MD Anderson 2020 Interview Project
Chapter 03: Building Leaders at MD Anderson


Chapter 03: Building Leaders at MD Anderson



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In this chapter, Dr. Holladay talks about the MD Anderson Leadership Institute, why she values her work so much in a “service-oriented industry,” and the importance of succession planning.

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


Nina Nevill

Yolan. Thank you. And do you remember, I suppose from when you first started with MD Anderson, who recruited you?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

So, I actually was working at a consulting firm, Houston-based, and one of the clients was MD Anderson. So, I was working on a project with MD Anderson at the time and they had an opening become available. And I knew working in the consulting realm that that wasn’t where I wanted to be long-term. I mean, I enjoyed working with clients, being Houston, it was healthcare, oil and gas, finance, but I definitely had more of my passion in wanting to be in more of a service-oriented industry and so, healthcare is definitely something that I wanted to be a part of. And MD Anderson has always—I’m from Houston. My mom is a patient of MD Anderson, a cancer survivor. And so, I’ve known about MD Anderson essentially my whole life, and feel a lot of gratitude for the institution, and the fact that I think it has helped keep my mom in my life for my entirety. So, I think it’s—so, when I was consulting for the company that had MD Anderson as a client, when I heard there was an opening, I just went all in and applied and reached out to contacts and went for it.

Nina Nevill

That’s incredible. Let me see if I have anything else from this part of the interview. So, earlier on in your career, if you could look back now and say that there were one or two key points, things that you remember, whether that be something that felt like a success, or something that was a stumbling block, what points would you point to?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

So, there are a couple points. One would be probably about 14 years ago, at this point, where I had the opportunity to work on a project and we were implementing our new performance evaluation system. And this has remained true for decades, and I think will always be the case, no one loves during performance evaluations. It just, it is what it is. People recognize the intent, why we do them, but it’s never a like, “Yay, I get to do performance evals.” So, we were implementing a new technology and changing the process. And as part of that project, we had a number of leadership transitions. So, I was working on the project, the individual that I was working with on the project left the organization. The person that replaced that individual as the leader of the project left the organization. We were so far into the project that at the time, it was, do we bring someone else new as the leader to take on the project? Or was there an opportunity in this situation for me to step in and stretch myself to take on some of the lead aspects of the project? And I will say it was an institution-wide project and there were a lot of change resistors to the project, but it was an opportunity for me to really stretch and I was given that opportunity with some leaders at a higher level that supported me and thought I could. And so, even in those moments where I was like, “What am I doing? Can I do this?” They believed I could and I will say, while again, I don’t know that everyone loves performance evals or ever will, but the fact that we came in on the project on time, implemented it in the functionality that we had said we would, we were able to deliver. It was one of the, I would say, high performing teams that I’ve been a part of.

But it was, I think for me, an opportunity of in those moments where you have hesitation in yourself, of whether you can do something to not be the one that holds yourself back, to try. If you fall, you fall, but you get back up. So, that was one, I think, key moment for me. Another, I would say, is more recent which was with the formation of the Leadership Institute. And there were a lot of dynamics. I mean, going into how to create it, who was going to be involved as part of it, and even over time, that’s evolved. And going through a period of time where I think there’s an organization, we’ve had different levels of commitment to leadership development has been something I’ve had the opportunity to see over my tenure at MD Anderson where we had support and then we went through a period where we really had to stay under the radar. We were there as a support system but we weren’t doing anything that was out in front. And then, to have a transition period where are executive leaders were all in, are all in, has definitely been a career-changing place for me, to where I get to dream big. I get to work with a team of phenomenal individuals and put in place things that I think were on wish lists where we’re getting to actually implement. And that’s been to have the executive leadership support of Dr. Pisters, Shibu Varghese, and others where they’re not just saying they support it, they actually come to our classes. They are getting coaches. They’re participating. They’re making use of the services. And at this point, to say we’ve now saturated over half of the leaders within the institution participating in our programs and it hasn’t even been a full three years, it’s pretty incredible to be part of a team that’s been able to achieve that.

And I think in the coming year we are making a transition where the development function as a whole will be together under the Leadership Institute so it will serve formal leaders but also all employees with the recognition that everyone can be a leader no matter their title. And that, I think, ultimately gets back to our original conversation around inclusion. Everyone’s included in leadership. And to me, that’s a huge step forward and how we can really make the environment as inclusive and how about leadership and inclusion really do tie together because we’re including all when we talk about developing leadership skills.

Nina Nevill

That’s so wonderful to hear. I didn’t realize that it just within the past three years. Speaking of projects or ideas that felt maybe, at one point, more like a dream or a wish, what’s an example of one that you were able to follow through with or that you received support for?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Sure. So, there are a couple of different ones that I could highlight. One, we’ve been talking about talent reviews and succession planning for years. And it was just something that we could never really get off the ground. But I think as we started to put things in place over the last few years, what we were able to shift was the view of what succession planning is. I think there was a myth that it meant, I’m picking the person that I think should replace me, and if I’m picking someone that means maybe I need to be replaced. And so, what we were able to do was actually shift that and think about, this is about talent development and leadership planning and how are we ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to be prepared for future leadership growth opportunities? And it’s not about picking a person, it’s about reviewing everyone’s talent, seeing the potential they have, where could they grow in the organization and then intentionally looking at those pipelines to say, “You know what? In this area for some reason we’re lacking a diversity of qualified individuals so we need to be intentional to say why in this community are women underrepresented, or why are Black African Americans underrepresented?” But without doing it from a systematic lens we can’t answer that question and we can’t do anything to impact it. So, being able to lift that project off and actually start to bring it in with a systematic way that we can develop all leaders and ensure that equity is present has been one of the wish lists that I’ve had.

Another area would be, we focus a lot on where leaders are today and what they need to do to upskill or reskill or be prepared for the challenges they’re facing right now but we also know we need to prepare now for what’s on the horizon, where we’re going. And so we’ve been able to develop some programs that we call “Accelerate,” to prepare people for transitions that may come in the future. And as part of those programs that are cohort based, we are able to really set up a community support those individuals are seen as multiplying potentially provide a coach, we provide a mentor, we provide a sponsor, so that that way they really do have a network built-in because we know the dynamics are such that you have to have that social network community to support you to be successful and to apply it back in the organization. So, those would be a couple I would highlight.

Nina Nevill

And in both of those did you receive from executive levels, support or resistance? Was it welcomed, a welcome change?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Yeah, so like I said, since 2018, our support has been incredible. So, much so with the example of succession planning, we started with our executive leadership team. They went first. They went through the process, and then we’ve cascaded it down from there, so it showcases them setting the example and it just eases our way as we cascade it through the organization because there’s not a question that it’s valued. There’s not a question that, why isn’t our president, or why isn’t our chief operating officer doing it? Well, they are. And so, that obviously paves the way. When it comes to our Accelerate program, that’s who we’re engaging as our sponsors. So, they’re engaged from the beginning so that that way it’s not like, “Oh, these individuals have gone through this program. That’s great. And now what?” Who was supporting them? Who was helping advocate for them? We start that at the front end so that they continue to be supported after the program.

Nina Nevill

That sounds incredible, a very different approach to start at that level and like you said, go forward from there. Have there been any projects or anything that you’ve worked on, an example that you could give, of running into some sort of obstacle or stumbling block, something where project didn’t necessarily go as planned? An example of something like that would be great.




Publication Date



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


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

Leadership; Personal Background; On Leadership; Diversity at MD Anderson

Conditions Governing Access


Chapter 03: Building Leaders at MD Anderson