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Nancy Schlichting's willingness to take risks is still paying off for Henry Ford Health System

By | July 1 st,  2015 | Detroit, retirement, Wright Lassiter, Modern Healthcare, succession planning, Blog, CEO, diversity, Henry Ford Health System, leadership, Nancy Schlichting, Malcolm Baldrige, Top 25 Women in Healthcare | Add A Comment


One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2015.


Nancy Schlichting has become known for bold, unconventional leadership during her tenure at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, where she’s served as the CEO since 2003. She’s won numerous awards and led major initiatives, like the process that led to Henry Ford winning the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2011.
But the key to great leadership, she says, is developing and nurturing relationships.


“I think you have to understand that every interaction matters,” she says. “Leaders are under a spotlight all the time, and so consistency and interest and openness are things that go a very long way. Smile. Lift people up.”


For example, when Schlichting eats in the cafeteria, she will sit with anyone.


“Unfortunately, I don’t get to the cafeteria as often as I should, but when I do go, I think everyone in the cafeteria must go out and tell everyone I do that. It’s always amazing to me how your reputation gets built, and it’s not by promoting it yourself. It’s just the fact that everyone around you observes.”


Her peers in the healthcare industry would probably make the observation that Schlichting is a forward-thinking, fearless leader. Schlichting herself merely says that she has less trepidation about taking risks.


“What I’ve found in life is that the most important things you do are probably the hardest, and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t do them. It’s hard sometimes to do the right thing because you’ve got to deal with the potential conflict, the risks that come with it. If I had felt that way when I came to Michigan, we probably wouldn’t have done half the things we’ve done because they weren’t easy. Sometimes the hardest things are the right things, but they’re not the things that everyone will gravitate to.”


When Schlichting decided it was time to retire, she brought in her handpicked successor, Wright Lassiter, for a two-year transition plan that is scheduled to end in December 2016. “I told my board when we started this process, ‘If you think I need to go sooner, just tell me.’ I want what’s best for the organization, that’s my Number One goal. I do not want this to be an abrupt, disruptive transition.”


Schlichting had met Lassiter on a U.S. News & World Report healthcare panel at a conference. She was so impressed by what he had to say on the panel that she went back to her hotel room and Googled him to learn more about him. Thus began a yearlong process in which the two executives and the Henry Ford board began to explore whether Lassiter might be a fit as the next CEO.


When Lassiter arrived from the Alameda Health System, where he had been the subject of a glowing cover story in Fast Company about the turnaround he and his team engineered at Alameda, Schlichting restructured the organizational chart so all the major divisions of the health systems now report to him.


“He has really jumped right in working with the senior leaders, and that is what’s really making this work,” she adds. “The other thing is that we’re in the midst of a lot of strategic change going on in our industry, so he is leading our major, strategic decisions moving forward.”


Lassiter’s arrival was far from the only succession plan moving forward at Henry Ford. Ed Chadwick also recently arrived as the new chief financial officer, and Schlichting installed Peggy Burns as the new senior vice president of development, in addition to several new chairpersons in the medical group.


But Schlichting says Lassiter’s leadership is making the transition to a new generation of executives much more seamless.


“I think some of our leaders had been saying to themselves, ‘I’m going to retire when Nancy goes,’ ” she says. “But now, I think they’re delaying that a bit because they really like working with Wright. So some of those transitions may now be staggered, and that’s to the benefit of the organization.”


Schlichting is moving on perhaps a few years earlier than the typical CEO – she’ll be 62 when she leaves – but says she knew it was time.


“I have been in either a CEO or COO role in very large hospitals or health systems for 32 years. I also happen to believe that, after about 10 years in any position, you’re not bringing the same level of creativity and energy that you did in the early years. It’s just human nature.”


At the same time, there are other interests she wants to pursue.


“I watched all of my extended family pass away before I was 16,” she says. “I’ve always known that life is short. I’ve put a lot of interests on the back burner for a long time and I want to move those up on my list of priorities.”


That would include more time with her partner Pam, playing the violin, gardening cooking, golf, and volunteer work.


“I sit at a lot of board tables and that’s great, but you don’t have the same rewards you have when you get closer to the action,” Schlichting says. “I want to do things that are more front-line, working with kids or working with people in need in our community so that I can feel that sense of connection.”


