January 2012 Mentor of the Month: Richard G. Flaherty
Biography & Career
  1. How did you get involved with the AACC?
    My first AACC meeting was in 1981 in Kansas City when I attended a CLSI meeting held in conjunction with the annual meeting. I was impressed by the scientific program and with the size of the exhibit floor. At the time, I worked for AdvaMed where I focused on IVD issues. This early experience with AACC was mostly as a partner in a clinical laboratory coalition or on an occasional joint project. I joined the AACC staff in 1991 as executive vice president.
  2. What do you think is the most significant change that has occurred in the AACC in your career and why?
    A couple off things come to mind. First, the organization has accepted its role as a global leader. While our name said “American”, there was in fact an international aspect to the association from the beginning. AACC’s first directory includes a member from Brazil and the international membership grew rapidly with the growing success of Clinical Chemistry. Over time, it became clear that the international members didn’t belong just to get the journal. They wanted to participate on committees and vote in elections and otherwise exercise the full rights of membership. Recognizing this change was an important step for the leadership. Another change has been the increasing professionalization of the organization. Board and committees have shifted their attention to more strategic issues than in the past.
    Lastly, I’d mention Lab Tests Online because it changed the way we think about dealing with patients. Historically, laboratorians, at least in the US, shied away from patient contact and felt that discussing test results should be the exclusive domain of the physician. With the growth of the internet, this view has changed and we now recognize that we have a lot to contribute to patients and caregivers. Interpretation of particular results for a particular patient is still best left to the clinician who sees the full picture but Lab Tests Online proved that we have a proper role in providing information that helps patients understand the larger context.
  3. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
    There are too many to mention but I’d include meeting the pioneers of the field, people like Arnold Beckman, Wallace Coulter, Leonard Skeggs, and Jack Whitehead. Also, the launch of lab Tests Online was exciting the first time and became ever more so as national societies around the world launched their own versions. It has been thrilling to see how well this website has been accepted. Last month, we had more than 3,000,000 visitors worldwide, an astounding number by any reckoning.
  4. What are your predictions for the AACC and laboratory medicine over the next ten years?
    For laboratory medicine, I see more cost pressure, more institutional consolidation, more guideline-driven decision making, more legislative intrusions into healthcare, more jockeying for position by lab groups; in other words, more of the same. Ditto for AACC. Paradoxically, the value of an association’s contribution increases when things are challenging in the field because people want to know how to cope. I expect that AACC will continue to do well as it helps members adapt to this brave new world.
  5. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
    I never found an optimal balance. Perhaps others are better at this than I, but work never quite left my brain. Looking back, I wish I had done a better at carving out time for family and renewing rest.
  6. What is the most important leadership skill?
    The importance of an individual leadership skill is situational. Sometimes you need to be a consensus builder and sometimes a task master. If bankruptcy is imminent, a gimlet-eyed financial approach is in order. Associations need people, both members and staff, who work well together but who understand goals and can achieve them while being flexible in adapting to changing circumstance. Member work is entirely voluntary so our challenge is not just to get things done but to do so in a way that preserves comity and balance and a willingness to keep working together for the betterment of the field.
  7. What is your most effective time management skill?
    I keep searching for the magic system to manage my time but haven’t found it yet. Unlike most people who work for the same person for a long time, I inherit a new president and new board every year and the changes in approach could make your head spin. The time management system that worked one year won’t necessarily work the next. There are some people who will smile knowingly at this comment (I am winking in their direction) but my experience has been that you should avoid making decisions until they need to be made. With as many opinions and stakeholders as there are in an association, keeping options open until everyone is comfortable helps avoid rework from changing directions.
  8. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?The biggest challenges, at least in the US, are going to come from the fact that we cannot continue to increase health care spending the way we’ve done in the past and we will have to come to grips with a limit on what society can afford. Sensible people are projecting that the US will spend 20% of GDP on health care (compared to about 7% at the start of my career) by the end of the decade. I expect that the cost pressures will increase and lead to wrenching change. On the science side, the future looks bright and rosy with an ever better understanding of the human body but the question for society will be how much are we willing and able to afford for health care.
  9. Where is your favorite place you’ve visited?
    The world is a beautiful and wondrous place and I couldn’t name a single favorite. I’m grateful for having a job that required me to travel and introduced me to so many fantastic places. Travel is enriching and gives insights into other countries and cultures but in the end there’s no place like home. It’s nice to get away and it’s nice to come home.
  10. Who are your role models or mentors?I’ve never had a single mentor as the term is usually understood but have tried to learn from everyone. Through the years, there have been a number of people who’ve offered a word or two of advice, sometimes so gently that it could be missed if you weren’t listening carefully. I’ve appreciated their willingness to help and guide. As for role models, I’ve always been impressed by the individual who works quietly on their own to solve a problem. The Wright brothers, for example, figured out how to build the first successful airplane using empirical principles that they worked out on their own. Similarly, Leonard Skeggs worked for years in his basement to develop the first practical automated chemistry analyzer. Ditto for Beckman’s work on the pH meter and Coulter’s invention of the particle counter. They all saw problems and solved them, revolutionizing the field along the way.
  11. What is your favorite book and why?
    A lifelong reader, I found that during my SYCL years the demands of family and career made it hard to find time. Now that the kids are grown I’m back at it. Mostly, I read non-fiction and focus on history, science, and current affairs. I couldn’t possibly name a single book but among those that have made an impression and stuck with me are Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast for its insights into pre-gold rush California, the business classics My Years at General Motors by Sloan and Graham’s Security Analysis for their clear thinking about business fundamentals (both are dated but still worthwhile), Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five for its take on the randomness and banality of death, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which I’ve re-read several times and should be paired with King Leopold’s Ghost. I recently finished Singh’s The Big Bang, Cicero by Everitt and 1491 by Mann, all of which I enjoyed immensely. I’ve read at least a dozen excellent books on the financial crisis, a largely depressing wallow in greed, stupidity, and venality, but they made me appreciate AACCer’s all the more.
  12. Who is your favorite celebrity/famous person and why?
    I lost track of popular culture with the birth or our first child. Maybe I‘ll get caught up in retirement.
  13. What are you going to do during your retirement?My short term goal is to clear my head and think about the future. I’m too young to stop contributing but am looking forward to getting away from the daily management grind.
  14. What will you miss the most about the AACC?
    The people. The friends and colleagues who have been part of my life for so long will be very much missed. I’ll still belong to the association and hope to stay in touch at some level but it won’t be the same as being here on a daily basis.
  15. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?You are part of an exciting and dynamic field that helps improve the quality of patient care. Don’t get discouraged by all the talk of doom and gloom; everyone in healthcare is struggling with similar issues. You will need to be flexible in your career but there will always be a need for your unique knowledge and skills. Embrace the inevitable changes that will come your way and shape them to your benefit. Always remember that you make a difference in the world.
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