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Leader: Growing Our Way to Success

Conquest - Summer 2011

Mendelsohn stresses employee engagement and opportunities

By Mary Brolley

He came, he saw, he listened. And then he began to help build a workforce uniquely suited to conquering cancer in the 21st century.

When John Mendelsohn, M.D., arrived at MD Anderson in 1996, there were approximately 8,000 employees. A recent downsizing had left them wary and discouraged.

So he initiated a series of meetings with employees all over the institution.

“He listened to many, many employees,” says Martin Raber, M.D., clinical professor in the Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, who was physician-in-chief when Mendelsohn arrived.

“He also consulted members of the Board of Visitors. As business leaders, they stressed employee morale.”

So Mendelsohn continued the meetings, aiming for a wide consensus on the institution’s values, mission and vision.

The goal was that the three core values eventually agreed upon — caring, integrity and discovery — would inform every decision and guide future growth.

Employees challenged, encouraged to speak up

For the first time, Raber notes, caring, integrity and discovery became the gold standard for employee performance — both how they interacted with patients and how they treated each other.

“John told employees, ‘These values are so important, we’re going to use them to evaluate you.’”

In 2002, Mendelsohn supported the creation of the first employee opinion survey, in which employees were encouraged to weigh in — anonymously — about their satisfaction, growth opportunities, support from management and ability to express opinions without reprisal.

Three more surveys have followed, with another scheduled for 2012. Results are analyzed and acted upon.

Opportunities opened

Barbara Summers, Ph.D., vice president and chief nursing officer, believes Mendelsohn’s most lasting legacy may be in the research opportunities, training and education he’s championed for employees.

She marvels at the number of opportunities MD Anderson nurses have today.

“A nurse can have a career here. He or she can work here 30 years, and have a different role every three years.”

As MD Anderson has expanded into new buildings in the Texas Medical Center and far beyond, the workforce has grown to more than 18,000.

Summers, who arrived at the institution just a year after Mendelsohn, admires his forethought.

“Looking at the tremendous needs for excellence in cancer treatment, research, education and prevention, he decided to grow our way to success,” she says.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center