MD Anderson's 'discipline agnostic' leadership approach improved engagement by double-digits

Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center saw year-over-year declines in leadership and engagement scores on their employee engagement survey. When it launched a leadership institute, those scores improved by double-digits. 

Courtney Holladay, PhD, is the associate vice president of the MD Anderson Leadership Institute. Before the institute launched in September 2018, the center's leadership initiatives were segmented — programs for nursing, faculty, pharmacy and administration were spread across their individual departments. But when employee engagement scores started sinking, the center knew it was time to make a change. 

"Work is done across teams —  it's interprofessional," Dr. Holladay told Becker's. "And leadership is something that is discipline agnostic, meaning you need the same leadership characteristics no matter what domain or profession you're in." 

Thus, the MD Anderson Leadership Institute pulled all its leadership programs under one roof to become "discipline agnostic." It operates under the belief that everyone can be a leader, making its services available to all employees. 

And many employees make use of them. Around 50 percent of the center's workforce utilizes the institute's services, and 95 percent of the executive leadership team completes their core curriculum on an annual basis. Dr. Holladay aims to see 100 percent saturation in the next two to three years. 

There are five levels of development within the institute, according to Dr. Holladay, beginning on the frontlines and moving up to the C-suite. Within each level are three tiers of development: "core," "accelerate" and "discover." The core is the foundational level, which teaches participants to be successful in their current role. Accelerate and discover seek to prepare people for their next level of leadership. 

Outside of the curriculum-based program, the institute offers several other services: mentoring, change enablement, team development. But one of the most impactful has been the coaching program, Dr. Holladay said. 

"It's one of the places where we've seen the most gains and evidence of the importance of the work we're doing. We have demonstrated outcomes," she said. "People who are participating in coaching are seeing lower turnover, higher performance ratings — even more publications and more patent acceptances." 

MD Anderson employees who receive coaching have a 50 percent lower turnover rate than those who do not, according to data Dr. Holladay shared with Becker's. They also have a 3 percent faster rate of promotion and 3 percent higher overall performance scores, as rated by their direct supervisor. 

The coaches are certified through an accredited program at the International Coaching Federation, in partnership with Houston-based Rice University. There are about 150 coaches in the program, according to Dr. Holladay. 

MD Anderson's next employee engagement survey is coming up in February, and Dr. Holladay hopes to see sustained improvement in favorability ratings. In 2017, before the leadership institute launched, employees rated engagement 66 percent and leadership 61 percent. In 2019, engagement leapt to 78 percent and leadership to 75 percent. 

In the most recent survey conducted in 2021, employees rated engagement 89 percent and leadership 85 percent. 

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