Being Curious About Everything, Impetus to Chief Research Role for Serpil Erzurum, MD
SERIES: Inspiring Others | Driving Results - Intellectual curiosity has provided unwavering support for the success of Cleveland Clinic's Chief Research and Academic Officer Dr. Serpil Erzurum. It is that attribution of being curious -- deeply curious about science and medicine as well as people and their families -- that has built trust among her team and colleagues and led to success. While conversing with Dr. Brian Bolwell about cancer research and care, she recalls saying to herself, "We can do it together because there's nothing we can't do at the Cleveland Clinic if we work together." Listen to this conversation about the impact of developing relationships to create a common vision. To be able to say what they were doing and what they were going to focus on was key. And looking forward, she knows this process will allow them to inspire others to establish relationships so that they can achieve amazing things.
Being Curious About Everything, Impetus to Chief Research Role for Serpil Erzurum, MD
Introduction: Welcome to Beyond Leadership at the intersection of leadership and everything else. In this Cleveland Clinic podcast, we will commingle with extraordinary thinkers and explore the impact of their ideas and experiences on leadership and management.
Brian Bolwell, MD: I am Brian Bolwell, your host. I am very pleased today to have Serpil Erzurum with us, who is the Cleveland Clinic's Chief Research and Academic Officer. Serpil was named Chief Research and Academic Officer in 2020, representing an expansion of her prior role as Chair of the Lerner Research Institute at the clinic, a position that she held since 2016. In this role, Dr. Erzurum focuses on strategic growth of enterprise-wide medical and scientific educational programs, clinical, basic and translational research, and technology development to deliver the most innovative care to patients. Serpil, it's wonderful to have you here today.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Thank you, Brian. I'm so happy to be here with you.
Brian Bolwell, MD: So can you tell our audience a little bit about your journey into leadership?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: I think like many leaders, it happened somewhat organically. I did not, I think, set out on a path for leadership. As I think back on how I ended up in this position, it was mostly through continued, I think, curiosity about things. I like to learn how things work. I like to know about people. I have curiosity about understanding life sciences and biology, and I just kept asking questions, trying to find answers, and then learning.
And I started to understand better about some of the organizational dynamics in larger healthcare systems and in research structures. And so, I became very curious about that too, and had some leadership courses at the Cleveland Clinic that were really helpful to me when I first became a department chair in the Research Institute. And I think that really was a turning point for me to where I found that I really could possibly lead. Then I became very curious about how to be the best leader I could be.
Brian Bolwell, MD: So what were some of the takeaway points that you learned from those courses?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Well, one of the big ones is understanding yourself first. I understood myself better, I think at the end of the leadership course--the first one I took where you had to do the 360 evaluation-- and then some of the personality surveys. It's amazing because you don't-- I think most people don't see themselves as they really are until your eyes are open to it. And once I could understand myself better and my reactions, then I could help the person in front of me that perhaps was coming to me with their own concerns or needs.
Brian Bolwell, MD: So Serpil, you were a very successful investigator. You were good at getting grants. And then, the opportunity become the leader of the Lerner Research Institute arose, and you decided to throw your hat into the ring. What was that thought process and how did you approach that?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: I was scared to death to throw my hat in the ring. I waited until the last possible day for the call for candidates, and the search committee had formed. And I think it was July 31st, and they were due July 31st. I had kept thinking about it and thinking about it and trying to understand if my qualifications could fit the position and how I would want to lead. At the end of the day, I think it takes a lot of courage to apply to something. You have to put yourself out there and you have to be open to rejection. And when I realized that the worst thing that could happen is I wouldn't get the job, that was okay. Maybe. And maybe that would be okay, so I thought I'll try. And of course, I was so very fortunate the search committee selected me.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Yeah. So what happened then? This was a major leadership jump. What were your immediate thoughts, challenges, hopes, fears?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Well, I immediately, of course, even during the search, wanted to see the job description. There apparently was not one, so the first thing I did was I wrote my job description for what I thought the job should be. I think, Brian, you told me a similar story about leadership and I read some books. There's this book, The First 90 Days.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Yeah.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Oh, my gosh, there's so many books. I think you gave me a book, Jamie Stoller gave me a book, other leaders here. I went to meet with everybody and then I wrote a job description. And in the job description, one of the points--and you will appreciate this because you have a great sense of humor-- one of the job descriptions that was required was to have a sense of humor. I know the people I enjoyed working the most for in my life had a great sense of humor, which meant they did not necessarily take themselves that seriously, which, to me, is something that makes them approachable. But that was on the job description. I think you would have it on yours, too.