Beyond her leadership style, she says she hopes her legacy will include a reputation as a champion of diversity.


“Diversity enriches an organization,” she says. “All types of diversity have been shown to improve the performance of an organization, and the reason is obvious – you’ve got a very diverse workforce and when you have people at the top that represent the diversity in your world, everybody can look to someone and feel inspired by that.”


When Schlichting arrived in Detroit, only two of Henry Ford’s senior leaders were women. Today, there are 16, and that is one change she is proud of.


“That’s pretty cool, but it was not a strategy. It was about women looking at this organization and saying, ‘This is an enlightened place. This is where I want to be.’ ”


Schlichting is very involved as a civic leader in Detroit’s slow renaissance – she’s staying involved after her retirement – and says the city’s challenges have made her a better leader: “There were a lot of years where people looked at Detroit and said, ‘Why would I want to come there?’ If you didn’t create an environment where people loved working here and loved being part of the leadership team, we could not have succeeded as we have.”



Nancy Schlichting of Henry Ford reflects on the journey to quality

By | October 28 th,  2013 | 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare, Detroit, women in leadership, Macomb Hospital, Modern Healthcare, Blog, CEO, Henry Ford Health System, leadership, millennials, Nancy Schlichting, gender equity, Malcolm Baldrige, quality, Top 25 Women in Healthcare, West Bloomfield Hospital | Add A Comment


One in a series of profiles of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare (sponsored by Furst Group)


The journey to winning the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award was just as important as the final destination for CEO Nancy Schlichting and the Henry Ford Health System.


The honor, bestowed by the office of the President of the United States, goes to a limited number of organizations each year for quality and innovation. Yet Schlichting suggested it as a goal to her team a full seven years before the system won the award in 2011. In fact, Ford didn’t merit a site visit from the Baldrige investigators until the year it won.


“I started bringing the Baldrige application process to our team because I wanted us to get better as an organization focusing on the important things,” says Schlichting. “The framework helps you to be a strong organization, and it forces you to become more integrated.”


Yet midway through those years, she and the organization had some doubts.


“At the same time we were going through the Baldrige process, the U.S. had its economic collapse. It was a very challenging period,” Schlichting remembers. “There were moments along the way where I think my team thought we should take a year off, but I said no because it really was more about the journey than the award.”


As the system persevered, Schlichting says she took another look at how Ford was presenting its story to Baldrige.


“I remember talking to Bob Riney (Ford’s president and chief operating officer) and said, ‘I don’t think we’re telling our story right. I don’t think people understand us. We have to include the fact that we’re in Detroit. We’re a unique safety-net organization, yet we have all these expanding suburban markets. We work differently than a lot of organizations.’ ”


So the application was revised. The Baldrige team was interested, and sent its team out to take a look. An exhaustive look. In all, the examiners interviewed more than 1,200 Henry Ford employees. Though Schlichting’s leadership team had put together a booklet of talking points for employees, it was pretty obvious that no amount of coaching could make an army of workers fall into step with the depth of the Baldrige visit.


“You can’t fake it. You can’t plan for it. That was pretty obvious,” Schlichting notes with a chuckle. “What must have come through is that we have an amazing culture and a commitment to excellence.”


The last couple years have brought challenges to Henry Ford as well. A planned merger with Beaumont Health System fell through earlier this year when Ford backed away after a lengthy investment of time, manpower and money.


“The merger was very challenging, but at the end of the day, we knew we were not aligned around culture and our values and visions of healthcare,” she says. “We had 600 people, including 10 members of our board, all working on this for a year. That was tough; I felt very responsible. But it did re-energize all of us because we realized, perhaps even more than we did before, who we are, what we stand for, and what we want to accomplish.”


Along with its standard of quality, Henry Ford also has gained a reputation for doing the unexpected. In Schlichting’s tenure, for example, the system has closed three hospitals over a 10-year period, yet doubled in size. As a math equation, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but Ford made it work.


“We had some small hospitals that, frankly, could not get to the scale where they could be profitable,” Schlichting says. “They didn’t have the clinical strengths to compete in a very difficult marketplace. When you have hospitals that are lagging, they drag down the rest of the organization. The truth is, doing a lot of things doesn’t mean you’re doing the right things.”


