When Frances Snipes began the LEADing Teams Core program with MD Anderson’s Leadership Institute last year, she was surprised to be assigned a coach.
“I’ve had mentors throughout my career who have been great sounding boards, but a coach is someone who will help you take that hard look at your leadership style and provide nonbiased feedback, who’ll cut through your doubt and help you devise a leadership plan,” says Snipes, director of merchandising and operations for Volunteer Services & Merchandising.
“I had so much going on,” says Snipes, who also manages the staff of MD Anderson’s four gift shops. “My coach helped pull me out of the weeds to a higher point, where I could keep my eyes on the final objective.”
Coaching has evolved at MD Anderson since the Leadership Institute launched in 2018. Today, the Leadership Institute offers one-on-one, team and group coaching; onboarding coaching; on-demand coaching; and coaching embedded within several leadership development programs. Coaching is a strategic driver of change throughout MD Anderson, helping to develop talent and improve employee engagement and retention.
“Now coaching is a perk that people talk about, especially since it focuses on the entire individual — the personal and the professional,” says Leadership Institute Director Mickie DeVeau.
At MD Anderson, where employees maintain an extraordinary level of professionalism, coaching boosts confidence and helps individuals leverage their strengths.
Culture of coaching
The Leadership Institute is tracking the outcomes of coaching by comparing the performances of employees who have received coaching against those who have not. Based on three-and-a-half years of data — from Fiscal Year 2019 through the first half of Fiscal Year 2022 — coaching clients enjoy distinct benefits:
50% lower turnover rate
8% higher promotion
3% higher overall performance scores in annual reviews
“We have built out a massive coaching data repository and are conducting ongoing analyses,” says Amanda Woods, an associate analyst at the Leadership Institute. “We identified a matched control sample of employees who were eligible for but have not yet participated in coaching, which allows us to isolate the impact of coaching on outcomes.”
MD Anderson has more than 150 certified internal coaches, either members of the Leadership Institute or internal leaders who are graduates of the CoachRICE program, which offers 105 hours of coach education toward a Level One certification with the International Coaching Federation. CoachRICE participants must be nominated; after graduating from the program, they become coaches for other MD Anderson employees.
“We have created a culture of coaching,” says Kate Cavanaugh, a senior analyst at the Leadership Institute. “We train our leaders to become coaches. Leaders use coaching skills with employees and coaching clients, and clear performance expectations are set around coaching and coachability at MD Anderson.”
The Leadership Institute devised CoachFINDER, a searchable database that employees can use to review profiles of MD Anderson’s available certified coaches. Employees interested in being coached must first get approval from their managers, then they’re free to peruse the profiles and pick a coach.
Part of the training to become a coach is allowing yourself to be coached.
Richie Ehlers, M.D., a breast surgical oncologist and executive medical director and associate vice president, Houston Area Locations,participated in the very first CoachRICE cohort in spring of 2019.
“It exceeded my expectations,” says Ehlers, who has been a coach for more than four years. “Frankly, I had had a few stumbles in terms of career progression, and I felt like coaching could help.”
Over the last few years, Ehlers has also sought additional coaching for himself from three different MD Anderson-approved leadership coaches.
“There’s always something I can improve,” he says.
When he’s coaching others, Ehlers asks questions that start with “what” rather than “why.”
“‘Why’ questions tend to make people defensive,” he explains. “Like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ A better approach is to ask: ‘What is the benefit for you?’ Or, ‘What do you hope to accomplish?’”
Perhaps the most important attribute for a client, he says, is openness to the process. Coachability. Clients only get as much out of the experience as they put into it.
“My job as a coach is not to drive, or even to tell you the destination,” Ehlers explains. “I’m simply there as a navigator.”
A breath of fresh air
For Jillian Rigert, M.D., D.M.D., a senior research project manager in Radiation Oncology – Research, participating in CoachRICE and becoming a coach has been a life-saving experience.
Before arriving at MD Anderson nearly three years ago, Rigert was an oral and maxillofacial surgery resident in the military. But she walked away from that career to preserve her mental health.
“I had so much guilt and shame,” she says. “I kept trying to make a career path in dentistry work, but when you are not living your authentic life, you know it.”
Three months after coming to MD Anderson as a postdoc focused on reducing radiation toxicity and improving quality of life post-treatment for head and neck cancer patients, Rigert started CoachRICE.
“Coaching saved my life,” she says. “It provided me a breath of fresh air — space that I needed professionally and personally. Vulnerability allowed me to release the guilt and shame I was feeling.”
Rigert helps the people she coaches identify their core values.
“I like to make sure people check in with themselves,” she explains. “Sometimes, people aren’t really sure what their goals are. They can get caught up in climbing the ladder without stepping back and asking: ‘Do I really want this?’”
Rigert also advises her clients to lean into curiosity and stay away from self-criticism.
“Curiosity reduces judgment, which can improve your relationship with yourself and others,” she says. “Keep yourself open to new experiences. A lot of self-doubt stems from a lack of self-compassion. When we develop self-compassion, we grow more resilient and emotionally intelligent.”
Coaching enables growth – and MD Anderson's mission to end cancer
Coaching encourages people to grow.
“Being coached is a unique gift and an opportunity. You just have to be open to hearing that you need to do things in a different way,” says Frances Snipes, whose teams delivered spectacular results stemming, in part, from the leadership focus she gained. “In Fiscal Year 2023, more than $1 million in branded merchandise was sold through the merchandising efforts of the Ecommerce and Gift Shop teams. This was the first time we've surpassed the $1 million threshold, and focused effort played a key role.”
The proliferation of coaching at MD Anderson is helping the institution stay focused on the future. Learning new ways of doing things and staying attentive and curious also helps us advance our mission to end cancer.
“Leaders today are open to feedback, open to getting better,” Ehlers says. “I firmly believe that the kind of people MD Anderson attracts have a growth mindset — and coaching helps keep them in a growth mindset. Not only is this where MD Anderson wants to be, but it’s a more exciting place to be.”