Pioneer Michellene Davis seeks to ensure equal footing for all executives
Michellene Davis has had a history-making career thus far, and she is keenly aware of that. She has broken barriers as a woman and as an African-American. She currently serves as the executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer for RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey, after stints as a public defender, New Jersey state treasurer, leader of the state lottery and chief policy counsel to the New Jersey governor. But she remains wary of the over-the-top kudos that come with pioneering achievements.
“The only reason it’s relevant to note the fact that I’m a ‘first’ is because of the need to ensure that I’m not the last,” she says. “If you are the first walking into a space, you have to ask yourself why that is. I have worked very hard and have been very blessed, but I’m certain that there were many talented women and many talented people of color who came before me, but organizations were not ready to welcome their brilliance into their space.”
Commitment to diversity creates better efficiency, solutions and decision-making – and is more profitable as well. That was the conclusion of a recent study by researchers at North Carolina State University and Portland State University, and it is the reason we have been committed to sponsoring the Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare for many years (for which Davis was recently honored). It is the right thing to do.
“To ensure that diversity in leadership is a best practice requires a solid commitment and direction of resources to provide opportunity for growth and development across the system,” says RWJBarnabas Health President & CEO Barry H. Ostrowsky. “With our system’s strategy of inclusion, we are working to ensure that our leadership reflects the diversity of our communities, beginning with Board membership and C-suites. As a result, we are benefitting from the wealth of thought, experiences, and values.”
Ostrowsky says Davis is crucial to that work.
“Michellene is a trailblazer. She has defined expectations for her role in our System. She is building her vision and creating new pathways for RWJBarnabas Health to explore in the realm of social impact, policy, and health equity.”
Behavioral health a major issue
The last eight years at RWJBarnabas Health make Davis feel like she’s come full circle, she says, back to roots that were planted as a trial lawyer.
“When I was doing criminal defense, I was literally arguing public policy issues in my brief and in my opening and closing statements,” she says. “I’d argue that, ‘If we had universal healthcare, my client wouldn’t be here.’ ”
Her clients didn’t have the resources to find an exit from the criminal justice system like some wealthy entertainers she saw pass through the courthouse on similar charges. And thus, the seeds were planted for Davis to tackle social determinants in healthcare in a major way.
Many of the people she defended, she says, “were people who truly suffered from either behavioral health or critical health issues. If they had had professional treatment, they may have made different life decisions.
“By and large, I encountered lots of good people who made what they thought was the only choice they had left. And a lot of that came from the cards that life had dealt them.”
Leadership in change management
Fast-forward a couple decades, and Davis now is leading the charge at RWJBarnabas Health to achieve equity in healthcare, and the health system is moving upstream into the community to battle social determinants of health in a way that few ...