During the same period in which the closures occurred, the system’s flagship hospital grew by 30 percent in volume in Detroit (a city that shed 30 percent of its population over the same time period) and became a destination hospital for patients worldwide, especially in cancer treatment and robotic surgery. It acquired Macomb Hospital and opened West Bloomfield Hospital. It doubled the size of its community care division and grew its ambulatory network from 23 to 30 sites.


But beyond numbers, Schlichting is proud of the way that Henry Ford treated the people affected by the closures in the Detroit region that has endured many economic setbacks.


“When we closed the hospitals, we did a better job of it each time, especially around the people. We found jobs for almost every one of those people within our system, because I did not want to lay people off at a time when unemployment in this market was over 10 percent. A lot of our employees were the sole breadwinners because their spouses had lost their jobs. The last thing we needed to do was to make their lives even more difficult.”


Schlichting credits her own long-term success to having good mentors. In fact, she was promoted to her first COO position when she was just 28. She’s not sure that today’s millennials could get such an opportunity in today’s market.
“Unfortunately, too many baby boomers are hanging on too long today,” she says. “It was a different time when I was coming up through the ranks. And while there certainly were a lot of older people in jobs, I think there was a greater openness to younger people.”


Schlichting has written forcefully about the need to provide more chances to young healthcare executives.


“I hear a lot of complaining from my generation about millennials, and I keep saying to them, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! These people are fantastic,’ ” she says. “They are more community-minded, they are more interested in the urban core, they embrace diversity, they connect better with people easily and seamlessly even if it’s through different technology.”


She sees similar obstacles for women executives. Her work at Henry Ford has earned her many awards, including Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare and 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare, but she is impatient for gender equity to become more of a reality.


“I’m still disappointed in our industry,” Schlichting says. “There are a lot more women working in our health systems, but not very many women leading them. One thing I’ve tried to do is help young people and women understand what it takes to succeed. I don’t sugarcoat it.


“I was raised by a mom who said, ‘I don’t care what other people do; I care what you do.’ So if somebody else was getting a break that I wasn’t, I tried to focus on myself and not worry about everyone else’s career.”


Profiles in Leadership: Top 25 Minority Executives Kimberlydawn Wisdom overcame obstacles; now, she helps her community do the same

By | December 4 th,  2012 | Detroit, emergency medicine, Furst Group, Healthcare, executive, health system, hospital, Kimberlydawn Wisdom, Minority Executives, Modern Healthcare, Top 25 Minority Executives, Blog, Henry Ford Health System, leadership, physician leadership | Add A Comment


One in a series of profiles of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare (sponsored by Furst Group)


As a successful physician executive at Henry Ford Health System, Kimberlydawn Wisdom, MD, has attracted the attention of governmental leaders far and wide. Jennifer Granholm, then governor of Michigan, named her as the state surgeon general in 2003, a post she held for eight years. More recently, President Obama appointed her to his Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion and Integrative Public Health. But the path to a medical degree was one that Wisdom had to clear of a number of obstacles.


First and foremost was the era in which she grew up, a formidable boulder indeed.


“In the 1950s and ‘60s, there wasn’t a plethora of physicians of color,” notes Wisdom, Senior Vice President of Community Health & Equity and Chief Wellness Officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and an assistant professor for the University of Michigan Medical Center. “In my junior year of high school, my guidance counselor said I should choose a profession that was more suited for my race. For her, saying ‘I want to be a doctor’ was like someone saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut.’ She actually did want to ensure my success. But I think her sense was, ‘Let me bring you back down to something that’s manageable and achievable.’ “


Yet Wisdom’s mother, who grew up in the small community of Coatesville, Pa., did in fact have an African-American physician. And Wisdom became a caregiver for her mom at home as she dealt with severe migraines.


“During my childhood, she spent a lot of time in bed and I was regularly bringing her aspirin or some other type of pain medication,” Wisdom says. “It was very impactful to me as a young child to watch her go through that. But on another level, I could bring her water, I could bring her comfort. That began to ignite this desire to consider how I could care for people long-term.”


She was exposed to a wonderful hospital atmosphere from a tonsillectomy as a child, and soon had dolls and bears lined up in shoeboxes around her room, where she would tend to their medical needs. She graduated 20th in her high school class of 600, but her supportive parents weren’t so sure that marrying a young mechanical engineer was the best way to get through medical school. But when she crossed the stage to become an M.D., both her husband and parents celebrated together.


