Kenric Murayama, MD, is the chair of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of Surgery and was the first president of the Society of Asian Academic Surgeons. The Lotus Scroll is honored to interview Murayama, this year’s host of the SAAS Annual Meeting and self-proclaimed romantic.
LS – Where did you grow up? Can you talk about your parents and your family?
KM – I was born and raised in Hawaii. My dad worked for the state of Hawaii, and my mom was employed with a variety of jobs. I was the first person in my family to go into medicine.
LS – You have a little bit of a different background in that you grew up in Hawaii where you were maybe not as much of a minority as some of us who grew up on the mainland.
KM – Most of the people in Hawaii are still Asian, although it’s much less than it was maybe 25 years ago. I didn’t grow up feeling like a minority or feeling like we were oppressed in any way. In fact, I would say the Caucasian people probably felt like they were treated like a minority, especially in some of the schools. Because I grew up in Hawaii, I didn’t grow up with this feeling that, somehow, we had been overlooked or even oppressed. I think this has helped professionally, as I haven’t felt like I didn’t get an opportunity because I was Asian. Maybe that’s a bit naïve, but I have always felt that, if I didn’t get selected for something, it was because I needed to be better qualified.
LS – Are there different challenges than those of somebody growing up on the mainland?
KM – It took a little getting used to when I went away to college and residency. I went to the University of Washington, so there were plenty of Asians there. But we were still in the minority, and it was the first time I really experienced being “different.” I realized that Asians truly were in the minority, particularly in medicine. When I got to surgery residency in Chicago, although there were two prominent Asian faculty, I realized that Asians were a minority of the faculty, and it also took some getting used to. When I was applying for jobs out of residency, I sent my CV and cover letters to about 40 different academic places and, initially, I only got two interview offers and no job offers. One of my mentors called me and said, “You know, I don’t know what’s going on. You have numerous publications and are competitive. You ought to be getting more job opportunities. I actually think it’s because you’re Asian. As bad as it is, I think some people still have a bias against it.” Whether it was true or not, I was shocked that that was even a consideration; it had never crossed my mind before and, in retrospect, was probably not true, but it made me pause, for sure.
LS – Given that experience, do you feel like being Asian has continued to come up as a barrier as you progressed over your career?
KM – Maybe it’s because I grew up in Hawaii, but I try not to think of it in those terms. Overall, I’ve been lucky to have opportunities, but as I have become more aware of the issues of being an Asian in academic surgery, I do think there are times I may have been passed over because I am Asian or, maybe more correctly, was not like the others in leadership positions. There have been times that I have felt like I haven’t been given equal opportunities, but I now think it’s more about not being connected to the right people in leadership. This is where having more Asians in leadership roles would help.
LS – So then, in response to that for the younger faculty who are coming along, do you have any advice about when they’re thinking about these types of opportunities and how to advocate for themselves?
KM – I think, No. 1, you have to make sure you have the skill set necessary so that you can deliver and be competitive. Whether that’s an advanced degree or specialized research training, you have to have the right skill set. If you want to be a chief of surgery, a medical director, OR director, or whatever, you should consider getting an advanced degree. Others are doing it, and it does weigh into the selection process. I tell people that you have to “speak their language.” That’s why I got my MBA at age 60. You have to be willing to check your ethnic ego at the door and accept the fact that you are a minority. But you can’t let it become your primary “battle cry” because it can make people uncomfortable. You want to get a job or position because you’re the most qualified, most deserving person. I think, if you keep that as your mantra, you’ll position yourself well and do the things necessary to be the most competitive person for a position.
LS – What advice do you have for junior surgeons in seeking out mentors and sponsors?
KM – I think finding a mentor is really critical. When I left Northwestern after residency, I really wanted to be one of the next great pancreatic surgeons. I was going to do pancreas research and the Whipples and everything related to the pancreas. I realized after I started my first faculty position in Nebraska that there was nobody to mentor me there from a research standpoint. The key is to ask the right questions when looking at a position and assuring the resources, both financial and people, are available to you to maximize your chances for success. I think it is important to realize that not everybody is willing to be a mentor and not everyone is positioned or prepared to be a mentor. It really comes down to finding a good fit between you and whoever you identify as a potential mentor because it’s a lot more meaningful for you and for them if it’s a good fit.
LS – Can you talk about something in your career that you wish to go back and change?
