They all want what Huntsman has — The woman in charge

Published: Saturday, March 1 2014 9:22 p.m. MST

Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO and director Mary Beckerle poses for a photo in the lab at HCI in Salt Lake City on Jan. 15.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Hardly a month goes by, Jon Huntsman says, a satisfied smile spreading across his face, that somebody doesn’t try to spirit away one of the most valuable, irreplaceable assets at his cancer-fighting institute in Salt Lake City. Universities, other medical centers, think tanks here and abroad. They all want what Huntsman has.

Dr. Mary Beckerle. The woman in charge.

They look at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, about to become the world’s largest cancer center when construction of the massive childhood and family research addition is finished. They look at its impressive breakthroughs in cancer gene discovery. They look at its 99 percent patient satisfaction scores, the highest in the country. They especially look at the uncommon cohesion between upwards of 1,500 scientists, researchers, visiting investigators, physicians and staff coexisting under the same roof. All those enormous IQs, all those tremendous egos, all those rival interests, all getting along.

Then they look at the leader, Beckerle, the head coach as it were, who has been the institute’s CEO and executive director since 2006 and shows no signs of leaving — or wanting to leave.

Hence the reason for Jon Huntsman’s smile.

“We are so lucky to have her and to be able to keep her,” says the billionaire businessman-turned-philanthropist. “I’ve been on the boards of six or seven of America’s largest companies, and I can tell you I’ve never seen a CEO who has bestowed the self-confidence and the will to do better on an entire organization like Dr. Beckerle has here. She is one of the preeminent leaders and motivators in America today.”

Running a cancer institute has been compared to running a small country — one that’s in the middle of a war. There’s the huge payroll, the hospital, the research labs, the university and state government to coordinate with, as well as the National Cancer Institute. There are grants to write, clinical trials to perform, donors to court, all-star scientists to keep happy, all while mounting a running battle with the most insidious disease known to mankind. And yet, for the better part of a decade Beckerle has quietly and efficiently steered the Huntsman Cancer Institute, recognized as one of the nation’s most distinguished cancer centers, past all the rocks while its reputation builds as a leader in, if not yet curing cancer, isolating and identifying cancer-causing genes and aiding mightily in cancer prevention.

One big key to Beckerle’s success, in the view of colleague Barbara Graves, is her management-by-inclusion style. Graves, senior scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., formerly worked full-time at Huntsman and still runs a lab there. In the past, she has been on Huntsman’s leadership boards and closely observed Beckerle’s leadership touch.

“I’ve served on review councils for a number of other cancer centers,” says Graves. “Usually it’s a team of two or three people and they might meet every so often. But at Huntsman, Mary built a very diverse leadership team with eight people or more and we would meet every week to ensure that the many different parts of the program were represented at the highest level — and understand, at a cancer center there are many, many parts to consider. It takes a special person to put it out there and see where the parts of the puzzle fit together and have every part feel appreciated and listened to even when they all know they can’t necessarily get everything they want.”

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