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Well, I couldn't agree more. And actually, it's fascinating that how rarely humor is mentioned in leadership books or leadership essays because I couldn't agree more. And when we spoke earlier, you talked about how important it is once you got into your leadership position to establish relationships. And I think that humor is a wonderful way to establish relationships and also to get through the tough times because nothing's ever wonderful all the time and there's always bumps and challenges. And yet if you can maintain that perspective, I think that goes a long way.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: I agree with you completely. One of the first things I did and in the early part of the job was meet everybody that worked in the institute. And then, I organized what we called random lunches, random people at random times to get together for lunch and to just talk about anything in their lives. We'd have some themes, sometimes it was talking about your hobbies. I can tell you that those lunches meant so much to everybody. It wasn't just that they were getting to know me, but they were getting to know somebody else in the institute that they might have known about but they had never had a conversation with. And now, by the end of the lunch, they were friends, deciding that if maybe go to coffee or discuss something about science. And so, I think building those relationships not just to the leader, but between the team, and again, the sense of humor and enjoying each other's company, getting to know a little bit more about each other so we can be supportive of each other.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Did they just talk about science or did they talk about other stuff too?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: We were not allowed to talk about science.
Brian Bolwell, MD: There you go.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: We had some topic questionnaires. One was, are you an East Sider or a West Sider, because we thought that was a dividing point for people. And we got into some really good conversations about East Side Cleveland and West Side Cleveland. And the other was, where's your office? Where is your workplace? And my gosh, the one for if you had a hobby, I mean, apparently, people have hobbies. I felt so sad. I read sometimes, I said, but some of these people do, I mean, amazing things. They have abilities. That was a fun one because, then, you learned about people that were artists, musicians, triathlons. It was fun, yeah.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Well, that sounds like it was a totally successful idea, so congratulations for that.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Thank you.
Brian Bolwell, MD: So what were some of your initial challenges back in '16? I mean, for our listeners to this podcast, Serpil's had amazing success in the past five years, and certainly I want to get into that, but let's go back five years about what your initial challenges and opportunities were and how you executed on those opportunities.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Yes, thank you. It's five years ago, I started in the position. It was a good institute. It was great. The research at the Cleveland Clinic has always been fabulous. But it was clear to me, and it sounds old now, that with the digital transformation, everything was becoming more and more IT-dependent. Research was no longer what it had been even 10 years before, that we needed to evolve our strategies and understand better our workflow so we could become as fast as the other researchers out there competing for the same grants. The data were becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. Whole genomes were routine, the entire transcriptome of the RNA, the whole protein, structures, proteomics, and of course, the metabolome.
Suddenly, you had hundreds of billions of data points that you had to integrate and synthesize. And so, the transformation to have the compute capacity for analysis, memory storage. There were a lot of technical things that needed to change. We needed to educate our researchers and the technical staff, and we needed to understand what were we going to focus on. That was my biggest priority the first year with the team. What were we going to do and what then were we not going to do? What could we have an impact in? Because when we focus, we can make a difference faster, achieve more than others.
You know, these questions were not always well-received. We had retreat after retreat after retreat with different stakeholders. They were a bit threatening to people because maybe what I did wouldn't be as important and maybe it wouldn't be one of the areas of focus for the future. I tried to reassure everybody, everybody's important. We want diversity in every form and fashion. But if somebody were to ask them, "What kind of research? What are we good at in research at the Cleveland Clinic," what would you say? How would you answer? What would you say if I asked what your department does, what your institute does?
In the Research Institute, Brian, it's very clear in the Cancer Center, you do cancer research. And because of that, you've built this fabulous Cancer Institute and everybody's behind that purpose of curing cancer. I wanted a sense of purpose in the Research Institute, mission-driven to what we were going to prevent, treat, or cure. And after a lot of work on that, we ended up with impact areas. It turned out, people could all align under impact areas. And in fact, many we're in two, or -- I'm in two impact areas -- many were in two or three.
