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Philip Cola Encourages the Power of Encouragement and Mentorship

September 27, 2021

Philip A. Cola is a born teacher. A PhD in management and sustainable systems with expertise in organizational behavior, research method & design, and research regulatory compliance, Cola speaks in clear, focused tones and his passion for learning and knowledge comes through clearly. He has a gift for making complex ideas seem intuitive and easy to understand.

No wonder Cola was recently chosen from among more than 3,000 peers to receive the 2021 John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching at Case Western Reserve University—one of many accolades he’s received over the years, but perhaps his proudest, as it followed a year of unanticipated disruption (the COVID-19 pandemic) that quickly forced all instruction online. “We had to shift gears quickly,” Cola explains. “But it was liberating. I became more creative because I didn’t have a fear of failure or negative outcomes and it allowed me to design different approaches for my classes” It worked, apparently.

We recently spoke with Cola about organizational behavior, positive emotional attractors and the importance of mentoring relationships throughout one’s career.

You have several degrees in psychology. Where do the disciplines of psychology and management studies converge?

The two meet in a discipline called organizational behavior. Psychology is the study of human behavior, and organizational behavior is the study of human behavior within organizations. The two are essentially different streams of the same core concepts.

I’ve always been fascinated by the study of behavior within organizations. My dissertation and much of my research in management focus on what makes a physician scientist successful in an academic medical center. Tackling this wicked problem of practice was never more evident than in the last two years when the pandemic changed everyone’s lives. However, the intersection between management and medicine was never more clearly relevant. As it is exactly what led us to a coronavirus vaccine in record time. People needed to build relationships quickly and in unprecedented ways due to the pandemic. Learning and growing together became more critical even though we were at times isolated.

My research is based on the “wicked” problem of practice that it historically takes 17 years to translate 14% of discoveries in medical laboratories to the practice of medicine. Without a pandemic, it likely would have taken 17 years to produce a vaccine and only 14% of what was studied would have been successful. My work asks: “how and to what extent can management theories and principles help us improve that track record? How can we rely on human collaboration to focus on these problems and complete them more efficiently?”

Have you found an answer to that question?

At the time I did my initial research, the conventional wisdom was that the way to optimize physician scientists’ performance was to secure more grant funding and ensure more autonomy. I was not convinced as we had tried that, and it hadn’t really worked especially in an interdisciplinary fashion. The real world experiences that I had then drove my own research as part of my doctoral dissertation.

My dissertation concludes that the most important thing is building good relationships. In medicine, it’s not going to be one person who cures cancer. It’s going to be a team of hundreds or thousands of people contributing. If they can’t build good relationships, there never will be a sustainable team of hundreds or thousands that can work together.. Everything starts with building good relationships. That’s a fundamental premise of organizational behavior and management.

How do we build good relationships? And perhaps more importantly, how do we sustain them? It turns out that support and autonomy are important, but not in the ways people previously believed. Money and physical resources are good—no one is going to turn them down. But even when you have those, things don’t always proceed as efficiently or effectively as you would hope.

What’s critically important is something called perceived organizational support. Physician scientists want to know that their research is important to the leadership of their academic medical center. Funding is one way of demonstrating that support, but it isn’t the beginning and end of it. You also need to build and sustain strong relationships and show people that they are supported intellectually and have earned some degree of peer respect based on their work.

There’s a third critical component: mentorship. You never stop needing to be mentored. You could be the best physician scientist in the world and still need to be mentored. Now, it gets harder and harder to find the right person to mentor you the farther you advance, but the need remains. And it’s not just about not just being mentored; the life cycle of mentorship is important. Once you gain the respect of your peers, you will forever be a mentor. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating.

“You need to have the data behind you. Only then can you make more informed decisions.”

Research indicates that the same thing applies to private equity CEOs, traditional healthcare managers, even higher education administrators. You’re never too old or too talented to be mentored. You need to commit to being mentored and mentoring others.

You also teach research methodology. We all understand why it’s important for PhDs to develop research skills, but why is it important for MBAs?

Healthcare managers need to know how to conduct reliable workplace studies to identify potential areas of improvement. The research doesn’t have to be at the level of a white paper—that can take a year or more to complete. However, they do need to understand how to conduct continuous quality improvement studies, which is also a form of research. Whether it’s about clinical practice, managing your job, your role, your responsibilities or running operational aspects in a healthcare setting, you will do continuous quality improvement. You can’t avoid it.

When you’re making management decisions, you need to have the data behind you. Not just your own personal experience, not just anecdotal evidence, but evidence from as broad a stretch as you can gather. Only then can you make more informed decisions.

