MD Anderson 2020 Interview Project
Chapter 04: Lessons from COVID


Chapter 04: Lessons from COVID



Media is loading


In this chapter, Dr. Holladay talks about the unique institutional challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the development and importance of coaching and mentoring, studying how people learn, and how to preserve the lessons learned from the pandemic to improve the post-pandemic institution.

From: Courtney Holladay, PhD Oral History Interview, June 29 2021


Courtney Holladay, PhD

Thinking about the pandemic, all of our programs and our services were completely in person before COVID. And we had actually started the conversations of trying to move things into a virtual format but had gotten a lot of resistance. It would never work, people wouldn’t want to attend, you can’t have that personal connection with people. You can’t do the activities in the same way. You can’t have interpersonal connections. There were a number of reasons why it was not going to work. And so, we were at the place of, we were planning to run a pilot of a particular program where we would actually do something virtual. And then COVID hit. And so, then we had a period of time of okay, all of our programs and services, everything we do is in person. We cannot offer them in person so what are we going to do?

So, we took two months, and we’re completely, I guess I would say dark, and converted all of our programming as much as we could, obviously some of it was staged, but we converted a large chunk during those two months and then started to stand it back up. One program as an example is a program that we work with Rice University, the Doerr Institute, we deliver at MD Anderson for our leaders called CoachRICE. And we had gone through one module in person, COVID hit, and so we were going to have to convert the rest to the virtual. And we actually had a couple people drop out of the cohort. They said, “I just don’t think the experience is going to be as high-quality. I’ll wait until the next in-person opportunity. I don’t want to pursue it at this time.” So, we had a couple of people drop out of the cohort and the rest stayed with us. And this is where I say the incredible people that I work with were able to convert into the virtual environment and after the second module, like I was saying earlier, some of the silver lining that we’ve heard is they were able to have more intimate conversations than they thought they could in the virtual realm. Coaching, as an example, is a very personal engagement. And when they’re in the coach training, there are people observing them. And in a virtual environment you can turn off your cameras and people forget that those observers are there. When you’re in person, you can’t ever forget those people are there, they’re just right there.

So, this is where some of the, like I said, silver lining of where you can have some of those very real interactions. We also saw that in the case of some of the simulations that we run. In person, we were doing it in the Simulation Center, which was awesome. You would have the mirror that they can’t see on the other side, and so people could observe and watch. But you still know that mirror is there. And so, it still feels a little simulated, which it is. We moved those simulations into Zoom, and then again, observers turned off their camera, and it’s just those two people having a conversation. And some of the feedback we got was, it felt more real because you can’t see anyone watching you, you’re just having the dialogue with that person and the trained actor would really get into it. And so, it just felt more real than in the environment where they were in the simulated lab. It just had that context of, “I know I’m here.” And so, it was interesting to go through that experience because like I said at the beginning, we had so much resistance to going down the path of starting virtual programming and then to have the actual pandemic happen, that forced our hand into it. It just showed the possibility of what could be and enabled us to move forward. And so, obviously, you don’t always want—you never want a pandemic to force that hand, but I think what it shows is, even with those obstacles, if you keep plugging away, there’s going to be an opportunity where something lends itself, whether it’s a pilot, whether it’s something, a smaller venue where you can demonstrate the success and try and move in that direction. Does that answer your question?

Nina Nevill

Yeah, sure. It’s definitely clarifying. It seems like there’s—obviously in addition to some of the cons with burnout and things like that, it sounds like there were some absolute benefits to moving virtually. And so, that’s always a good thing to hear. It makes me wonder, though, for the resistance that was there before, now not only talking about the present but moving forward with the Institute, are there any plans on, that you know of, keeping both models, keeping virtual and in person in order to take advantage of some of the positives that you all saw?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Yeah. And this is where I think it gets back to, we had a very real situation that presented a constraint that it was kind of all or nothing with the pandemic so that we couldn’t be in person even if we wanted to. But in the future, I definitely, getting back to diversity in which people learn, preferences that people have, I absolutely know it will be a blend of some in person, some virtual. Now, what exactly that mix is going to be is still to be determined how we’ll exactly carry that out. But I am certain it will be a blend of some in person and some virtual. Because there are so many things that, as an example with the Houston Area Locations, and the Texas Medical Center, for people to come in on site for our training, they would often if they were in a Houston Area Location, they would have to have an hour to get to the Texas Medical Center, then whatever training time, and then, drive back. In the virtual environment it’s, “Okay, I have to go down the hall to find if they’re on site at that particular HAL, or if they’re working remotely, well then, it’s just flipping over to Zoom.” So, that two-hour commute that was happening to get them into a training class, as an example, went away. And so, that’s why I can’t ever imagine where we would not have virtual options for that reason, or for what we also saw were differences in introverts versus extroverts. A lot more interaction from some of our more introverted participants because they had different ways they could interact, meaning the chat function where they could put something in and not having to speak in front of a large group, or the fact that we can easily put people in breakout rooms of sizes of three or four, where it’s just more intimate, whereas when you’re in a physical room, yes, you can have breakouts and they can be absolutely fabulous, but what we also know is, sometimes the more assertive personalities sometimes it’s more extroverted, tend to sometimes drive that conversation.