And for those who criticized me, I said, "Hey, you do not notice lung biology in the impact areas." I made sure that there was plenty of lung research going on, but I didn't want to call out an organ. I did not want to call out an organ because everybody then would pick their favorite except for one example, of course. We have a heart vascular impact area and we have cancer too. You have to have cancer on the list. Got to do cancer research. And I was so grateful to you for partnering on that. So many people partnered on it, but that's been a lot of fun. Once we knew what we were doing and what we were going to focus on, then we could talk to partners about how would we do it together because then we could achieve amazing things. That's, I think, when it became fun. It took about two years to get to that point.
Brian Bolwell, MD: So all sorts of lessons there. I read an article a few years ago about foresight and leadership, and one of the jobs of a leader is to try to determine what your area of expertise or what your field is going to be like two years from now or four years from now, and having that foresight is something I don't think I appreciated as a young leader but the more I do it, the more I think it's incredibly important. So Serpil, for you to do that, you basically did it and did it very successfully and focus on a finite number of impact areas with one underlying theme is that this is where medicine is going, this is where research is going and we need to be there, I think is a wonderful example of a way to approach big picture challenges, to be able to look forward and see where you think the field will be.
And for our listeners, Serpil has been a long researcher for a long time, and that's why it was so terribly difficult for her not to pick lung as an organ, but I certainly understand having a more thematic approach. So congratulations for that. Has that been the catalyst that's led to so much success in the past few years?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: You know, I read a lot about leadership. I also read a lot about how to do research and be successful in it. There's a couple books about how to build the best research team, how do you get discoveries, innovation, the kind of Eureka moments where things happen. It all seems to fall together, and how do you stimulate the creativity. And the first step in all this is you do have to know what you're working on. What are you going to prioritize? So if you ask me, "Was that short list of priorities important?" Yes, because once we agreed upon it, the team got behind it. People see it. They're smart people. Actually, their areas of interest fall within those buckets. They got into it and they then began to drive it. They didn't need me anymore. And so, to me, that was the most important first step.
The next was for me to build enabling platforms for them. Now, they wanted to do it. Oh, my gosh. We didn't have what we needed, and that was the good problem. And of course, then we started to build for the future in a way where the platforms for them to do better and faster were available to them here at Cleveland Clinic. And that has led to things like the Cleveland Clinic BioRepository, the new IBM Discovery Accelerator. These ideas I also studied the history of prior research division leaders, Research Institute leaders. I'm sure as you studied your predecessors in cancer, right? How do you drive the mission forward, not completely, but you get it further down the field to where the next person can pick up? And what you don't want to do is go backwards, right, or stay in the same place.
And of course, I really have to remark upon some of my predecessors who, as you said, oh my gosh, they saw where things were going and had insight to just before it really broke into popular use. They pulled it in here. Irvine Page, chemistry. You know, in 1940, chemistry was somewhat exotic, and that's what the man did and that's where we got a lot of pharmaceutical drug development.
And then, Merlin Bumpus. Statistics. Who knew? It was a new thing in the 1950s. He said, "This seems like it's important. We should be able to test if something's working or not." It's why we have one of the largest statistics groups in a healthcare organization in the country. Ours is huge. It started 70 years ago. And then, this whole idea, “I wish it had artificial organs and artificial heart, kidney.” It was Merlin, too. It became biomedical engineering. And again, I challenge you to find another hospital who was a biomedical engineering group that is as large or as talented or as funded as the one that is here in the Cleveland Clinic, and it's the reason our cardiovascular doctors have done so well over the years with devices and our neurological doctors, too, because we design and work with the team to advance the field.
And then, you get into George Stark. And of course, DNA was discovered sometime along the way. Molecular biology. We all became molecular scientists, signaling in the cell. That was George. He brought all that with him.
And finally, Paul DiCorleto. He really believed in translation. I think he really worked hard for translational sciences, and that opened this whole new pathway at the NIH for funding, too. And so now, here we are. I think what we're trying to do is really focus in on the drug discovery, but also the computational research. We want to be the best computationally. It'll serve everybody's needs and raise everybody to a higher level no matter what you do here, any kind of research or innovation.
