This week, I have the absolute pleasure to introduce Dr Harris Lygidakis who is the new CEO of WONCA World. We actually recorded the interview back in May 2020 but a whole bunch of things happened (ie covid waves) which meant that this post got delayed. If I am honest, it was a real honour to get to have a good chinwag with him about his time in Vasco da Gama (VdGM), his thoughts on the CEO role (including what the CEO role involves) and his advice on leadership.
The first time I met Harris was at WONCA Bratislava in 2019 as I was scurrying to the main hall. He was the outgoing Honorary Secretary for WONCA Europe Executive and I was incoming VdGM liaison officer. Harris is quite famous on the VdGM network and I almost didn’t know whether I should curtsey or not when I met him. I then saw him give a talk at the VdGM Torino Forum last year which remains as one of the most inspirational talks that I have listened to. One of the things that you will notice when you meet him is how smiley and friendly he is. He definitely still has the Vasco da Gama spirit. At the time of this interview in May, he was just finishing his dissertation for his PhD and it probably was only a few months after he had been selected for the role of CEO of WONCA World. His PhD dealt in the use of technology and meeting the needs of a target population in Rwanda using community health workers as facilitators of a mobile phone app to monitor health but also to educate. For me, it is really exciting to see a tech-savvy doctor at the helm of a global organisation.
So what exactly is a CEO? It stand for Chief Executive Officer but what exactly are they executing? In Harris’ words, the CEO has many different roles but predominantly he will be the person who supports the WONCA World President and Executive Board to manifest their vision. He will need to see if there is a market or an appetite for each action point and put together a realistic and feasible plan. He will also have to audit this once in progress and report back to the leadership. But there are other hats as well: he will have to keep the logistical and organisational part of WONCA in order; oversee the Secretariat operations; ensure that all information reaches the internal and external stakeholders; drive the growth of WONCA whether in terms of membership growth or also in terms of services (e.g. conferences, websites, courses); and establishing and cultivating relationships with key stakeholders. I think he is going to be a very busy man!!
Professor Anna Stavdal from Norway is the current WONCA World President, having taken over from Professor Donald Li of Hong Kong. Harris describes his role as being distinct from her role because she is the leader who is driving WONCA World with her vision and he is the person who makes this happen. His term will probably be longer than Anna’s in order to provide some continuity but it’s not set at the moment. Given that Dr Garth Manning (outgoing CEO) started his role in 2012, we can only assume a similar time frame for Harris but it sounds flexible and under review. There’s been some great work done already with the Special Interest Groups and Member Organisations in the past and WONCA World has done an amazing job with comms with an excellent website, an employed editor and a constant flow of information in newsletters. He wants to build on this experience – to use more social media, more tele-working platforms, streamline the processes of the Secretariat with technology. He makes a really good point that WONCA has a diverse membership base; we are diverse in terms of exposure to technology, diverse in terms of generations and cultures. It makes me realise that trying to communicate a message to every person is a real challenge as we all occupy very different spaces. Certainly Harris’ experiences on using technology will help reach a broader audience.
Now that I understand his role better, I wanted to ask him how he feels about stepping into this role. Although he was raised in Greece, Harris qualified as a family physician in Italy in 2010 and I was interested to know what challenges he felt he might have when most of his colleagues will be the generation above. He acknowledges that managing such a big organisation with many people who have decades of expertise on their shoulders and getting them on board will be the biggest challenge. However, he also recognises that there is a legacy of CEOs and Past Presidents who can bring in their experiences and are there to mentor him and that he feels blessed to have their support. Mentorship is such a fascinating topic and something that I am a huge advocate of. Harris agrees that mentorships are bidirectional. If a mentorship relationship works well, you will be bringing something to your mentor and you will learn from him or her. It is a real compliment to be asked to be a mentor and it is an absolute pleasure to see younger generations flourish. It is also wonderful receiving advice and a different perspective from those who have gone before. A good question is how to find a mentor. I didn’t get to ask Harris this but my advice here would be to view it as an intergenerational friendship. If there is someone that you enjoyed talking to or like the way that they think, ask them out for coffee or request a telephone conversation. It does mean getting out of your comfort zone but ultimately if they don’t reply to you, you really haven’t lost anything (bar a little pride!). Also don’t be afraid to use your old networks. Although I have left my role at the RCGP, I still discuss my problems with my old bosses and also with the professor that I worked for in Japan and I have had the opportunity to discuss matters with various members in WONCA. This invaluable guidance from others gives you a steady platform to face the future and it doesn’t quite feel so alone. I have got a couple of younger doctors that I know that I would say that were primarily friends but I have had a few mentoring conversations with them and it’s always interesting to hear the dilemmas they face and I hopefully provide a little beacon of light in their fog.
