Who’s in Your Kitchen Cabinet?

April 24, 2024
Cabinet with handles

The term “kitchen cabinet” took on new meaning for me in 2012 when I heard Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of Geriatrics at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto speak passionately about his kitchen cabinet and the important role it has played in his leadership journey.

The occasion was a Fire Side Chat for a captive audience of physicians participating in the Schulich Executive Education Centre’s Physician Leadership Development Program in partnership with the Canadian Medical Association and the Ontario Medical Association.

As an executive coach for the program, I provided individual and group leadership coaching as well as guidance for physician action learning projects designed to positively impact healthcare. Over six years, 150 Ontario physicians graduated from the program, many of whom hold key physician leadership roles today.

Dr. Sinha’s kitchen cabinet concept (I’ll get to that shortly) stuck big time and for over a decade, has made its way into coaching conversations and taken on newfound meaning for clients and their personal leadership journeys.

Catching Up with Dr. Sinha

I’ve been following Dr. Sinha’s remarkable journey as a passionate and respected advocate for the needs of older adults since 2012 when he took on the role of expert lead for Ontario’s Seniors Strategy.

In 2021, Dr. Sinha was appointed to serve as a member of the Government of Canada’s National Seniors Council and recently led the successful development of Canada’s new National Long-Term Care Services Standard.

With a breadth of international training and expertise in health policy and the delivery of services related to the elderly, he consults and speaks internationally on geriatric care models and has conducted extensive research on aging, with a particular emphasis on polypharmacy, dementia and falls in older adults.

Macleans Magazine recognized Dr. Sinha as one of Canada’s 50 most influential people in 2014 and its most compelling voice for the elderly. In 2023, he was bestowed the honor of Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, a testament to his outstanding work and leadership in the geriatrics field.

It was time to catch up with Dr. Sinha and revisit the kitchen cabinet concept. Was my recollection accurate? What advice could be offered to others wanting to create and nurture their own kitchen cabinet? How has Dr. Sinha’s kitchen cabinet continued to serve him and vice versa?

 

 

A Different Kind of Kitchen Cabinet

When Dr. Sinha originally spoke about his kitchen cabinet, he was referring to a diverse, global informal cabinet of trusted advisors from different aspects of his life and career. People who knew him well and could be called upon to provide wise perspective and advice at specific times of need throughout his career. I recall being impressed at the way he valued and maintained these important relationships with respect and relative ease.

In our recent conversation, Dr. Sinha likened the kitchen cabinet concept to a prime minister’s formal cabinet comprised of selected ministers who discuss important matters in confidence alongside the prime minister or an expert advisory board that typically meets at regular intervals.

A kitchen cabinet discussion can happen anytime – typically with one individual and occasionally with a small group so it’s informal in that way. However, the approach is formal in the sense that advice is being sought on a highly specific issue with the understanding that the conversation is confidential and off the record.

Dr. Sinha’s Kitchen Cabinet

Today, Dr. Sinha describes his kitchen cabinet as people he knows locally, nationally and internationally – trusted allies he can reach out to in confidence. A mix of people with different backgrounds including physicians, a core group of about 12 people.

What started as informal mentors during his medical studies who were genuinely interested in his career and overall wellbeing, now includes informal mentors who have also become invested in Dr. Sinha’s success. His former landlord in Baltimore is also a kitchen cabinet member, described as an attentive listener who knows him well!

As a young and relatively unknown geriatrician appointed by Ontario’s Minister of Health to develop Ontario’s inaugural senior strategy in 2012, Dr. Sinha recalls feeling incredibly vulnerable in the wake of what felt like a monumental task with enormous privilege and responsibility.

He had to get it right. This is when he identified a few people he trusted for unbiased advice. There were texts and many late-night phone calls where advice was provided and sometimes, connections were made to others who could help.

On another occasion earlier in his career, Dr. Sinha remembers feeling particularly stressed. A kitchen cabinet mentor listened carefully and then identified two options. He could either use some of his money to hire an assistant to help or he could quit. This direct and to the point advice provided necessary clarity at the time.

During his almost 15-year tenure as Director of Geriatrics at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network, Dr. Sinha’s kitchen cabinet has grown to include heads of geriatrics at other health centres as well as senior geriatrician and clinician leaders across North America. Their years of experience and opinions have been an integral part of his career and impact on geriatric care in Ontario, Canada and beyond.

