MD Anderson 2020 Interview Project
Chapter 03:  The Leadership Institute:  Optimizing the Potential of every Employee


Chapter 03: The Leadership Institute: Optimizing the Potential of every Employee



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Mr. Coffee goes into the history of the Leadership Institute including its origins and current mission to "optimize the potential of every employee." He discusses how the Leadership Institute empowers leaders with coaching and development programs.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed., Oral History Interview, June 30, 2021


Nina Nevill

They all sound like great people, especially for the position that you have come into. Now, in terms of the Leadership Institute and the history of the Leadership Institute, can you tell me a little bit about its origin or how you’ve seen it change through time?

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

Well, it started several years ago, I want to say. I’m sure the inception of it occurred before I was officially dotted lined to the leaders Mickie Dewalt and Courtney Holladay. But I want to say in the fall of 2018, in the fiscal year beginning of 2018, we started the program, and I might be off by a year, it might have been 2017 but I believe it was 2018 that the Leadership Institute was officially launched. And basically, it had had some other programs under the umbrella of Organizational Development. They had A Faculty Leadership Academy. They had the Heart of Leadership and they certainly were an Organizational Development department. They were looking at the organization as a whole. Our employee pinion survey, some other surveys, recruiting and hiring tools to assess who was a person of good organization-person fit. But when the Institute started, they began to focus more on leadership specifically. And because of the work that I had done the military and an AIG in the non-profit world I had been working to build leaders since the day I walked into the organization because if you can optimize the human potential of every employee, you can maximize the organizational effectiveness, which is what the military calls Organizational Development, they call it Organizational Effectiveness. And so, our Leadership Institute began to look in earnest at how do we put additional tools in the toolkit of the leaders that will broaden their horizon beyond their technical skills?

Providing them with tools like, “How do I communicate more effectively with a person?” to include, “If I need to have a difficult conversation, how do I do that in a conversational way? How do I provide feedback that’s going to be developmental feedback as opposed to what some would call corrective criticism?” And it could be a play on words but when I say I’m going to provide you with some developmental feedback, it seems to land better. Asking our leaders to be more emotionally intelligent, having self-awareness, self-management, to improve relationship management. Also, looking at professional behavior. How do we communicate with people and if a person has no D versus a PhD does that mean that they are less than because they don’t have the academic credentials?

So, really, with a laser focus, in my estimation, the Leadership Institute began to really provide a broader toolkit and integrate leadership at every level, and leadership training, whether it was leading self to accelerate, or leading others to accelerate, and all throughout the hierarchy, leading teams and leading leaders and then leading the institution, so that everybody began to get comfortable with the word leadership and not see it as, if you say the word lead, sometimes people think of it as a four-letter word or a bad word, because they think of authoritarian or dictatorship, but leadership is really about influencing people.

Nina Nevill

Sure. I’m sure that many think of a power dynamic right off the bat.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

That’s right.

Nina Nevill

In terms of, if you don’t mind just giving a more concrete example in things that have changed over time, has this been surveys or offering courses or coaching or anything like that that you’ve seen? Or has it pretty much all been there from the start and it’s just continuing?

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

The coaching certainly started prior to the Leadership Institute from a context of a Dr. Michelle Dewalt, who I think you’ll be talking to, Mickie Dewalt, she brought a coaching mindset to the institution and began to plant the seed that coaching is an important tool and over a course of three or four years, coaching was beginning to grow within the institution, MD Anderson as an institution. And then, when the Leadership Institute started, there was a program called CoachRICE that took off and began to put people through a coaching program that is International Coach Federation certifying, and so, that’s a big part of the coaching culture that we are integrating at the Institute through the—when I say at the Institute, within the institution using talented professionals that are what we call Professional-certified coaches at the Leadership Institute. And so, that’s a big part of building this coaching culture, which is really a paradigm shift because I can say to you, “I want to task you to do a mission,” but if I say to you, “Ms. Neville, how would you benefit from doing this task?” It changes the conversation. And so, then, we can co-create the future. And if I ask for your help and encourage your involvement, then you feel like we have achieved it. So, the Leadership Institute, some of the programs that it’s been very specific about is the coaching program in addition to the leading and leadership development programs. Those are two very different, but there are some intersectionality in both programs that help leaders be better leaders, and better at leading the led.

Nina Nevill

It sounds like an incredibly collaborative experience on many levels.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

It is. And that’s what makes it—what’s in it for me is always something that some of us ask, “What’s in it for me? If I do this, what’s in it for me?” Well, for the coach, what’s in it for them is they’re developing another human being, and there is a great deal of self-pride that can come from helping a person, not telling them what to do, but asking them a question in such a way that he or she has an aha moment, or it evokes awareness or it facilitates thought about them realizing that, “Wow, I can actually do this. I am actually a whole creative and resourceful person, and by you asking me for my help, that means you think I’m a valued member of the team.” And once you get people believing that we are all important and give them the opportunity to contribute, it changes the organizational philosophy, and behaviors.

Nina Nevill

That sounds empowering is the word that I think of, for everybody involved, definitely. I suppose I’d like to know a little bit more about; you talked a bit about the Institute’s goals, but moving forward, I’d like to know your opinion on how the Institute can act differently or the same. I’m of course, more interested in the differently, but to continue advancing its goals.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

Well, I think one of the things that we are looking at now is, we are doing a culture change over the last three years or so, getting the culture—making the culture more co-creative, and building leaders, but also, helping people understand what accountability is. Because there are individuals who, historically, have moved, technically, through this process and sometimes the behaviors weren’t always aligned with our core values or our code of conduct or some of our service excellence standards, we’re beginning to teach people the importance of accountability not from the standpoint of saying, “We want to nail you to a wall,” but, “Let’s make sure that we have a clear understanding what’s a condition of satisfaction?” Like for you and I, we said we were going to do this interview at 2:30, today on June the 30th, 2021. So, if I had shown up at 2:40, you might have thought, “Lee was not accountable to the expectation.” And then the question is, “Did we have clear expectations?” And if we did, then if Lee wasn’t comfortable or didn’t have the integrity or what have you, how do we hold him accountable? What do we do? Do we blow it off? Do we normalize the behavior and accept it? Or do we say, “Lee, I thought we had a plan. Tell me what happened where you didn’t align with the plan that we had specified,” and start holding people accountable to, if you set an expectation and you don’t overcommit and under-deliver, how do we teach people that accountability doesn’t mean that you’re going to be hurt or harmed, it just means you are going to basically do what you said you were going to do.

And so, teaching people about accountability. And the other thing is teaching people how to be better followers. To be a good leader, at some point, you have to be a good follower. You have to be willing to follow people and let somebody direct you also so that when you become a leader, you understand you’re not dealing with an automated machine. You’re dealing with another human being. And sometimes, you mentioned the power difference. Well, when you think about power, you can have organizational power, which includes reward and punishment power, information and reference power. But one of the greatest powers that a leader has is his or her expert power, in which people follow you, not because you have the organizational power, but they trust that you know what you’re doing, and they trust that you’re going to look out for their well-being. And so, we’re talking about, how do we, as a Leadership Institute, continually build these practices that include accountability and not seeing accountability as a bad word, build these practices where people understand followship is just as important as leadership, and helping people make the transition. Because change is difficult. You get used to doing something, even if it’s wrong. But you get comfortable with doing it.

And then, somebody comes along and says, “Here’s a different way of doing it,” just the change itself, taking your watch from your left wrist and putting it on your right wrist feels uncomfortable.



Publication Date



The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

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Chapter 03:  The Leadership Institute:  Optimizing the Potential of every Employee