Left to right: Weill Cornell Medicine’s Physician Organization President and CEO Dr. Robert Min; 2020 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow Samuel Teshome.
Left to right: Weill Cornell Medicine’s Physician Organization President and CEO Dr. Robert Min; 2020 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow Samuel Teshome.

Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Dr. Robert Min

Fall 2020 | National

The Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows Program awards five exceptional Posse Scholars $10,000 each and the chance to spend 4-6 weeks during the summer shadowing and learning from a major industry leader. The interview below with Dr. Robert Min, president and CEO of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Physician Organization, was conducted by Posse Scholar Samuel Teshome, now in his junior year at the University of Rochester, who worked with Dr. Robert Min as a 2020 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

SAMUEL: I wanted to start the interview by asking what you, a physician/president/CEO, thinks about when you don’t have anything to think about.

DR. ROBERT MIN: I am a big believer in maintaining work-life balance, and that everyone needs moments to clear his or her mind. For me, I rely upon physical fitness. I make it a priority to find time every day, even if it’s for only 10 minutes. It clears my mind and makes me more productive. I also spend quality time with my family, my wife and two daughters. Normally, we like to travel, particularly to the National Parks but COVID-19 has not allowed for that escape. But even the little things, like always giving them a hug goodnight helps remind me of what is truly important in life.

I’m sure that physical fitness was a habit you developed earlier on in life. I’m curious if there are any other habits that have helped you gain leadership skills that you use now in your current position.

I think that Emotional Intelligence is an important leadership attribute. The whole concept of “EQ” is well known now but it was less discussed early in my career. I was first introduced to EQ during business school back in 2000. I always found it to be something that really resonated with me. There are many elements of emotional intelligence that I utilize in leadership, for example empathy. As a physician, one may think that empathy comes naturally but I think that most physician leaders do not always fully use this when they are not dealing with patients. In any situation, particularly one that is challenging, I really try to put myself in someone else’s position; I try to understand why someone may be saying or feeling the way they are feeling before I respond.

Just to speak to the pandemic, me as an outsider, looking at these businesses and even our national leadership, there are a lot of gaps in terms of how people think we should handle it. With you being in a position of leadership at the hospital, I’m curious what you feel your hospital’s role is, and the roles of other hospitals in America, in addressing this public health epidemic.

The role of healthcare providers and those of us who really understand COVID-19 has to go beyond just caring for people as they come into our doors. It really has to focus on educating everyone on the steps that need to be taken to control this pandemic. We’re fortunate in New York to have a governor who has taken this very seriously. So, yes, I know it seems frustrating that we’ve been so slow to open our doors again. And I know, there have been a lot of strict criteria put in place to monitor our situation: making testing widely available; implementing social distancing in a serious way; and requiring that masks and other face coverings be worn. Those are the elements that have allowed New York City—even given the fact that we were at the center of the pandemic—to realize, and for now maintain, a decline in rates.

Can you say where or who the brunt of the blame for that miscommunication or lack of following guidelines falls on? Is it solely on the hospital? Or does it fall on many different sources.

It falls on all of those in positions of leadership. Healthcare leaders are on the list but so are our political leaders. Controlling COVID-19 should be based on science and sound infection control practices, not on your political beliefs or the desire to get businesses open ASAP. It was said pretty early on in this pandemic that we couldn’t have a financial recovery until we had a health recovery.

In terms of larger-scale responsibilities, I’m sure you’ve had many leadership roles throughout your education. As you lead larger and larger groups of more and more educated people, what challenges do you come across? Looking forward to the future, what challenges do you foresee facing as you climb the corporate ladder?

Leadership can be personally challenging. Making sure that even as your responsibilities grow, you always focus on effective communication is so important. Almost all failures have some element of a communication lapse. A common example that comes to mind is the following. Most leaders recognize the importance of communicating a job well done and everyone is great at communicating good news. It is delivering the not so good news that is more challenging. If you really want to be effective as a leader or a mentor, you have to learn how to deliver that news and have people listen to it—really listen to it. I very much believe in the principle of “People don’t always remember what you say, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel” or the “sandwich” method of communicating. It is important that you do not start out by making someone feel terrible, because they won’t hear anything after that.