Harris and I reminisce over his VdGM days. VdGM is the European branch of the WONCA Young Doctors Movement and is a wonderful network of like-minded family physicians either in training or within five years of qualifying. Harris joined the first pre-conference in Basel in 2009, loved it and then got involved in the research group. In 2011, he became an elected member of the VdGM Executive Board. What are his memories of VdGM? It brought him a sense of belongingness. When starting your residency, it can feel lonely – perhaps the system doesn’t work very well or there are challenges in your training. Suddenly, you are exchanging opinions with other colleagues from across Europe and you realise that you are not the only one who is experiencing the same thing. He describes it as that amazing feeling when you discover that you are not alone. It makes you see the world differently once you belong to an organisation that has the same values as you. WONCA believes in good education and good research with the ultimate goal to help patients.
“VdGM was a big smile for me. A feeling of belongingness, other perspectives. I grew up and I had experiences that I thought I would never have from working in a multicultural environment. I got to meet friends who are still friends now. I’m doing a PhD thanks to the people I got to know via VdGM. It was a personal and professional journey of growth!”
I wish you could all see Harris’ face during the interview. He was beaming from ear to ear with a mischievious edge to his voice when he was talking about Vasco da Gama. “You can’t stop smiling, Harris!” I think for all of us, VdGM gives us this warm and fuzzy feeling inside that is so difficult to describe and it’s impossible not to recall these memories without the warm glow permeating every cell of your body. In VdGM, we often talk about the VdGM spirit. Does someone have it or not? What does this mean to Harris? For him, it is this spirit that we can bring with our youthfulness. We can celebrate the mistakes that we are making whilst not forgetting our values. We judge the world differently with this spirit and, when we graduate VdGM and enter the adult world based on these principles, we can bring a real generational change. He talks about a time when his friend, Raquel from Spain, had kindly and spontaneously organised a meeting in Madrid at her flat for the image team. In between the formal meetings, they would get together in her kitchen and have deep and meaningfuls. Vasco da Gama brings together young family physicians who are passionate about primary care and therefore the chances of us getting together and putting the world to rights is pretty high. Heartfelt and fervent conversations on topics such as the principles of primary care, equity and equality, and health a human right as well as swapping stories of our own experiences binds us and it truly does make you feel excited to be part of this movement.
We talk about his journey through VdGM. Like all of us and me included, prior joining the family, he couldn’t see a medical world beyond his home country. As he puts it, we think that we are the epicentre of the world. Meeting like-minded international colleagues broadens our experiences and opens our minds. We learn to appreciate other cultures and we learn that there are other ways to do the same thing. What he is talking about is something called cultural relativism. This is the idea that our thoughts, beliefs and practices are shaped by our own cultures and therefore the point of reference is our own cultural context rather than an external criteria of right and wrong. The best example I can give here is how we eat. In the UK where I live, we use a knife and fork. In Japan, where I am from, we use chopsticks. In Uganda, where I have lived in the past, it was acceptable to eat with your hands. None of these are wrong but if you are accustomed to eat in a particular way, you may notice this difference in eating utensils. The fantastic thing about seeing the way other cultures do things differently is that you can reflect on the way your own culture does things. We see this following the VdGM exchanges. Certainly for me, seeing primary care in Turkey, Denmark, Japan, the US and Australia has made me realise what we do well in the UK. This sense of gratitude can help us shift through what we want to keep and what is worth changing – as Harris puts it, it’s about getting back to your own country with a critical mindset and see how we can bring some of these experiences from abroad and translate them into our practice. It’s about critically appraising the context there and our own and put it into perspective.
Finally, I ask him about leadership advice for our young doctors out there. We have all stepped into roles that feel big for us whether that is a new clinical role, a new managerial role or a new teaching role. However big or however small, we have all experienced those thoughts of “am I good enough?”, “will I thrive or will I survive?” which is only human. How does Harris deal with that negative voice that we all have? He is well aware of the responsibilities that will come with his new role but he has a very balanced view on how he will approach this. He says that it is about having an honest discussion with yourself of who you are and what are your motivations. He advises us to look back on yourself and see how far you have come already. The majority of doctors are high-achieving, and family doctors especially have a diverse skill set because we are communicators, administrators, doctors and community leaders. “Imposter syndrome” is within all of us and it is important to be kind to yourself and just to keep trying. Harris feels grateful that other people saw something in him and nurtured him and he recommends that we all do the same – see the people around us, our mentors and our peers. Draw from their courage and their energy to face the many challenges that will come. He says that the CEO role came about because of good timing but, having spoken to him for an hour, I feel that he is being too humble. I can only wish Harris the best of luck in this new role as he takes over from the excellent work of Garth but I know he doesn’t need it.
You can follow Harris on Twitter @lygidakis