Learning the language of a CMO

As we celebrate five years of success since the launch of the Kelley Physician MBA Program in 2013, we're featuring some of the first physicians who completed our program. These updates highlight alumni achievements and the leadership roles they've assumed since earning their Kelley Physician MBAs.

Rocky Singh, MD, MBA’15, had experienced a number of leadership and administrative roles throughout his medical career, but eventually he discovered a language gap. An emergency medicine physician who’d served as medical director, chief of staff and department chair, Dr. Singh knew how to be a clinical leader. What he discovered over time was that he wasn’t as confident providing perspectives on the regulatory, financial or business aspects of running a hospital.

“The board would ask me whether it was more important to update an x-ray machine or buy a new CAT scan machine,” he said. “I used my clinical judgment to advise them, but I didn’t grasp the financial impact of these decisions. Would spending more money on a device create better outcomes or incremental value? There were so many business-related questions that, as a physician, I felt ill equipped to answer.”

As more questions came up—how to improve efficiencies and quality, how to improve emergency room flow—Dr. Singh wanted provide credible solutions. He realized that an MBA could supply him with the business background to fully comprehend the administrative implications of these decisions at his health system. Dr. Singh was attracted to the Physician MBA Program at Indiana University Kelley School of Business because he didn’t want to stop practicing medicine to earn an MBA. Also, he wanted a rigorous program, not just a title.

“I wanted real knowledge. It wasn’t a matter of putting a degree after my name, it was being able to speak confidently to my leadership. It was knowing there’s no waste in our OR and that it’s operating at peak efficiency,” he said. “Kelley is a top-ranked school and the greatest advantage was that it’s a physician-only program. I wanted to hear from other physicians and my cohort included a variety of specialties – anesthesia, thoracic and cardiac surgery, orthopedics, primary care, ophthalmology and gynecology.”

Dr. Singh joined the very first cohort of the Physician MBA Program, which Kelley began offering in 2013. As he grasped the business basics of financial statements, healthcare economics and process improvement, Dr. Singh says the professors became his partners in the journey to earning an MBA.

“Kelley faculty went out of their way to accommodate us and ensure they were meeting our learning needs,” he said. “One of the concerns people have when enrolling in an MBA program is not knowing the basics, like what a financial statement is. Kelley professors understood where we were coming from and they met us where we were. They made it feel like a personalized MBA program.”

Dr. Singh took two leadership courses throughout the program and found that he connected well with Kelley Management Professor and incoming Program Chair Christopher Porter. He says the lessons gained through these courses made a lasting impact on how he conducts himself as a physician leader.

An MBA gives you that skill set beyond simply functioning as a physician; you understand how to optimize the business of medicine.

Rocky Singh, MD, MBA'15

“We took a self-assessment to understand our own leadership philosophy, our deficiencies and what would help us individually develop as a leader. I would recommend these courses to anyone,” said Dr. Singh. “Sometimes we are blind to our own shortcomings. We recognize our strengths but leadership is not simply doing only the things you do well. Leadership is also learning to work on areas in which you aren’t as proficient and discovering countermeasures. Those two leadership courses were pivotal in leveraging what I’m doing right now.”

Shortly after earning his MBA, Dr. Singh was offered the role of vice president and chief medical officer at Indiana University Health West Hospital in Avon, Indiana. At the time, he’d applied for a different position in the health system when they’d asked him to lead West Hospital.

“When you present yourself as a leader in healthcare, people recognize that you possess those skills,” he said. “If you’re a good leader, you motivate people while also holding them accountable. These are the leadership qualities I developed at Kelley.”

I wanted real knowledge. It wasn’t a matter of putting a degree after my name, it was being able to speak confidently to my leadership. It was knowing there’s no waste in our OR and that it’s operating at peak efficiency.

In his role as CMO, Dr. Singh is responsible for increasing physician engagement and coaching doctors on how to improve their interactions with patients. Using on his own style of “closed loop communication,” Dr. Singh says he employs his MBA leadership lessons to help build up other physicians and guide them in tackling practice challenges.

“I don’t see communication moving one way, back and forth. My style is to first ask physicians questions, then help provide answers and continue that loop,” he said. “I build on what’s going well and examine the things that could be better and how to mitigate them. It’s important to update people continuously on what we’re working on. It’s valuable to make clear the ‘why’ in all that we do so everyone sees the bigger picture and can buy into the process.”

While an MBA implies a certain skill set, Dr. Singh says his business capabilities are most evident in conversation. Recently, he was presenting to system leadership about how to better leverage the organization’s supply of physicians when his message clearly rang true.

“I was discussing the mismatch between supply and demand amongst systemwide physicians and how we could appropriately match up resources with needs,” he said. “When I finished, the system COO spoke next and jokingly told the audience that he hadn’t paid me to say all that. It was precisely the topic he was about to discuss. An MBA gives you that skill set beyond simply functioning as a physician; you understand how to optimize the business of medicine.”

The first cohort of Kelley’s Physician MBA Program still remain in contact with one another. Aside from planning dinners together, they occasionally group text updates and professional advice. The networking amongst physicians from various specialties and organizations creates valuable relationships that provide support long after graduation. “The friendships you make with your professors and within your cohort will last a lifetime,” said Dr. Singh. Neither does the learning stop for Physician MBA alumni. The program offers a variety of guest speakers, courses and alumni trips. Dr. Singh says the ongoing education was similar to his medical learning experience, and it’s one that physician leaders can continue to develop each day.

“They say the day you stop learning is the day you die,” said Dr. Singh. “It’s the same with medicine – when you graduate from medical school you haven’t learned everything there is to know about medicine. When you graduate with your MBA, you don’t know everything about business but you’re learning every day and building on that knowledge. Kelley gives you a foundation that’s much more than simply a degree.”