And so, that’s why we were able to, I think, capitalize on some of the benefits of what the virtual can offer. But we can’t lose that when we come back in person because there are some things that you just want to physically connect with people. You want to be in the room and we don’t want to lose that. I mean, we’re humans. That’s part of what keeps us human. So, it’s got to be a blend.

Nina Nevill

It sounds like your earlier response that moving forward, a one-size-fits-all solution is not going to cut it, and so, being able to blend both and reach a more diverse population, that sounds like a good path forward, even if it’s not quite set in stone yet as to what that’ll look like. I’m trying to see if there is anything else that I wrote down that we haven’t touched on yet. I think I asked something similar to this earlier, but I want to give a little bit of space for a slightly broader question. Obviously, as people say, hindsight is 20-20 but if you had been in a position to be able to do things differently, at least within your job, what would you have done differently regarding the pandemic, and regarding diversity and inclusion? If anything.

Courtney Holladay, PhD

I think it’s easier for me to speak from the diversity, equity, inclusion standpoint with respect to, I wish I had been more proactive in the conversations. I think some of the events, like with the social injustice, what I referenced with murder of George Floyd, I was definitely reacting to that, not proactively looking for, “How do I make sure I’m doing everything I can to create the inclusive environment?” I think there were definitely some practices that were in place that supported it but were not as far along as they should have. So, I think that, for me, would be the wish I would have is to have had a more proactive lens to see, “How am I ensuring inclusion is infused in everything that we do, equity is always part of the discussion, and not an afterthought, it’s got to be the forethought?” So, that’s I think, what I would point to. I’m trying to think, on the pandemic side, that one, I don’t know that you could be proactive. I just really don’t know that you could ever predict. So, I don’t know if it’s something I wish I would do differently so much as something I want to make sure I carry forward. So, one thing that I know has been top of mind in the pandemic world, in the COVID world, in this remote environment, has been, how do we keep people connected and feeling socially supported within the teams that they are a part of?

And I don’t think as much attention was paid to that when we were casually encountering people, and just by natural circumstances, connecting. And so, I actually think that’s something we need to carry forward, which is, how do we make sure we give that same attention to the connections that we need to have, whether we’re on site, remote, or a mix, how do we make sure that those connections are being are being placed at the center so that we don’t revert back on some of those prior practices.

Nina Nevill

And in terms of moving forward, in addition to what you just mentioned is there anything else that you would like to see carried forward or given more attention to in the future?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

I don’t know that it’s more attention so much as continued attention. So, I think the attention on diversity, equity, inclusion over the last year, while it’s been present before, it’s definitely increased in the level of attention it’s gotten over the last year. And my hope, and what I want to continue to advocate for is how do we continue that same level of attention even as what I’m hoping happens with some of the practices that we’re able to implement, things continue to get better, that shouldn’t have us lift our foot off the pedal. We should continue to keep it all in, making sure this continues to be something that is part of the conversation on a regular basis within our organization, and not something that is forced by events, but something that is just who we are, and how we want to show up as an inclusive community.


Nina Nevill

Other than that, I think I have been through everything that I, at least, would like to know. Is there anything that you feel like you wish I had asked, or anything that you would like to add on any of the topics that we’ve covered?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

I can’t think of anything.

Nina Nevill

Well, that’s a good sign. Maybe that means that I’ve done my job.

Courtney Holladay, PhD

So, what happens from here?

Nina Nevill

So, basically—well, let me say thank you so much for taking the time to do this today. We really appreciate it. I’m going to stop the recording here, at least, if that’s okay.

Courtney Holladay, PhD




Publication Date



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


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

Critical Perspectives on MD Anderson; MD Anderson in the Future On Leadership; Diversity at MD Anderson; Leadership; Mentoring

Conditions Governing Access


Chapter 04: Lessons from COVID