Robert Smith III views leadership qualities like cake ingredients. Whether it’s a small or large cake, he said, the basic ingredients are always the same.
Now, as Smith prepares to transition into a new role as vice dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health, he will build on those “ingredients“ he gained in his current role as associate chairperson for administration in the Department of Neurology at the UNC School of Medicine to prepare for his new position.
He will begin his new role on Feb. 28.
“The thing that excites me is just to come alongside such a dedicated group of people who are just knocking it out of the ballpark," Smith said. "Every institution or organization has its challenges and I’m sure I’ll see some of those at the Gillings from the inside once I’m there, but it's just amazing how the people associated with Gillings have been at the forefront of addressing COVID-19."
Before his career in academic medicine, Smith spent many years as a clinician and provided bedside care to his patients.
As a young clinician, he would often encounter physicians who were newly out of school and came to work the ICU without much experience in a clinical setting. At that time, Smith said, he'd had that experience and was responsible for carrying out doctor's orders.
“I learned to be able to put them on the path to guided discovery without insulting their intelligence or anything such as that, but help them to take care of the babies and the patients I was responsible for,” he said.
This experience, Smith said, impacts his leadership style today. He stresses the importance of supporting and strengthening relationships with colleagues as the driving force behind his administrative style.
Building relationships and valuing teamwork will be integral in Smith’s approach to his new position.
“I always wanted to be the best that I could be," he said. "I always endeavored to be better tomorrow than I am today. So what I have done is partnered with people and learned from them as they go on their journeys.”
He's also passed on those lessons to his children, Smith said. He will oftentimes tell them that they don’t want to be sitting in their rocking chairs one day thinking about what they wish they would have done.
“It’s been very fulfilling to partner with people and learn things that I don’t think I would have learned had I not stepped out in faith,” Smith said. “That’s what’s guided me. I’ve always been inquisitive and wanted to learn more, and I would see people who were great leaders in my opinion and I just wanted to figure out how they became great leaders.”
One of the relationships Smith has built in his time at UNC is with Gwenn Garden, distinguished professor and chairperson of the Department of Neurology, who reflected on Smith's role at the University during the pandemic.
She cited how Smith was committed to providing masks and eye protection to faculty members at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At this point in the pandemic, Garden said, protective equipment was difficult to obtain, but Smith did what he could to supply these items to his colleagues.
“Most people were staying home unless when they needed to go see patients,” she said. “He was coming into work everyday, making sure people had the protective equipment that they needed. I thought that was pretty amazing because I don’t think that many administrative leaders took that physical role as their own.”
Samantha Dickerson, a graduate student studying health administration and one of Smith’s interns, also noted the importance of Smith’s leadership in the local healthcare industry during the pandemic.
“He has this great ability to be able to talk to someone and kind of quell their fears,” Dickerson said. “I think that’s such an incredible piece of being in an administrative position is being able to connect with the people you’re working with and having them trust you."
Looking forward to his new role, Smith is ready to embrace the future, and his guiding principle stays the same.
“What excites me is coming alongside a group of people who are just phenomenally gifted, I think, in what they do, and partner with them and keep it going,” Smith said. “I say it this way, how does one go about preserving the core of what makes you wonderful and good?”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.