Early in her career, as a mother of two young children, Dr. Elizabeth Lawson worried how she would balance having a family with a career as a doctor and researcher. She received two memorable pieces of advice from a seasoned physician-scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
This challenging time would pass, she was told. And your career is not a race; there are years to accomplish your goals.
The support came from Dr. Anne Klibanski, who is now poised to become the interim chief executive of Partners HealthCare, the parent of Mass. General and the state’s largest network of doctors and hospitals.
Partners will have not only its first woman leader, but one known for being passionate about the success of women in fields still often dominated by men.
Klibanski, 68, has mentored numerous doctors and researchers at Mass. General and has worked to reduce gender disparities in science and medicine, both by helping younger colleagues directly and by promoting hospital-wide programs that support women who are juggling families and careers.
“One of the greatest things you can do is to watch someone else succeed,” she said.
Klibanski, who will follow Dr. David Torchiana as CEO, currently oversees the research and teaching programs at Partners as the nonprofitsystem’s chief academic officer. She is also chief of the neuroendocrine unit at Mass. General.
People who know and have worked with Klibanski, including those she has mentored, describe her as a person who can see the big picture without losing sight of the details, who listens to others and collaborates to solve problems, and who understands people as well as she knows the biological makings of pituitary disorders.
Lawson, 46, met Klibanski more than a decade ago as a trainee. Lawson e-mailed with a question about an upcoming talk on a hormone disorder called hyperprolactinemia. Klibanski responded by inviting Lawson to her office and going through the slides in detail.
“I actually picked neuroendocrine as a field because I knew I could have her as a mentor,” Lawson said.
Dr. Karen Miller, associate chief of the neuroendocrine unit at Mass. General, tells a similar story. Miller said Klibanski supported her and other women who were raising families by judging them on the quality of the work they produced, not when it was submitted.
Another piece of career advice Miller recalled: “She told me what things I could say no to.”
At Mass. General, Klibanski helped launch a competitive grant program for women scientists. The awards of $50,000 per year, for two years, allow women to hire a research assistant to keep their lab work going while they’re also busy raising young children.
Klibanski, herself the mother of two, was also part of a team that established a backup child-care center for hospital employees.
She began her career at a time when few women worked as doctors and scientists, and even fewer were in charge.
“There weren’t a lot of women faculty I could look to who I could say: ‘Here’s someone who is a leader.’ There were some — and that was of huge value to me,” Klibanski said.
So as she advanced in her career, she sought to guide the next generation. She considers mentoring one of the greatest achievements of her career.
Klibanski — well known in academic circles but unfamiliar to much of the public — will oversee a powerful organization with more than a dozen hospitals, 6,000 doctors, an insurance company,and 74,000 employees, making it the state’s largest private employer.
Klibanski said Partners and its hospitals must continue to work on policies to support women so they can rise to leadership positions and not define women’s careers by only the years they face the demands of raising young children.
“Having a diverse group of people at any stage at any time in the organization, that really does give the richest and broadest perspective,” she said.
Klibanski has also made an impression on male professionals.
Six years ago, Christopher Coburn came to Boston to interview with Klibanski. Coburn had a job he liked at the Cleveland Clinic, in his hometown, and had reservations about moving east.
“In an hour, she basically made the sale, and I walked out of there thinking ‘This is someone I can work for,’ ” said Coburn, the chief innovation officer at Partners, who leads efforts to commercialize the research of Partners scientists.
“It’s a persuasiveness,” said Coburn. “She’s always prepared.”
Klibanski is from New York City. She was an English major at Barnard College and still loves literature — “The Overcoat” is one of her favorite short stories. She attended New York University’s School of Medicine and came to Boston in 1978 to begin her career at Mass. General and Harvard Medical School.
In 1997, she was the first woman from Mass. General’s department of medicine to earn the prestigious rank of full professor at Harvard.
Klibanski found her niche in the study of hormone signals that regulate the brain and body, focusing on neuroendocrine disorders and pituitary tumors. Neuroendocrinology looks at the relationship between the body’s nervous system and hormone-secreting glands. She established the first multidisciplinary clinic and research center at Mass. General, bringing together experts from different medical specialties, to care for patients with pituitary and neuroendocrine disorders.
Klibanski is married to Dr. Roy Soberman, also a researcher at Mass. General. Both of her children are grown; one works in financial services and the other in tech. When she’s not working, Klibanski enjoys movies and novels.
She also seems to enjoy working and responds to e-mails late into the night. Colleagues said she is witty and curious and remains calm in tense situations.
“As a physician-scientist, she really does understand the academic mission,” said Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is part of Partners. “I would say that she is held with great respect with faculty at the Brigham.”
But some parts of the CEO job will be newer to Klibanski, such as overseeing the expansion strategy for Partners and advocating for the company to state policy makers.
Klibanski will also have to manage relationships between the Partners hospitals, including Mass. General and the Brigham, which maintain much of their independence 25 years after they came together to form Partners. The Partners board has asked her to continue a project begun by her predecessor, to guide the organization through the sometimes uncomfortable process of reassessing its governance, brand, and other areas.
Torchiana’s moves to expand and further integrate the nonprofit health system stirred tensions among other Partners leaders. In January, Torchiana unexpectedly announced that he would retire at the end of April.
Klibanski is expected to serve as interim CEO for about a year while the company’s board searches nationally for a long-term replacement. Partners officials said she will receive a base salary in line with Torchiana’s pay: about $2 million per year. It’s unclear if she will be a candidate for the permanent role.
“It’s very hard in a year to set your own direction, particularly with such a large organization,” said Judith Gordon, chairwoman of the Department of Management and Organization at Boston College.
“Now she has to deal with a huge array of issues,” Gordon said, “a huge array of employees, with the board who she hasn’t worked with directly before, and with the public . . . which makes it a very complex job.”
Dr. Ravi Thadhani, who worked for Klibanski while he ran the clinical trials office for Partners, said she knows how to build consensus across different parts of the organization. Instead of dictating policies from the corporate office, Klibanski’s team met with leaders at the individual Partners hospitals so they could have a say in the work of the clinical trials office.
“Anne is clearly somebody who listens more than acts, at least early on,” said Thadhani, who is now the vice dean for research and education at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Anne isn’t going to come and make big, bold decisions [right away.] It’s not her style. I think she’s going to scrutinize the organization.”