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Faculty Excellence at Spelman College

The Faculty Excellence publication serves as the faculty magazine of Spelman College. With this publication, we are proud to highlight the work of a few of our talented faculty, all leaders working on the frontiers of scholarly research, creative expression and leadership. In the publication you will enjoy profiles of their research and leadership in myriad settings. We salute them for their commitment to our students and for their courage in expanding the boundaries of their distinct fields of research.

Faculty Excellence Features

The features below are excerpted from volume 2 of Faculty Excellence focused on leadership. Read the full publication to learn about the other 15 faculty featured.

Marionette Holmes, Ph.D.: Learning Lessons Through Mentorship

Marionette Holmes, Ph. D. For Marionette Holmes, Ph.D., the connection between mentorship and leadership is definitive. It is mentors, said the chair of Spelman's economics department, who provide the guidance and support that can transform a capable follower into a promising manager and, a promising manager into a mature leader. In fact, Dr. Holmes credits many of her professional and educational successes to the "Lessons in Leadership" she learned from her mentors."


Dr. Holmes said people in authority often engage in counterproductive, time-wasting pursuits, such as blame-assignment. A mentor can challenge a would-be leader to think critically and to assess objectives and outcomes honestly. Dr. Holmes said she initially learned that lesson when she was an undergraduate student at Spelman, a place she says virtually bustles with mentorship opportunities. However, the importance of thinking like a leader and finding mentors to help guide that process really hit home for her much later.

The second time I was in a leadership position, I was more introspective and my whole attitude was, ‘How can I improve? How can I grow?’” recalled Dr. Holmes. “I was no longer wanting to look at a person and say, ‘The reason why something’s not done is because of that person.’ I wondered what I could do differently. That’s what caused me to seek out mentors and coaches, and I would recommend to anyone that they do the same. It’s good to have somebody who can challenge you.

That leadership position was at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where Dr. Holmes was lead investigator on a project that examined the economic feasibility of shifting from one type of polio vaccine to another in Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for phases of global polio eradication were on the line; the World Health Organization and the Indonesian government were demanding hard, clear data; and Dr. Holmes and her team of fellow researchers - four medical doctors and two research assistants – were in the breach. In the end, the work met muster for peer-review, and more importantly, informed policy changes that could ultimately improve health outcomes for millions in Indonesia and elsewhere. 

The Indonesia experience proved that Dr. Holmes was a mature leader, but that didn’t prevent her from relying on two of her mentors while she thought through the ups and downs of her time at the CDC. She recalls how one mentor helped her “disentangle my personal script from what was happening in the workplace;” and acquainted her with her next lesson. 


Marionette Holmes, Ph.D.

Dr. Holmes espouses the belief that a leader should be a “systems” thinker. A systems thinker must see the multiple vantage points of the different stakeholders within the institution. A leader therefore must think, make decisions, and act on the best decision of the institution as a whole. “Leaders’ behaviors are sometimes driven by things we can’t understand or we don’t see because we’re not at the tables where certain decisions are discussed and certain decisions are made,” said Dr. Holmes. “A leader operates with a higher purpose in mind and sometimes they can’t disclose it.

Since taking over as chair of the Spelman economics department in 2016, Dr. Holmes has found herself repeatedly relying on her mentor’s lesson, particularly as she has attempted to juggle the competing demands of department stakeholders. 

There was one issue I had to address, and I had to make sure I was operating in the best interests of all of the constituents, internal and external, including faculty and students and the administration,” Dr. Holmes recalled. “And I could not communicate everything to everybody as I was executing this process.

In the end, said Dr. Holmes, an effective leader must be willing to pursue complex, long-term, confidential plans -- even when that means being misunderstood or outright unpopular. However, a mature leader also knows how to mitigate the interpersonal and professional turbulence that may result from the execution of a plan or strategy that excludes certain stakeholders, said Dr. Holmes. That mitigation begins when the leader pays close attention to the needs and interests of those stakeholders, a notion codified in the next lesson.


Start of QuoteOne thing I learned from my second mentor is a lot of work is done behind the scenes, so you have to connect with the team,” said End of QuoteDr. Holmes.“You poke your head in on everybody and say, ‘Hi, how are you doing with that?’ I touch base, so they know I'm interested.

Dr. Holmes’ interest in the work being done by those she leads is sincere and incisive, but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to squander her time and attention on efforts she doesn’t find meaningful. Back when she was an ambitious Spelman student weighing her future choices, she balked at an obvious career choice, insisting she “did not want to work as an accountant.

Instead, on the advice of her college professor father, Dr. Holmes enrolled in an MBA program at Clark Atlanta University. She completed the MBA, but remained strongly attracted to the study of economics, so she completed a master's degree in that discipline before earning a Ph.D. in agricultural and applied economics at the University of Georgia in 2002.

Before joining Spelman as an assistant professor in 2006, Dr. Holmes had wide-ranging and increasingly impactful leadership positions as an economist, including a post-doctoral fellowship at the CDC, and a five-year stint as a research associate, project manager, and later, affiliate researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health. During her time at Harvard, Dr. Holmes was responsible for economically evaluating alternative treatment, prevention and adherence protocols for HIV/AIDs, most notably in Botswana.

Dr. Holmes has continued her leadership in the field of health economics. In addition to her work on the CDC’s Indonesia polio project, she has been actively engaged in a series of CDC initiatives in Ethiopia, South Africa and South Sudan. These increasingly challenging positions and her growing list of responsibilities at Spelman have given Dr. Holmes cause to rely on the fourth of her mentor’s lessons.


 Marionette Holmes Spelman CollegeDr. Holmes said her mentors helped her understand that while a manager merely directs workers, a leader inspires them to buy in to the work at hand.

You must talk to people and try to get buy in versus just telling them what to do,” said Dr. Holmes. At Spelman or any institution, anyone who hopes to be a leader must master the art of getting people to buy in. People are more accountable when they feel they are a part of something and have a vested interest, Dr. Holmes added.

Even though I am chair, everybody is like an equal. We all need to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay.’ It’s better to get people’s buy in and be a leader versus a manager.

Dr. Holmes shares this message with her students and encourages them to develop skills that will make them leaders in their own right. She has developed programs, such as the data science module for Spelman’s Career Pathways Initiative, intended to help graduating students “hit the ground running.

In my experience, people will respect you more in the beginning if you need less help,” said Dr. Holmes. “Therefore, they will align themselves with you and help you to succeed. So it’s good for us to prepare our students to go in there with confidence and with skills.

Start of Quote

In my experience, people will respect you more in the beginning if you End of Quoteneed less help,” said Dr. Holmes. “Therefore, they will align themselves with you and help you succeed. So it’s good for us to prepare our students to go in there with confidence and with skills.”-- Marionette Holmes, Ph.D.

For Dr. Holmes, giving students that sort of help and guidance likely comes from Lesson Five: Be a Mentor. 

Faculty Excellence 2020 PDF
Faculty Excellence Vol. 2

This feature is an excerpt from volume 2 of the Faculty Excellence publication focused on leadership. Read the full publication to learn about the other 15 faculty featured.