KM – Being the chair of surgery at the University of Hawaii is my seventh job, so I have had experience looking at jobs, making decisions about changing positions, and actually making the moves. I think my best advice to people is that you really shouldn’t change jobs for emotional reasons. You’ve got to ask all the right questions, do all your background homework, make sure the resources are truly going to be there, that you’re going to have people who want to mentor you, and that your family wants move to that city. Seek advice and ask questions if you’re going to look at changing jobs. A move for primarily emotional reasons is, unfortunately, more likely to end up being a mistake than one that’s well thought out for good professional reasons. I’ve moved twice prematurely and for emotional reasons, and both times, I regretted it.
LS – How does your Asian background and upbringing affect your leadership style?
KM – The biggest way it affects my leadership style is that I’m not confrontational by nature. I tend to be much more introspective about what I might’ve done wrong or what I could have done better when things don’t go well. I do think it sometimes works against me because it’s very difficult for me to give people negative feedback. As a leader, unfortunately, giving people negative feedback is sometimes necessary. When I give negative feedback, I use a lot of examples, especially of similar situations I’ve been in, and give people constructive advice about how I may have dealt with the situation. I also try very hard to create win-win situations when I need to change someone’s behavior, because when someone loses, it can feel personal. Creating a win-win situation doesn’t mean that you both have to win equally, it just means that neither person loses. Sometimes, you personally might win less. Sometimes you might win more, but at the end of it all, if you both have something positive to take away, you may both walk away feeling okay.
LS – I have some more fun questions for you now. What is your favorite movie, for real, and the movie you tell people is your favorite movie?
KM – That’s pretty funny. My favorite movie is Top Gun. I’m not proud of it, but I tell everybody my favorite movie is Top Gun.
LS – What would be your last meal if you could choose?
KM – A nice, big, 16-ounce ribeye steak, grilled medium.
LS – If you had to choose a different job or career, what would it be?
KM – Chef because that’s actually what I was going to do if I didn’t get into medical school the second time I applied. I decided I wasn’t going to let medical schools tell me “No” three times. If they told me no twice, I was all prepared to go to culinary school. I have lived by that principle ever since – that I’m never going to strike out. You can tell me no twice, but I’m not giving you a third opportunity.
LS – What is something you learned from your mom or your dad that you’d like to share with people?
KM – If you work hard and don’t complain, good things will happen. My mom used to say, “You just have to work hard, don’t complain, and it’ll take care of itself.” That’s a very Asian thing, but it has served me well.
LS – Do you have a secret hidden talent?
KM – Ooh, I’m not very talented outside of what I do. I am passionate about golf, but I am not very good.
LS – I remember actually talking to you about cooking.
KM – Yeah, I am a pretty good cook. I guess that is a secret hidden talent. I love to cook without recipes. My sons say that I grill the best steak of anybody, and I can make a mean Spam musubi.
LS – Along the food theme, if you could invite three people to dinner, living or dead, who would you invite?
KM – I would love to have dinner with Anthony Bourdain, Hugh Grant (I’m a sappy romantic at heart), and Joe Montana. So that tells you my three passions. I love to cook, I love movies, and I grew up on ‘Niners football (maybe next year!).
LS – You read a lot of books. What is one book that you would recommend everyone in SAAS read?
KM – One of my favorite leadership books is “Good to Great “by Jim Collins. It’s really a phenomenal book. It’s written about businesses, but the principles in it are really appropriate for what we do to build our practices, divisions, and departments – our teams.
LS – Why should people come to the SAAS meeting in September?
KM – I think the SAAS meeting just keeps getting better and better every year. And this year, we’re going to showcase the best of SAAS and the best of Hawaii.
LS – Are there any final thoughts that you’d like to impart to us?
KM – SAAS is such an incredibly important organization. SAAS was conceived as a vehicle to provide leadership skills for Asians who are academic surgeons. SAAS has grown beyond that, and its success, I believe, are the result of the diversity of the membership – diversity in personal backgrounds, professional interests, and culture – while being collegial, supportive, and inclusive. I like to believe that people are members of SAAS to be a part of something with a greater purpose than rubbing shoulders with the right people or making contacts with someone who might help your career. The people in the organization make it special. It’s one of the most collegial meetings I’ve ever been to, and I’m always amazed at how supportive people are at the meeting and how engaged everyone is. It’s so different from many other academic organizations; you don’t have to be one of the organization’s leaders to feel welcomed, included, and important.