For MD Anderson's CEO, the end goal to cure cancer doesn't detract the small wins

At the country's No. 1 hospital for cancer care, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, keeping sight of the ultimate goal to end cancer while also lauding the small wins it will take to get there is a delicate balance. 

And if that challenge were not enough, the mission at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston became two-fold in 2020, says Peter Pisters, MD, the center's CEO and president. On top of maintaining focus on the "moon shot" to cure cancer, the center's 22,000-member team was introduced to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering another weighty priority of ensuring patients were protected from the novel coronavirus — an especially important ask with a patient base that already has impared immune systems. 

Dr. Pisters recently spoke with Becker's about what lies behind the strength of MD Anderson's team, the legacy he hopes to hand off to the center's next president and more. 

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Question: Over the past year, what's made you most proud to lead MD Anderson's team?

Dr. Peter Pisters: As we reflect upon the past year, particularly the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, you really see the impact of a team of 22,000 coming together to focus on our mission to end cancer while at the same time protecting ourselves, protecting our immunocompromised patients and participating in the process to protect our community. The teamwork, the commitment to our patients, the effort, has really been extraordinary. It's a reflection of the strength of MD Anderson as we were able to navigate through the pandemic, and protect our patients while protecting each other and really embracing our core values of caring and safety. 

Q: You first joined MD Anderson in 1994 and have collectively spent 24 years with the center. What has driven your loyalty to it? 

PP: I've had the privilege of serving MD Anderson in a variety of different roles in my career. That included time as a cancer surgeon, time as an administrator overseeing MD Anderson's regional expansion and now the privilege of serving MD Anderson as the president. As I reflect on that experience, particularly the early years, I had the opportunity to use my hands as a surgeon to cure cancer and to see how this impacts patients and their families. 

As I participated in our organization's efforts to end cancer, one of the things that resonated with me, and really that's felt so deeply by all of us, is the fidelity and clarity in mission: Every single person at MD Anderson understands that we are here to work together to end cancer, and that brings a meaning and purpose to our work. It drives the feeling, the emotional connection that every single one of us has to the mission and the commitment that we have to our patients. 

Q: You earned the No. 3 spot on Glassdoor's Top CEOs for 2021 — an award based on employee feedback. To what do you attribute this recognition? 

PP: As we reflect on the Glassdoor ranking as a team, we really believe this is driven by our commitment to visibility, to transparent communication and to trust building in the organization. Fundamentally, trust and transparency are pillars of a strong foundation upon which we can build a strategic plan and advanced discovery … The Glassdoor award is really a byproduct of outstanding communication and our commitment to building transparency in the organization. 

Q: Throughout your time at MD Anderson, you've likely seen the system evolve through a number of highs and lows. What was the single most important thing you set out to accomplish when you assumed the CEO position in 2017?

PP: I understood that there are always key performance indicators that my team needs to focus on. One of the most important was that we recognize and support employee engagement. As I took over, I saw a real opportunity to increase and elevate employee engagement. Our team understood that employee engagement is a driver of efficiency, of productivity, of breakthroughs, and ultimately, of execution and strategy. 

The goal that I have for all 22,000 of us is that I want everyone at MD Anderson to be able to answer two questions. No. 1: How do I fit? No 2: Why do I matter? If we can have all 22,000 [of us] able to answer those questions with clarity, then we're in a position to really end cancer together. 

Q: In 2012, MD Anderson unveiled its "Moon Shots" plan to combat cancer. How do you balance celebrating small wins while also maintaining a focus on the moon shot to cure cancer?

PP: As we think about our commitment to society and humanity, we know that it's comprehensive and that it's embodied by a series of efforts that are underway at MD Anderson that are translational. This includes elements of our prevention and education mission, the work that we do for community outreach, our commitment to the underserved, and of course, scientific accomplishments that are embedded within our Moon Shots Program. 

In an organization like ours, where we have to come together as a team, it's important that we celebrate all of our accomplishments, not just what might be regarded by others as a signature priority in our work to end cancer at MD Anderson. 

Q: MD Anderson places a large emphasis on driving breakthroughs. What do you envision as the next cancer breakthrough?

PP: As we look at the field of cancer therapeutics and the impact on cancer patients, particularly over the last 10 years, the advent of immuno-oncology — the use of the immune system to fight cancer — has been one of the most important developments. We believe immuno-oncology represents the fourth pillar of cancer treatment that we can now add to surgery, radiation and chemotherapy … We can combine immune therapies with the traditional, historic approaches to cancer treatment. 

We have the benefit of the insights from our own Nobel laureate Jim Allison, PhD, who received the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 2018 for his work in immune-checkpoint blockade. The teams that have really rallied around Jim to advance our work in immuno-oncology, they positioned us to be leaders and to contribute in many ways to the evolution of immuno-oncology and to advance the field of cancer research as a whole. 

Q: When you hand over the reins to MD Anderson's 6th president & CEO, what will you hope to have achieved?

PP: We could spend an hour on this question alone. If I were to identify three areas that are very important to me and to our future, one is our institutional commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion; how important that is for further development of our own workforce, including our faculty, and our commitment to our community. 

The second area would be our commitment to the underserved. We have a unique opportunity in Harris County, where we have the largest number of underinsured or uninsured individuals in the country, and having the No. 1 cancer center in the country positioned in that same county — that creates a huge, huge opportunity that I want to impact in material ways. 

Lastly, up to this point in time, if you were to look closely and describe the key elements of our brand, it would be described by internal stakeholders as research-driven patient care. I want to add to research-driven patient care and further elevate the importance of compassion and empathy in cancer care. If our brand in the future is elevated to 11 figure valuation and is a household name recognized by all for compassionate, empathic, research-driven patient care, we have really succeeded. 

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