What I really like about leadership is that ideally you can be in a position to create change, or at least initiate that change. As a Black person going into medicine, it’s hard me to not have health disparities at the forefront of my mind. As a leader in the hospital, you must have a unique perspective on making that change, seeing as you’ve been at Cornell for quite a while. Have you seen any changes in how your institution addresses these disparities? What challenges do you still face when trying to talk about or implement change?

I think that there have certainly been over time positive changes, but not even close to the pace that there needs to be. Cornell has been a leader in this area for many years with some longstanding programs to promote diversity, including the Travelers program. Year after year our medical school and graduate schools are amongst the national leaders in matriculating a higher percentage of underrepresented groups compared to our peers. I think that that’s been great, and has been sustained, but it has not translated into the next stages. If you look at the rates of underrepresented groups amongst our trainees and faculty, there is a drop compared to our students. And then, if you look at the leadership, it goes down even further. I believe that although there may be challenges regarding the “pipeline,” I think that it is more of a recruitment issue. Mandating education on issues such as unconscious bias are helpful but longer term efforts in providing effective mentorship and sponsorship, and helping overcome the existing barriers to promotion and advancement of those in underrepresented groups in medicine will be critical.

The tragedies we have witnessed and continue to witness across the country have increased public awareness and outrage about racism in our society. As leaders, many of us have hosted open conversations about issues of social injustice. Education is an important start but we need to commit to the ongoing work that will be necessary to truly make tangible, lasting improvements. I realize that changing the world will take some time, but I also realize that as the leader of my department, I can change my world.

I’m curious if you perhaps see that a lack of diversity as you go higher up [in staff rank] has an effect on health outcomes.

Definitely, and for many reasons. Let me give you a recent example. As you know, telemedicine became an important part of delivering healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as we recover, telemedicine looks like it is here to stay as an important part of our healthcare future. I am not sure that everyone initially recognized the differences in accessing telemedicine due to limitations in technology or bandwidth, particularly across different groups including people in underrepresented communities.

I was really interested in your pioneering work in varicose vein treatment. I wanted to ask where this innovation stemmed from, how were you driven to find a unique solution to this problem, and how the seed of that may have been manifested earlier on in your life.

For better or for worse, I’ve probably always done things in an unconventional way. The first time we spoke, I went over my background and how I chose a small liberal arts college called Haverford College [for my own undergraduate studies]. With my parents having come here from Korea and both being physicians, they thought I should go to Harvard or MIT. I was a good student, so I was accepted into all of the “top” schools. I chose a small liberal arts college that they had never heard about. That’s an interesting decision for a young person to make, but they were supportive and when your parents support decisions like that, things they might not even agree with, it allows one to be less fearful of doing things that are a bit unconventional.

When I entered medical school, I was set on going into orthopedic surgery and I was fortunate to have been accepted into orthopedic surgery residency. During surgical training, I was first exposed to the field of vascular interventional radiology. I found it fascinating that interventional radiologists could treat a variety of conditions through a small pinprick by travelling throughout the body using imaging-guidance. It was not a specialty that I had heard of previously but it seemed to me to be the future of medicine. I decided to change residencies, which meant that I had to re-enter the “match” and take two years off.

I went to Stanford for my cardiovascular interventional radiology fellowship. I loved it out there and learned a lot; I really immersed myself into it. Following fellowship training, I decided to educate myself on writing patents and took time off to develop a procedure that I, and a few co-inventors, thought would revolutionize the treatment of varicose veins. I did not have a job (by choice) for over a year and lived on credit cards, but ultimately, I succeeded in developing a procedure that would dramatically improve the lives of millions of people around the world. In 2000, I returned to NY and joined the faculty at Weill Cornell Medicine while enrolling at Columbia Business School for my Masters degree.

In retrospect, I am sure that some of these choices seemed reckless but the common theme in all of these decisions was that ultimately, I pursued my passion. So, when I tell people to not be afraid to pursue something you’re passionate about, I think I can speak to that because that’s the way I’ve tried to live my life, my career, and make my decisions. This all takes hard work. But if you find the thing that you love, whatever that may be, I promise that you will have a higher likelihood of being successful. It’s not my job to tell anyone what that thing is but in my position, I hope I can enable it and support it.

I like to say that all of these experiences have made me far more open-minded about different pathways to success. Your route doesn’t have to be the same route as mine or anyone else’s but enjoy it and go for it.

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