Dr. Caroline Robson Interviewed by Dr. Asha Sarma

Dr. Caroline Robson, Past President of the ASHNR and the ASPNR and current Division Chief of Neuroradiology at Boston Children’s Hospital, has led a distinguished career with a focus in pediatric head and neck radiology. She has mentored numerous trainees and faculty over the course of her career and is a role model to many. I recently interviewed Dr. Robson for the benefit of junior faculty and young investigators who looking to start their careers on the right foot.

What have been some of the most satisfying experiences of your career?

Over the years, meeting and working with so many incredibly talented, hardworking and wonderful fellows, residents and medical students, and over time witnessing them excel in their chosen careers.  Serving as pediatric neuro division chief is a huge honor as is working with such wonderful neuro colleagues at BCH. From a clinical perspective, I have learnt so much from ORL, Ophthalmology and Pathology colleagues, and have benefited from their mentorship. It’s also been a privilege to work with national societies, for example the ASHNR and ASPNR, as faculty, committee member, and finally serving as president. National society involvement has also facilitated mentoring relationships and the opportunity to help others get launched in their careers. It’s also so exciting to feel that I have played a role in getting peds head and neck “on the map”, recognized as critical to all head and neck radiologists and well-integrated into the programs of our national meetings, with talks from excellent peds head and neck expert faculty.

What do you wish you knew early in your career about successful leadership?

I have learned the value of restraint and being mindful of cause and effect in interactions with others. It is important to think about the personality of the person with whom you are interacting and anticipate how a conversation may go ahead of time. Experiences I had in clinical leadership roles early on have been very useful in guiding a deliberate and measured leadership style in national society roles. Other important objectives are to try to remain neutral and fair-minded and, especially, to lead by example. Being in a leadership role is an honor and a challenge which requires being willing to be responsive and to take on tasks and complete them in a timely fashion. Set a precedent that makes others want to “opt-in” because you have opted in first. Finally, don’t set junior members of the department up to fail by having them take on onerous administrative responsibilities too early in their careers.

You are a person who gets so much done each day that others wonder how you do it! Do you have any tips on increasing productivity during working hours? Any organizational hacks for managing various responsibilities, projects and passions and staying on top of deadlines?

This is something I have really battled with my whole life, with a huge burden of conscience that I am not doing what I should be doing. Here are some of the things I have learned:

1. Set priorities and classify as urgent versus non-urgent, and important versus not-important. Then start with tasks that are urgent and important (let’s call them high value “blue chip” tasks). Eliminate tasks that are non-urgent and nonimportant (unimportant “white chip” tasks).

2. Break daunting tasks into smaller, attainable components.

3. Do “deep work”. Deliberately plan breaks during work time. Avoid distractions, for example, batch email time to avoid interruptions and ignore social media notifications. Make a running “distraction list” of deferred task that can wait until you’re done with your deep work session. Avoid the temptation to multitask.

4. “Eat the frog”: do the most onerous task first, which will make the rest of your day easier.

5. Minimize time spent making decisions, i.e., Don’t agonize about which of two $10 books you’re going to buy on Amazon. Buy both – you’ll save an hour and end up twice as happy!

6. Regarding email, be precise and unambiguous to minimize the back and forth, for example, by sending your potential free times up front with an initial email for scheduling a meeting.

7. Set aside time for critical priorities such as self-care, exercise, family and sleep.

8. Assume things will go wrong and that your plans will get derailed. Accordingly, build in a buffer by planning to be done ahead of deadlines, which helps reduce stress.

9. Be a good team player and community member, but know when to say no, so that you don’t end up burdened by tasks that are unimportant and not urgent.

You are known for being a masterful educator and speaker. What are your tips for making and delivering effective presentations?

1. Speaking too fast is one of the most common criticisms of inexperienced speakers. Also, speaking quickly can make you feel more nervous! By speaking more slowly, it is easier to be calm, thoughtful and eloquent. The audience relaxes into the talk with you.

2. As you create your talk, work on presentation aesthetics. Use a dark background and large, simple, light-colored font (e.g., Arial size 28+). Don’t put too much information on each slide. Be telegraphic and speak between the lines of text or break the information into multiple slides. Images should be free of text, magnified, and neatly aligned.

3. Learn from other people! Keep track of talks that you like and try to figure out what it is that you like about them. I have my yardsticks too. For example, I have been inspired by Tabby Kennedy, who always includes wonderful companion cases, and Courtney Tomblinson who is a master of aesthetics and organization.

4. Include recent references and try to update cases when you are giving a talk on a topic that you’ve presented previously. This will increase your enthusiasm, which will percolate through to your audience, and your colleagues will love to see you highlight their expertise and references in your talk!

5. When you look at your teaching file, it becomes hard to omit cases, with so many favorites. Avoid the temptation to put too much material into your talks – it’s daunting for the audience and will force you to speak too fast or risk going over time. Avoid making your talk a catalog of cases. Each slide should have a teaching point or a “hook”. Make it relevant to your audience (and think about your audience ahead of time).