Brian Bolwell, MD: So Serpil, I think all of this speaks to the importance of vision. Once you have a vision that's clear and that your team can rally behind, as you said, your role then I think diminishes. You just have to reinforce the vision and, as you mentioned eloquently, create enabling projects. It's kind of a model of serving leadership in which you have a good group of people, you set a vision, and then you give them the tools they need to succeed and you remove obstacles. And basically, that's exactly what you just described.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: I agree with you. Precisely. It didn't seem so clear at the time, but if you asked me to look back at it? Yes, yes, that's what happened. And I am just so thankful. It's such a good group of people, the Cleveland Clinic. Some of the values that made that all work were teamwork. We really work as a team. That whole "Act as a unit" phrase that we use all the time from the very beginnings of the Cleveland Clinic, it's so true. People want to collaborate and they do value patients first, so it wasn't hard to really get behind the impact areas. Just, which ones were you going to pick? That was the thing that we had to align on. And then, yes, everybody's driven.
I will say one thing about anybody in research you talk to.... Oh, this is the other thing I did the first year, I met with people during their annual review. I met with everybody over the first year-and-a-half and I said -- I asked it in the wrong way initially -- I said, "Why are you here?" Of course, it's the first time I asked somebody that they said, "Oh, my gosh, annual review." And I said, "No, I didn't frame that right. I meant you could go anywhere, and you're still here and you're happy and you're productive. Tell me because we're structured so differently in a Research Institute." It's a year to year appointment. Oh, everybody in this institute could be tenured, full professor at any top academic organization in the country. There were variations but uniformly, the answer was, "Because I can make a difference for people at the Cleveland Clinic."
Brian Bolwell, MD: I can attest to the fact that Serpil went out of her way to bridge relationships with a lot of the organizations. Certainly, Serpil and I became really linked at the hip when it came to what we wanted to do in oncology, and I think that actually led to us becoming, just having a closer relationship. So what are your thoughts about relationships, both in terms of your own team, and how important they are with respect to the people in the Research Institute, as well as for the rest of the clinic and beyond? I mean, one thing I would like to touch on in addition, which is all connected, is your ability to secure funding, which has been truly incredibly wonderful. But again, I'd like to think that that has a lot to do with relationships.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Well, first, I have to thank you. I was a new Institute Chair, and I think Brian Bolwell was the first person I went to meet with as another Institute Chair. They're all wonderful leaders. But Brian, I think on the podcast knows, he has a particular passion for developing leaders. And I’d admired him. So he was also a little scary sometimes so I thought, "Let me go talk to him because he's really good.” And I remember that first meeting really well in your office. I had written some notes down that I wanted to ask you. But the wonderful thing about you is that you're very authentic, and we had a really good conversation and it felt like I could tell you anything and it would be okay. And that Idea that I would have some sort of a -- more than collegiality -- really a partnership or friendship, where you do need this in leadership. You need to be able to trust your co-leaders. And sometimes on a bad day or on a good day, to be able to speak openly, and it builds that relationship.
But what I learned talking to you, Brian, was that you were so passionate about cancer care and you knew research was cancer care. I mean, you were so emotional talking about it that day because you wanted to make it happen so badly. And I said, completely naive, I said, "Brian, let's do it." Do you still remember that? Do you remember that?
Brian Bolwell, MD: Yeah, but we have. I mean, that's the cool thing.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: I know. That's the strange thing actually. It's happened.
Brian Bolwell, MD: You know, talking about a vision is, I think, important, but Serpil, we've done it and you've done it.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: We've done it together.
Brian Bolwell, MD: So for those of you in the podcast, I mean, we've had an amazing amount of success recruiting. And we've got, again, Serpil has secured all sorts of funding from a variety of sources and there's going to be a major expansion in research facilities here at the clinic. I mean, her success is unbelievably, astoundingly good.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Brian, I think the take home message though is what do I know about cancer research? I mean, honestly. But when I heard you speak to it, I thought we can do it together because there's nothing we can't do at the Cleveland Clinic if we work together. I remember us saying that, "We can do it together." And then, we got others on board and it moved pretty quickly after that. I think that's leadership too, a different kind of leadership, isn't it? It’s ….