This is what I teach MBAs or other master’s-level students in management: how to instantly turn any problem you encounter into continuous quality improvement. It requires that you collect the evidence in a relatively short period of time and either write up a conclusion or implement a new practice based on that evidence that changes the outcome.

Now, what if you do that and it produces an even worse outcome? That happens! Well, then you repeat the cycle until you improve the outcome. It’s not that you’re always going to get it right the first time or go far enough the first time. It’s a continuous cycle of learning based on evidence.

“Weatherhead spearheaded the idea that you can make changes in organizations based on building better relationships.”

From a methodological standpoint, one would call that action research. You take an action, collect data and interpret the data. Then, you take another action and see if you can improve the outcome or not. In the research world, usually, you do that four times and it takes a year and a half. But in healthcare management, you would probably complete one of those cycles and keep your fingers crossed that the outcome represents an improvement.

Has the rise of big data created a golden age of evidence-based decision-making?

I think there’s no question it has. We’re in a golden age in which digital innovations make data available to us at every turn. In healthcare 20 years ago, we could readily come up with the questions and a strategy for collecting the evidence we needed, but it would take a long time. Now, what we’ve come to learn is that evidence exists all around us if we know what to look for. Students are unaware that there are pre-existing databases for just about everything you could ever want to study. The real art and skill is finding out where they are and how to get proper access so you can use them.

There is data collected everywhere and most people don’t know what to do with it, so they don’t use it. How do we appropriately get our hands on that and help the people that collected it so we can help inform their decision making? That’s the new challenge.

What makes Case Western Reserve a great place to earn an MBA?

Case Western Reserve is a leader in education at the highest levels, including general management and healthcare management. A lot of the thinking and reasoning around organizational behavior study originated at Weatherhead School of Management; it was the first school to offer a PhD in organizational behavior. And it was offered through the management school, not through the psychology department, which is where other programs situated organizational behavior.

Weatherhead spearheaded the idea that you can make changes in organizations based on building better relationships and employing positive emotional attractors. That idea originated with Richard Boyatzis, with whom I studied at Weatherhead. He was a huge influence. He taught that you coach and support and move people forward with compassion, taking into account that your subordinates need support and need and want to learn and grow. You’re empowering them to execute their role. That’s not just a feeling; Boyatzis’ work showed that it actually activated different parts of your brain between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Data shows over and over again that anybody working under positive emotional attractors—working with compassion—is far more successful. Performance improved at the organizational level, at the individual level, you name it, it improved. That’s very powerful, and it comes from Weatherhead.

Case Western Reserve is uniquely situated to deliver excellent healthcare management education. Part of that has to do with the community we’re in: we’re surrounded by these massive healthcare institutions. Cleveland was an old industrial town, but that’s in the past. Today, it’s a healthcare town. The university realizes it needs to be a primary source of educating this community in healthcare administration.

Even before the pandemic, we were thinking about online education. We were asking, “Why limit the program to people who can get here from Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals and Metro [Health Medical Center]? What about places like Summa Healthcare in Akron, or even much farther away? People there would love to come to Weatherhead, but with the old in-person model, it was impossible. It’s extremely challenging to end work at 5 p.m., drive from Akron to Cleveland in rush hour and be ready for class in an hour.

Now I’m teaching those folks online, and it’s wonderful. You can see they’re in healthcare environments all over the place. Most of them are literally still at work after finishing a shift. Some of them are still in scrubs. They’re there talking about real-world problems they encounter at work. What better place to talk about that than when they’re at work and in that environment? They can say “Phil, this is what happened today. This is the evidence we saw that you’ve been talking about. And it just has worked really well.”

And here’s something that surprised me: In some ways, teaching online is easier. For my in-person class, if I want to put students in breakout rooms, that requires physical space. I have to get approvals and compete with others for limited space, and that can be frustrating and time-consuming. In Zoom, I can put everyone in a breakout room in 30 seconds. It’s easier and I don’t need anyone’s permission.

We’re reaching many more people through online delivery. I’m excited to have a healthcare MBA with no geographical limits on where the people can come from. Everyone can now come to Weatherhead.

An Online MBA in Healthcare Management from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management prepares healthcare professionals to lead at the executive level. A dual-focus curriculum covering general business and healthcare management principles ensures students are prepared for whatever opportunities present themselves. Additionally, the university’s excellent relationships with Cleveland healthcare organizations such as Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, MetroHealth Medical Center and the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center translate into real-world opportunities and hands-on learning experiences. Online delivery means you can complete this program, in as few as eight terms, anywhere you can access the internet.

This program is open to early and mid-career business and healthcare professionals with at least two years of work experience. Check the school’s admission requirements to see whether you qualify. You can apply online, so why wait?