How to Cope When Your Center Gets a New Director

By Jane Kollmer, Director for Communications, University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center

Michelle Le Beau, PhD, and Kunle Odunsi, MD, PhD
Michelle Le Beau, PhD, and Kunle Odunsi, MD, PhD

We can’t avoid change, but as humans, we are hard-wired to fear it. At my institution, the University of Chicago, change has become the new norm over the past couple of years—and not just because of COVID and The Great Resignation. For an array of reasons, leadership has undergone dramatic change on all levels of the hospital and University.

These are unusual circumstances. It has been especially difficult for the Cancer Center, because our longtime director, Michelle M. Le Beau, PhD, had announced she was stepping down. We were all nervous about who her successor would be.

The national search for her successor moved slowly, and it was kept under wraps until the process concluded. Those of us in administration didn’t even know who the candidates were or if they were internal or from other centers. Dr. Le Beau was generous enough to stay until the new director was in place, so we didn’t have an interim director.

Directors set the tone for the entire Cancer Center, so we knew this role was important to everyone’s job satisfaction. There was also the fear that this new mysterious person would come in and decide to replace all of us as a first order of business. The only thing we did know was the new director would be a clinician scientist rather than a basic researcher like Dr. Le Beau.

In December 2020, it was announced that Kunle Odunsi would be our new director, starting March 2021. Although his leadership style is different from Dr. Le Beau’s, he has been an effective leader and has accomplished a lot since he joined. Dr. Odunsi is liked and respected by everyone who meets him. He is humble, thoughtful, congenial, and a great speaker to boot.

Coming from Roswell Park as their deputy director, Dr. Odunsi knew the value of marketing and communications. He had worked closely with their wonderful team, including Annie Deck-Miller, so his expectations were high. This has caused me to really step up my game.

Our experience with Dr. Odunsi has been more wonderful than I could ever imagine. He did not come in and change everything. Instead, he laid out his vision and is pushing us forward. Yes, the amount of work for our limited staff skyrocketed since he came, and we can’t hire people fast enough. But we know and trust that he has the Cancer Center’s best interests in mind and we have to take big, bold steps if we want to be the best for our patients.

Coincidentally, several long-time staff members decided to retire, so a lot of institutional knowledge walked out the door. Kathleen Goss, PhD, our Associate Director for Administration, was recruited to the American Cancer Society, which was a huge loss for us. But we lucked out once again and got Drew Memmott from Dana-Farber in this role. He is a great boss and very supportive and approachable.

We certainly miss Dr. Le Beau and others who have left because they were the fabric of our Cancer Center for such a long time. But as they say, when one door closes, another opens.

If communications folks at other institutions find themselves in a similar position, I encourage them to keep an open mind and have patience with the transition. The important thing is to learn how to work with the new director. Since I have just gone through this, I’m happy to share a few nuggets of advice:

  • Pay attention to their preferences and their level of knowledge of what you do.
  • Respect their time. Keep them informed of what they need to know and don’t get them lost in the minutiae. Dr. Odunsi only schedules 30-minute meetings, so we don’t have his ear for long. Make it count.
  • Set your director up for success. Make their job as easy as possible. I have found that giving him something to react to—for example, a quote in a press release—gets a better response than asking him to create something from scratch.
  • Vet media opportunities so your director is getting in front of the right audiences. Ride the wave of extra publicity surrounding the announcement of a new director.
  • Let go of the way things were—the status quo. That may mean shifting your priorities.

Honestly, I have to admit that the period where we didn’t know the identity of the incoming director was scarier than the transition itself. I find it’s helpful to frame the experience as a new opportunity to learn and grow in your own career. New leaders may be more receptive to your ideas, so it is a great time to make valuable contributions. It’s a great time to re-invent your department, too, and look at communications from a new lens.

The moral of the story is change is inevitable, so when that time comes, we must learn to embrace it. And don’t let fear of the unknown keep you up at night. It’s a chance to begin again. If you persevere through the rockiest parts of the transition, you will find that change can be a good thing.

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