 

Cultivating a Kitchen Cabinet

When creating your kitchen cabinet, Dr. Sinha advises seeking out individuals with whom you share a meaningful connection, whether they be peers with similar career backgrounds or those who possess significant experience in a relevant field who are able to offer valuable wisdom and expertise to address specific challenges.

Choose people who you admire, know you well, are honest and can be direct and to the point – like loving critics. Those who will listen to you and then provide a straight up answer. They know or can grasp the context of what you’re talking about and help you to unearth the real issue at hand and provide clarity on next steps.

According to Dr. Sinha, a kitchen cabinet includes people who can help in three key ways: providing perspectives on decisions; assisting in identifying and resolving core issues; and hands-on help for specific tasks.

Dr. Sinha likens maintaining relationships with kitchen cabinet members to tending a garden, highlighting the importance of nurturing relationships with kindness and appreciation. He underscores the collaborative nature of these relationships, emphasizing the need to not only seek assistance but also to offer support.

Small gestures of gratitude such as offering assistance or small gifts without expectation can have a special impact on relationships. For Dr. Sinha, this has included writing letters of recommendation and stepping in to provide a comprehensive geriatric assessment for one of his cabinet members during a heightened time of need.

Collaboration is a two-way street. Building a strong rapport ensures mutual trust, enabling you to reach out to someone even after a prolonged period of absence.

 

Black and white picture of Dr. Samir Sinha talking to someone

Dr. Sinha pictured with his former patient Mr. W, taken during a home visit around his 100th birthday in February 2011. As one of Dr. Sinha’s first patients as a new geriatrician in Toronto, Mr. W became a mutual patient of Dr. Sinha and Dr. Mark Nowaczynski whose experiences as a patient helped to inspire the development of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Acute Care for Elders (ACE) Strategy. Drs. Sinha and Nowaczynski were able to honour Mr. W’s wish to remain at home until he passed at 104 and 11 months. Photo Credit: Dr. Mark Nowaczynski

A Full Circle Kitchen Cabinet Moment

Dr. Sinha shared a personal story about visiting Oxford University last year as he was contemplating his next career move after he completed 14 years in the same role. He was hoping to reconnect with a kitchen cabinet mentor who he hadn’t spoken to in 10 years.

He recalled that this mentor, now the head of medicine at Oxford University had given him wonderful career advice when he was starting his career at Sinai and UHN and then they fell out of touch. Unsure if he was still around, Dr. Sinha managed to reach his mentor and set up a meeting during his visit.

To his delight, they picked up right where they left off with a thoughtful gift from Canada that wasn’t expected but was very much appreciated. And then, during their chat Dr. Sinha’s mentor suggested that he consider a visiting fellowship at Oxford University.

Now in this full circle kitchen cabinet moment, as Dr. Sinha steps down from his current role, he will begin a one-year sabbatical at Oxford starting in the fall of 2024.  All thanks to a valued kitchen cabinet mentor that he met 20 years ago. The icing on the cake is his mentor will also be his fellowship supervisor!

Looking Back and Forward

It is with pride and appreciation that Dr. Sinha reflects on his almost 15-year tenure as Director of Geriatrics at Sinai Health and the University Health Network. The program has grown from being the smallest in Toronto with three geriatricians to the largest in the country with 21.

Dr. Sinha smiles and notably lights up when he shares that he is now the third oldest of the 21 geriatricians in his group. It’s rewarding and exciting to have a young, dynamic group of geriatricians making a difference at Sinai Health and the University Health Network.

He is proud to have worked on strategies and models of care that are now being implemented in hospitals across Canada and the world. Dr. Sinha’s research has contributed to integrated and innovative models of geriatric care that reduce disease burden, improve access and capacity and ultimately promote health.

Dr. Sinha credits being able to do all these things because he’s had great support from everyone around him, including of course his kitchen cabinet.

 

Cabinet with headline

 

Who’s in Your Kitchen Cabinet?

My conversation with Dr. Sinha confirmed the importance of having people we can count on for support, perspective and guidance in life and in leadership.

Chances are you have an informal kitchen cabinet but have not taken the time to formally identify the unique and important role each person has played and continues to play in your life and career.

It’s not too late to take stock of your kitchen cabinet and consider the ways that you will cultivate and nurture these coveted relationships with kindness and appreciation.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences.

Pass it on 

Hi I’m Mary-Ellen

ICF Accredited global coach & organizational strategist known for unlocking potential & moving ideas to meaningful action through leadership, sustainability & communication. It’s my job to make you shine!

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