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My 2011 Williamson experience - Dr. Ranjana Srivastava (WCLP '11)

2 February 2012 By Dr. Ranjana Srivastava

Dr. Ranjana Srivastava
Dr. Ranjana Srivastava

If you are like most people, you may have come here to learn a little more about the Williamson Community Leadership Program (WCLP). Perhaps you read about it in the newspaper, or more likely, had someone from your organisation recommend it to you, the way I discovered it.

At a Christmas party some years ago, the conversation somehow turned to the need for effective leadership amongst doctors. Doctors, by their very nature, tend to work in isolation for long stretches of their career. They may well be part of a team but it is all too often a ‘hierarchical team’, bending to the will of the most persuasive doctor. So when called upon to assume a role that is not purely about the individual doctor-patient relationship, many doctors struggle with the concept of being an effective leader and a good communicator. It is well known that the best and brightest doctors fail as managers and leaders. It was at this point that a colleague mentioned the Williamson Community Leadership Program, something I freely admit I had never heard of until then. I consider myself reasonably well informed but if truth be told, I had never previously thought of myself in anything but a direct patient care role, so the idea of looking into a leadership program was foreign to me.

At the party I spoke to a senior specialist who had completed the program and a friend who was about to start it. Intrigued by this very different line of career training, I maintained a close interest in my friend’s journey, talking to him time to time about what he was learning.  Spurred on by his encouragement, I decided to apply for the program for 2011.

The application itself called for a hard look at yourself and your motivations for doing the program. I found this process valuable as I was at a point in my career where I wanted to map out other opportunities, using my work as a medical specialist and an author as a springboard. When I took stock of my interests, there were many. They included public health, medical education, the role of foreign doctors and broader issues about healthcare affordability and the vital role that doctors play in safeguarding the health of the healthcare system. Then there was my writing and the patient-based work that I was so passionate about and never wanted to lose sight of. In a nutshell, I felt as if I had too many burning ideas and aspirations – and I found myself hoping that acceptance into the WCLP would help me see my way more clearly.

My WCLP experience has delivered infinitely more than I had hoped for and in ways that I might never have predicted! It is common for entrants into the program to think about themselves in relation to the program. What can I bring to the program and what can the program give back to me? I thought of my unique experiences and insights, many of which could be applicable to a wider world than medicine. I had heard a little about the adventures and experiences that one was exposed to through Williamson and wondered how I could make the best out of a night at the theatre or a visit to a water treatment plant. But what I discounted turned out to be the single factor that would make the Williamson experience worth repeating every few years if one was allowed – and this is the cohort of people it introduces you to.

No one amongst us, not even the most well-connected, could hope to get to know so many different, dynamic and exceptional individuals over the period of a year. My cohort of 38 consisted of politicians, architects, engineers, firemen, researchers, CEOs, educators, lawyers, accountants, actors, council officials, managers, bankers, doctors and policemen to mention a few, in ages ranging from the 20s to 50s. Each person brought a unique set of personal and professional experiences as well as aspirations. Someone was looking for a career change, someone else just wanted to be better at what they did. One hesitated to make a bold move while another made one and wasn’t sure about the consequences. Someone was stagnant while another was on the cusp of change. Imagine being in room month after month with these people, rich with ideas, generous with their time and expertise, eager to embrace relationships. It was only a matter of time before people from disparate experiences found common issues they cared about and found friends in places they had never thought to look.

At the start of the year, there was a great deal of expectation about what the program might deliver in terms of external visits, meetings and networking. There were some simply excellent experiences, the likes of which we would never have had. For some, this was a visit to sacred indigenous sites to learn first-hand our indigenous history. For others, it may have been rich conversations with urban planners, senior politicians, media heavyweights, prominent CEOs or young African refugees determined to renew life in Australia. But as the year progressed, what we slowly realized is that the most valuable thing about the Williamson Community Leadership Program was the people who are in it. Simply sitting back sometimes and absorbing the combined wisdom and experience of the group was reward enough – anything else was an extra.

If I were asked to nominate my greatest learning from the Williamson program it would be this: I have learnt more about myself. I have discovered parts of me that I take pride in, but equally aspects that I would like to change. When a group of talented and insightful people hold a mirror to you for an entire year, you can either ignore what you see or seize the opportunity to examine yourself more deeply. It can be discomfiting but ultimately rewarding. I have seen the value of collaboration substantiated by individual excellence. I have witnessed intelligence paired with modesty and humour, a combination we could all use more of. I have seen people really striving to make a difference to the world, quietly, one step at a time. I have met those who have changed their circumstances by sheer force of will and determination. And I have been inspired. I am sure you could read about such things in a book, but it is an entirely different privilege to be in the same room as these people.

It is an honour to be an Alumnus of the Williamson program. ‘So how has it changed you?’ others ask, wondering whether the experience is for them. Intangibly, in many ways, I respond. I have discovered greater self-awareness, community awareness, and the reigniting of a desire to make a difference.  When I hear about an issue in the news, I am more inclined to follow it closely because I understand the context behind it.  Suddenly, sound-bites about effective policing , congested housing, or disability support mean more.  As someone with no direct experience of large private enterprises, I appreciate better the challenges faced by them.

When I think of my Williamson experience, I have often reflected that while it may not have created an expert out of me, it has broadened my horizons to the extent that I am better placed to understand many more aspects of the society we live in. There is no urgency to realize all my learnings from the program today, but I feel better equipped for tomorrow.

Dr. Ranjana Srivastava (WCLP ’11) is Medical Oncologist and General Physician, Director of Physician Training, at Southern Health and participated in the 2011 WCLP.

Ranjana is also the  author of  ”Tell Me The Truth. Conversations with my Patients about Life and Death”. You can find out more about this and Ranjana’s other work at www.ranjanasrivastava.com