How to Create a Culture of Caring

MD Anderson supports its staff the same way it supports its patients, giving them strength for the fight against deadly disease

To develop employees and the organization, Shibu Varghese stresses four core principles that he calls STEP: spotlight every action, teamwork, elevate your game, and passion.
To develop employees and the organization, Shibu Varghese stresses four core principles that he calls STEP: spotlight every action, teamwork, elevate your game, and passion.

MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC), located in Houston, is one of the United States’ preeminent cancer centers. As vice president and chief human resources officer, Shibu Varghese strives to create an employee culture that is as caring, supportive, and innovative as the treatments the hospital provides for its patients.

For most employees at MDACC, health care is not just a job but also a calling. Add to this the fact that cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States (with more than 1.66 million new diagnoses predicted for 2014 by the American Cancer Society), and that the majority of employees have also been touched by the disease either through their own experience or that of a friend or relative. At MDACC, the combination of those factors results in a staff that has a personal stake in fighting cancer and values being part of an organization where their personal and professional priorities come together. “We’re passionate about what we do,” Varghese explains. “Being able to share our dedication to making cancer a thing of the past makes this a very satisfying place to work.”

Because the practice of medicine relies heavily on collaborative efforts among numerous experts and specialties, Varghese emphasizes building trust in both personal and inter-departmental relationships. Part of that effort includes holding six “offline” meetings each year with fifteen to twenty randomly chosen employees from all levels of all departments.

The confidential discussions, which are held without written records, encourage each individual to speak freely about the positive and negative aspects of their work environment. As part of the supportive culture, participants who are uncomfortable speaking in a group can even schedule time to speak privately with Varghese.

Varghese himself comes from a family involved in health care: his mother and sister are nurses, his brother is a pharmacist, and Varghese began his career as a respiratory therapist. This puts him in a unique position when it comes to the business of human resources leadership and management. “Because of my background, I understand the details and complexities that our clinical staff face on a daily basis,” he says. “So I still view my responsibilities on the business side from a ‘caring perspective’ that’s similar to patient care.”

In practical terms, this means examining all HR projects and initiatives to determine if they are making employees’ working lives better. This is particularly true in the current health-care environment, which in many cases requires staff to do more with less. “What we do has to make things more efficient and allow staff to focus more on their jobs, not on paperwork,” Varghese says of the HR function. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

MD Anderson Cancer Center enjoys an extraordinarily high level of community engagement, but that also means that countless stakeholders expect to be involved in every step of due diligence for all new human resources initiatives. While other organizations might envy that level of involvement, it can make launching new projects or policies very complicated and time-consuming.

This is where the importance of existing relationships within the community comes into play—something Varghese stresses to hospital leaders and new hires alike. He describes it by saying, “If you have invested in building relationships, then you have also built trust that you share others’ passion and concern for the good of the organization.” He estimates that without those kinds of personal and professional relationships, it would have taken much longer to implement innovative programs like those that focus on employee recognition, performance management, and recruitment.

With so much attention devoted lately to organizational culture and radical changes in US health care, the dedication and commitment among the MDACC community are shining examples of how beneficial a culture of trust, inclusion, and shared commitment can be.