A Leader in the Clinic and Beyond

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A physical therapist-turned-CEO used skills he developed while treating patients to lead a company.

Three years after earning his degree in physical therapy at Northwestern, Stephen Anderson, ’80 PT, DPT, opened a clinic through Therapeutic Associates, the largest private practice owned by PTs in the nation. After 16 years as a clinic director, he became CEO of the company, which today includes more than 80 locations across the West Coast. In 2016, after nearly two decades as CEO, he stepped down and founded Orange Dot Coaching to help others develop leadership skills.

Here, Anderson talks about the trajectory of his career and offers advice to clinicians who want to become leaders in their fields.

How did working as a PT prepare you to be a great leader?
I think it was a combination of things. After I graduated from Northwestern, I went to work in a private practice, like so many of us do. There, I had a strong mentor who was very open about sharing not only clinical skills, but also the business side of things like managing budgets and expenses. But I also learned so much working with patients, like how to talk to different types of people who have different motivations and who respond to different strategies. What I learned translated to working with my peers and eventually to managing people. In my opinion, you need to develop the same skillset whether you’re working with patients in a small practice or working as the CEO of a big company.

I CAN’T THINK OF A MORE PERFECT EXAMPLE OF LEADERSHIP than a one-on-one experience with a patient. You don’t need a title or initials after your name to be a leader; you can be a leader as a staff therapist. You have to be able to inspire patients and work collaboratively with them to reach their goals.

Why should PTs and other types of clinicians develop leadership skills as they move forward in their careers?I’ve talked to many students over the years who say, “I don’t really want to be a leader. I just want to treat patients.” But I can’t think of a more perfect example of leadership than a one-on-one experience with a patient. You don’t need a title or initials after your name to be a leader; you can be a leader as a staff therapist. You have to be able to inspire patients and work collaboratively with them to reach their goals. All of that requires strong leadership skills, and it’s those skills that make the best PTs, in my opinion. So they’re worth developing no matter which direction you want to take your career.

So what advice do you have for clinicians who want to cultivate their leadership skills?
Choose to work in an environment where people encourage you to grow — a learning organization. That’s where you’re going to blossom, as opposed to someplace where you’re isolated or where people are apathetic about improving and developing their skills.

Definitely look for a mentor, somebody with clinical and leadership skills. Look for someone you admire who will take time with you, and then be bold and ask them for that opportunity. As you go further in your career, consider hiring a coach who can help you work more efficiently with groups and understand your personality and how you come across to others, so you can get to the next level.

Listen to Anderson’s podcast, Profiles in Leadership, here.