Brian Bolwell, MD: Well, I think one of the things you've talked about, Serpil, that's so important is trust.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Trust. Trust.
Brian Bolwell, MD: There's a wonderful book by Steve Covey called The Speed of Trust. If you have a relationship in which trust is central, everything's easier and I do think things accelerate. Everything happens quicker, which can be truly astounding. And basically that's what's happened.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: You're so right. I've heard that phrase, the speed of trust. And when you don't have trust, the relationships that are distrustful, people are defensive, they're watching what their behavior is, what your behavior is, and it just slows and almost stops things from moving forward. You can be functional, but you really cannot advance as rapidly as I think everybody would like to advance. So yeah, the trust between the Institute Chairs helped me so much with all of this, and you, in particular. The greatest thing I'd like to see come out of that is we do get cancer care here and cures from what we've built. That would make me so happy.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Yeah, I'm actually very optimistic about that. Another thing that you talked about earlier, which I think is applicable to virtually everybody, is the concept of intellectual curiosity. And actually to our audience, Serpil sent me a really wonderful article on Sunday night which focused, to a large extent, on that, how Nobel Prize winners actually are curious about everything. They're curious about how different birds interact with each other and whatever. And certainly, Serpil, that's always been a part of you is your intellectual curiosity. How do you think that's helped you?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: I've been like that since childhood. You could ask my mother. It's sometimes a terrible trait. It's annoying sometimes, but I am curious. I'm really curious about people and when I meet new people, I think, because I really am interested to know. I'll ask questions people about themselves, about their family, what's important to them, and I think it's helped me. It makes you appear caring. I say "appear caring" because I do care, but you could care and maybe not ask so many questions, right? But if I see you and I ask a question about your son, and then see you a couple of weeks later and remember and ask you again about what happened, you'd think, "Oh, Serpil really cares." And I think that attribution of being curious -- I am deeply curious about people and their families -- that makes you more approachable maybe than you would be in perhaps the appearance. I say the appearance of caring because I think caring can be in many ways, but maybe not as easily experienced by others.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Yeah, I think that's really, really important. In fact, last week, I wrote an essay on this and it was based on a Harvard Business Review article talking about the power of kindness. One of the things I find is having a leadership title gives you some sort of gravitas that you probably don't really deserve but it exists. And so, it's very easy to uplift somebody by simply acknowledging them, by simply stopping, pausing, saying hello and pausing, and listening to what they say.
I find that to be especially true in the pandemic last year when everybody was scared about what was going on. But the power of that, I think, is enormous and how you can create such goodwill by simply asking questions, listening, stopping, pausing, and acknowledging another person wherever they are. It's pretty cool. Again, it's a benefit of leadership, but I think is rarely discussed. But reflects exactly what you just said.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Brian, I could not agree more. There are days when if somebody stops me or says something to me to ask about something, it is the highlight of my day. One day, I was buying a cup of coffee and the woman behind the counter said something. It was pretty trivial, but it was a nice, nice thing. I can't remember. And I said, "Oh, wow," I said, "That is the nicest thing that's happened to me today. Thank you." And she basically had said something like, "Have a nice day." I think particularly in these times, a little touch of kindness, just a … yeah, it means a lot to everybody. So I agree with you. You said it very well.
Brian Bolwell, MD: As we're coming to a close, any words of wisdom for our audience? I mean, what Serpil's done in the past five years in the Research Institute has been terrific. What's been the key?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: Oh, my gosh. What's been the key? Good friendships like yours.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Well, I can vouch for that. So Serpil's a wonderful person. And again, one of my favorite leadership quotes is "Great teams are a magnet for great talent." And so, once you get something built and started, everybody wants to be part of. And I think that's what's going to happen, don't you?
Serpil Erzurum, MD: 100%, as I told you five years ago. Absolutely yes. This has been wonderful, Brian.
Brian Bolwell, MD: Well, thank you so much.
Serpil Erzurum, MD: I enjoy talking to you always, and thank you for having me on this podcast.
Brian Bolwell, MD: It's been my pleasure. It's been a wonderful podcast and thank you, Serpil.
Conclusion: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Beyond Leadership. We welcome any topic ideas, comments, or questions about this or any past episodes. Email us at [email protected] or by clicking on the link in the show notes.
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