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Leadership Competencies Enable Mission to End Cancer
TD Magazine

Leadership Competencies Enable Mission to End Cancer

Thursday, June 15, 2023

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center: 2023 BEST Award Winner, #2

Two gold ribbons
Multiple initiatives are driving leadership development.

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"We are on a mission to end cancer."

With that powerful statement, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center acknowledges that its team members make the mission possible, and, therefore, helping them to thrive drives the necessity for talent development to be a competitive advantage for this healthcare provider.

MD Anderson is one of 53 nationally designated comprehensive centers and is devoted exclusively to cancer patient care, research, education, and prevention. It cares for 174,000 cancer patients, conducts thousands of clinical trials, and spends more than $1 billion on research on an annual basis. The center also provides uninsured or underinsured patients with more than $238.6 million in uncompensated care. It is a nonprofit state institution and leading healthcare system, with more than 23,000 researchers, healthcare providers, and administrators.

The TD function spans the employee life cycle from attraction to recruitment to onboarding to development to retention. Through its processes, MD Anderson seeks to understand why employees come to the organization, why they stay, and why they leave—keys to developing and sustaining a culture of growth and development for all employees.

Values-based servant leadership

MD Anderson's philosophy is that everyone can be a leader, regardless of the formal title an individual holds. Through its specific emphasis on leadership and employee development with a focus toward inclusion throughout the organization, creation of efficiencies through innovation, and measurement of outcomes, TD is a key player in present and future success.

The organization has seven capabilities that support its long-term strategy, launched in 2021. With leadership and culture as two of those capabilities, MD Anderson has chartered the TD function with attraction, retention, development, and advancement of a diverse and competent workforce through strategic workforce planning, contemporary recognition, and reward programs. That includes operationalizing MD Anderson's commitment to values-based servant leadership organization-wide, supported by its Leadership Institute.

The focus on people is not just a support mechanism; it is a foundational strategy in and of itself. MD Anderson's strategy drives the institutional goals, which inform individual performance goals for all employees.

Ready for change

Change is ever constant in the healthcare field. New protocols, advancing technology, and evolving understanding all contribute to an environment that is fluid and can often mean the difference between life and death for patients. Diligence is essential, and that means change readiness must be a core principle and practice.

ABLE is a change enablement methodology that guides transitions that occur across the institution. The method involves multiple steps and phases to help the Leadership Institute team:

  • Consider the needs of a wide variety of stakeholders.
  • Build empathy for their daily jobs.
  • Understand what will change overall.
  • Communicate key messages, including the benefits of the change.

The team uses a change network with executive sponsors, project sponsors, change advocates, and agents. Additionally, every project workstream team comprises members representing major employee groups (employees, faculty, researchers, and educational students and trainees). Through those mechanisms, employees can voice their concerns, and the organization can address them. The initiative appropriately informs, trains, and otherwise prepares staff for change.

Best-in-class leaders

Leadership is critical for an institution committed to eradicating cancer. The Leadership Institute aims to foster and enable a leadership culture focused on what matters most: people.

The institute is a key pillar for MD Anderson's TD strategy. Strategically aligned to the institute's purpose, vision, and mission, the organization nurtures leaders to add value to people and process and encourages them to nurture and add value to the next generation of leaders—the future of the organization.

The Leadership Institute initiative helps MD Anderson compete for talent in a highly competitive environment. The organization is committed to making sure its leaders are best in class. For example, through the Leadership Institute and talent review process, the TD team can identify all executive leaders' strengths and weaknesses.

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In 2021, when the TD team recognized a common skill development need within the clinical operations leaders, it formed a group coaching engagement supplemented with individual sessions. All leaders took a leadership assessment and received feedback both from the assessment and their talent review. Each participant had a plan and then as a group they had a shared goal to increase their proficiency in the competencies of providing direction and interpersonal communication.

That type of focus on leadership acumen is a point of pride at the highest levels of the organization.

"An ongoing emphasis on exemplifying values-based servant leadership has driven our teams and increased our impact as an organization," states Peter WT Pisters, president of MD Anderson. "Healthcare organizations need highly skilled leaders now more than ever. This requires all of our leaders to become students of the principles of values-based servant leadership, with a comprehensive focus on eight leadership competencies: inclusion, drive, professionalism, coachability, knowledge sharing, accountability, capacity building, and emotional intelligence."

That focus on emotional intelligence is demonstrated at the highest levels of the organization. MD Anderson's leaders conduct "listening and learning tours" where they make rounds on-site or via Zoom with employees and have informal conversations. Additionally, Pisters has been transparent about his own development and his personal commitment to values-based leadership. Helping to make professional development the norm, he shares, for example, that he has a coach and a group of mentors. Pisters and his leadership team shared in multiple communications that they were participating in completion of 360 reviews.

The TD team has made "LEADing Self" and "LEADing Others" core leadership characteristics with associated competencies to ensure that managers support their employees' development, and there are increased leadership expectations through formal performance management and goal-setting systems.

View the entire list of 2023 BEST Award winners.

About the Author

Kristen Fyfe-Mills is the director of employee development and engagement at Farmer Focus, an innovative organization with the fastest-growing poultry brand in the US. In her role, she supports nearly 900 team members, from front-line hourly associates to the executive team. Before joining Farmer Focus, Kristen served in many roles at the Association for Talent Development, culminating in her position as director of marketing and strategic communications.

Kristen holds two master’s degrees, one in pastoral and spiritual care from Marymount University and the other in journalism from Northwestern University. She serves on the advisory board for Shenandoah University’s Transformative Leadership program. She is the mom of two exceptional humans, and she and her husband Doug live in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

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