.

Q: What values or practices guide your leadership approach at Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians? How about toward the people you mentor?

AK: Excellence and empathy guide my leadership approach as CEO at HMFP and as a mentor. The key to mentoring is that the mentor should not try to make everyone be like them, but instead that the focus is on helping mentees articulate their own goals and vision, and then helping them get there. Excellence comes into play in leading by example, and empathy is essential in both mentoring and leading in that it encourages listening rather than talking, which allows you to learn about the mentee or team member to both gain important insight and ideas and to understand how you as the mentor or leader can help them reach their goals. 

Q: What do you consider the greatest success of your career thus far? 

AK: There are two areas of which I am very proud. The first is the work we have done to take care of our physicians so they can care for our patients. That has meant everything from listening, communicating, and providing resources, special programs and career opportunities. Making people feel valued for what they are doing rather than what they could be doing, for who they are rather than who they could be, and for the effort they put into their work is key.

Second, my research into complex skin diseases, psoriasis and Hidradenitis suppurativa has contributed to real differences in how we take care of patients. It's been an amazing journey from the days when we treated people with things like tar, to today when we can keep people clear for months and years, making a real difference in their lives every day.

Q: You're being recognized, among other achievements, for breaking down barriers for women in healthcare. What sorts of barriers do female clinicians face right now, and how can the healthcare systems aid in breaking them down? Could you share any you've faced personally? 

AK: The biggest barrier I faced was breaking out of matrixed support roles into direct management with profit and loss responsibilities. Matrixed roles are in many ways harder, but search committees sometimes look at people who do them and don't think they have the right prior experience. Since women seem to be frequently in these matrixed roles, giving credit for that kind of work is a critical path to the next step. While big changes and initiatives are welcome, healthcare systems can make a difference by taking small and specific steps to encourage traditionally underrepresented people to take on leadership roles. For example, changing the way jobs or board positions are posted, encouraging women and other diverse candidates to seek roles on boards, in governance and management, and setting up mentorship programs are all effective ways to overcome barriers and change our profession for the better.

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