The American Cancer Society’s Next Crusade

For nearly 90 years, it has led the war against cancer. Now the Society faces another do-or-die challenge: to identify the next generation of leaders who will continue the battle.


Slash the cancer mortality rate by 50%. Reduce the incidence of cancer by 25%. Make a clear impact on the quality of life of cancer survivors. These are the three ultra-ambitious goals that the American Cancer Society has set for itself — and hopes to achieve by 2015.


But the organization won’t come close to reaching those milestones if it doesn’t meet another do-or-die challenge: to assemble an elite team of the best and brightest among its 6,500 employees, and to prepare them to lead the organization in the next phase of its war on cancer.

Two years ago, a small group at the Society’s Atlanta headquarters realized that the ACS was headed for a leadership crisis. Half of its senior executives — the sprawling outfit consists of 18 divisions, each with its own CEO and leadership team — were nearing retirement age. Few people were in line to replace them. “We hadn’t done a good job of identifying people within the organization who could move into these top positions,” says Ree Stanley, national vice president for human resources. “And we hadn’t done a good job of preparing people to help us achieve our 2015 goals.”

That all changed last October, when senior leaders throughout the organization received an email announcing an unusual recruitment drive: The Society was in need of leaders — division CEOs and COOs — and any and all of the 6,500 employees were invited to apply for the top jobs. “We deliberately cast a wide net,” says Stanley. “We couldn’t afford to overlook qualified people.”

Forty-eight people, from an office assistant on up, responded to the call to arms. One of them was Thomas Sellers, 51, CFO of the New England division. Cancer has taken a toll on Sellers and his family. His mother died of lung cancer at the age of 51. His father was diagnosed with prostate cancer 12 years ago (he has since recovered, after having undergone a course of radiation treatment). And then, two years ago, Sellers himself had surgery for prostate cancer. He credits his personal battle against the disease with pushing him to compete for a top position in the Society.

“It helped make me a better leader, because I no longer speak from a theoretical perspective,” says Sellers. “Now I have a personal stake in these goals.”


In applying for the Society’s talent pool, Sellers and the others endured a rigorous vetting process. It started with a detailed application in which they were asked to assess their leadership skills using 15 separate criteria and to demonstrate how they exceeded the criteria. A lot of people were eliminated at this point, but Sellers made the cut.

Then he cleared the next three hurdles: A roundtable of division managers scrutinized his application; the COO of the New England division, along with several of Sellers’s immediate colleagues and subordinates, gave him a 360-degree review; and finally, a group of executives from the national and regional levels ranked Sellers on a talent grid alongside the rest of the top performers.

Four months after he submitted his application, Sellers learned that he was one of 19 people to make it through to the national pool of potential CEOs and COOs. Each person was given a rating ranging from “promotable within 24 months” to “immediately promotable.”

Next up? All 19 finalists have been assigned an executive coach and charged with developing a personal action plan that will take them to the next level.

The goal for Sellers and his fellow recruits is straightforward: Learn to lead by leading. Of course, not everyone will make it to the top jobs. But they will all be more effective leaders when they complete the program. They will be the kind of talent that the ACS wants to reward and nurture.


“We want them to act as 19 catalysts who will challenge the people around them,” says Grace Waldrop, the Society’s learning officer. “We want them to become seeds within the organization for new thinking and new ideas.”

What can other organizations learn from the American Cancer Society’s bid to build better leaders? “Most companies plan from quarter to quarter — or, at best, year to year,” says Sellers. “We’ve set goals that are 15 years out. If we don’t build a new generation of leaders, we won’t get there. That’s what decades of fighting cancer has taught us: Think long-term — starting now.”

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Sidebar: Ascension and Retention

Of the 48 staffers who applied for the American Cancer Society’s leadership program, 29 failed to make the cut. Most of them are great at what they do; they just aren’t ready to be a division CEO yet. Here’s what the Society is doing to hold on to the people who’ve been held back — and the ones who are ready to take charge.

When They Don’t Make the Cut. “We start with feedback,” says Ree Stanley, national VP for human resources. “Everyone receives a development plan. We try to help people develop areas that need strengthening, so they’ll be stronger candidates when they go through the process again. And we want people to reapply. If they’ve been referred to the national level — but they didn’t make the cut — they’re still considered candidates for leadership at the regional level.”


When They Make the Cut — and Run. The ACS faces another big challenge: how to keep those 19 people who did make the final cut, but who might leave for a top job at another organization. “They understand that this isn’t a class where you graduate after a few months and are crowned CEO,” says Grace Waldrop, the Society’s learning officer. “We’re trying to hold on to them by challenging them, in the hope that when a divisional CEO position does open up, we’ll have a deep pool of qualified candidates. We would have more of a risk of losing them if we weren’t giving them visibility at the national level as well as opportunities to learn and grow.”

Contact Ree Stanley by email (