Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD: A Fascinating Career


Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, is one of the most sought after psychoanalysts in the world, but he does not see patients. As founder of the Boswell Group, he consults leading global companies.

New York University Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in New York City. Unless you are familiar with his work, you are likely imagining that Dr. Sulkowicz welcomes his patients into a comfortable but dimly lit office containing a Turkish sofa. Surprisingly while Dr. Sulkowicz is one of the most sought after psychoanalysts in the world, he does not see patients. As founder of the Boswell Group, he consults to leading global companies on topics from CEO transitions to boardroom dynamics to psychological profiling in Merger and Acquisitions negotiations. His writing has appeared in Business Week,Fast Company, and the Harvard Business Review.

Question: You have a pretty innovative career for someone with psychiatric and psychoanalytic training. Can you tell me how you got started along this path?

Dr. Sulkowicz: My career as a consultant and advisor to CEOs and boards began by accident, and was largely a product of luck and restlessness. I had been in full-time clinical practice, but after a few years found the day-in/day-out routine of seeing one patient after another difficult. It took a while for me to admit to myself that it didn't really suit my temperament. For a long time I'd had an interest the psychology of leaders, in particular the question of how leaders actually influenced groups of people to do good things and bad things. This undoubtedly grew out of my experience as a child of Holocaust survivors. I'd also been fascinated by business, and if I hadn't gone to medical school, I probably would have been an entrepreneur.

But the event that really changed my life was a chance conversation with someone at a cocktail party. It's a pleasant occupational hazard of our field. Over a glass of good red wine, a CEO unburdened himself about some of the challenges he was facing as a first-time leader, and after a while he invited me to consult to him and his company. I had no idea what I was doing, but we met several times, and it turned out that our having these conversations was very helpful to him as he struggled with what it meant to be a leader and with how to manage his team and navigate some other complexities that all had emotional underpinnings. That experience with my first "client" launched my new career.

Question: In retrospect, do you believe you were always headed in your career to something outside of clinical practice and that it was more of a question of when and what?

Dr. Sulkowicz: I would have never predicted this. When I was in medical school and residency, I always imagined that I would spend the rest of my career seeing patients and teaching. It's a good way to spend a life, but it just wasn't meant to be for me. I've become a big believer in the value of remaining open to serendipity, and not trying to control one's career too much. Going with the flow, and pursuing what seems interesting and fun, rather than predictable and safe, yields unexpected pleasures.

Question: What is the most rewarding aspect of creating and leading the Boswell Group?

Dr. Sulkowicz: The most rewarding aspect of the Boswell Group is the relationships I've formed with my extraordinary colleagues. I have learned so much from them, and we support each other's practices and professional development. Aside from that, the work has allowed me to travel the world, meet some amazing people, and continue learning about things I would have never encountered if I'd stayed in clinical practice.

Question: Moving to the clients that seek out your help, what do you see as the most consistent areas that companies are able to benefit from someone with a greater knowledge of psychology?

Dr. Sulkowicz: There are several. Leaders are inherently isolated by virtue of their roles at the top of organizations, and the nature of power dynamics is such that it makes it difficult if not impossible for CEOs to confide entirely in people inside their companies. So, having a confidant to discuss the CEO's evolving leadership challenges, management and board dynamics, and the CEO's personal life, can be extremely helpful. Plus, the most enlightened CEOs readily grasp the value of bringing a psychological perspective to bear on range of business issues.

Question: I imagine you work with a lot of very intelligent and successful people, What are the greatest lessons you have learned from the successful leaders in the business world with whom you have worked?

I've learned a lot from my clients. One of the greatest lessons I've learned about leadership is the importance of empathy and interpersonal skills, without which leaders often fail. That doesn't mean they can't be driven and tough, too, but the point of leadership is to inspire followership, and technocratic, obsessional people who are thrust into leadership roles don't do well. I've also learned that being able to tolerate anxiety and uncertainty is absolutely essential to effective leadership. Another thing I've observed is that one of the most common mistakes leaders make, usually based on some combination of conflict avoidance, misplaced loyalty, and insufficient feedback from below, is not acting quickly enough on people problems. When there's a toxic member of an organization, it's rare for them to be able to change sufficiently, so it's better to move them out as swiftly as possible. 

Question: I see that the Boswell Group has fourteen members and that you are the Managing Principal. What does an expert on CEO behavior incorporate into his own role as a leader?

Dr. Sulkowicz: My colleagues in the Boswell Group have been some of my best teachers, and I've learned a lot about leadership from them. Early on, one of them told me that the group needed more from me, which meant that I needed to make some hard decisions and also that I needed to do a better job setting a clear vision for the group and guiding us to achieving it. He was absolutely right, and I'm grateful to him for that advice. I try to incorporate what I apply in my consulting work, so that we don't become an example of the cobbler's children . . .

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