“They were all very proud,” she remembers. “It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and a tremendous sense of being thankful, because I couldn’t have done it without the support of family and without a strong spiritual grounding. It took a lot of prayer. I beat the odds in many respects.”


Despite her challenges, Wisdom says she had an idyllic childhood growing up in Mystic, Conn., the town made semi-famous by Julia Roberts’ first movie, “Mystic Pizza.” Those experiences, she says, have shaped her career as she sought to give her patients and her community the opportunities she was afforded.


“In part, I wanted to create a Mystic for the community in which I practiced, so they would have a safe place to grow up. So families could thrive. So people could reach their maximum potential, because they had a place where they felt they could achieve all that they were expected to achieve.”


But Wisdom has spent more than 30 years in Detroit at Henry Ford Health System – more than 20 as an emergency room physician – and she readily acknowledges that Detroit is worlds away from Mystic. As she saw the issues confronting her patients – violence, diabetes, obesity, teen pregnancy – she determined to take healthcare to them and not wait for them to come to her. Today, such goals are commonplace in any metro hospital, but back then her ideas were seen as unorthodox. Nonetheless, her bosses at Henry Ford told her to go for it.


“As an emergency medicine physician, the community comes to you in various states of disarray. I thought that, if I could go out and meet them where they are, I could have a greater impact,” she says. “When I look at many communities, so many people have not had the ability to realize their potential because they have made choices based on the choices they had available, not based on the best choices that would be ideal for them at any given time.”


So Wisdom started small, taking physicians, nurses and social workers out into the community, setting up shop in a community center or a faith-based organization. With each endeavor, Wisdom received more funding as she slowly and quietly attempted to address health disparities in the African-American community.


She and the health system now have major grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address child obesity reduction. Several foundations fund her work in attempting to reduce infant mortality in the Detroit area, a region that has one of the highest rates in the country. A faith-based program she designed received funding from the National Institutes of Health, and she serves on the president’s group that advises his cabinet regarding the National Prevention Strategy, a wellness initiative created by U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.


The Ford system recently earned the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award, one of the highest honors for any industry, in terms of service excellence, and has established the Wellness Center of Excellence, called “Henry Ford LiveWell” for short, that focuses on preventative and lifestyle health.


It’s a long way from dolls in shoeboxes, but Wisdom says that, if anything, her passion and excitement for healthcare have grown.


“Empowering people,” she says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Profiles in Leadership: In Detroit, Schlichting’s success story is one to celebrate

By | July 5 th,  2011 | chief executive officer, Detroit, Healthcare, risk, Top 25 Women, Modern Healthcare, Blog, finances, Henry Ford Health System, leadership, leadership academies, Nancy Schlichting, culture | Add A Comment

One in a series of profiles of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare (sponsored by Furst Group)


If you ask Nancy Schlichting about what sparked the most professional growth in her career as she rose to become chief executive officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, she is quick to point to people other than herself.


“Having strong mentors has probably been the most important element of my career,” she says.


The two key ones, she adds, are Al Gilbert and Gail Warden, who led Summa Health System in Ohio and Henry Ford, respectively.


“They are two individuals who had profound impact on my career,” Schlichting says. “Al Gilbert appointed me at the ripe old age of 28 to be executive vice president and chief operating officer of a 650-bed teaching hospital. That was what launched my career in so many ways.”


If there is one skill Schlichting learned from her mentors, and one that she made all her own, it is taking risks. In Schlichting’s case, she opened a new, $360 million hospital, West Bloomfield, during the worst economic downturn since the 1930s in a region of the country that has not seen an abundance of success stories in recent years. She topped off that move by hiring a non-healthcare executive to run the place.


Gerard van Grinsven became president and CEO of West Bloomfield after a successful career as vice president of the Ritz Carlton hotel chain. Schlichting calls his hiring one of her best moves.


“Gerard is my poster child for taking risks on people,” she says. “He came to us through his involvement on our board. I got to know him. He told me he did not want to be traveling as much for personal reasons. I had no clue what to do with him at first.


“But the more I thought about it, I realized that he had opened more than 20 hotels around the world and was an incredible leader of people – smart and competitive.”


In two years, West Bloomfield has surpassed all of Ford’s financial projections, and Schlichting says van Grinsven’s work has been “nothing short of phenomenal.” Simultaneous to West Bloomfield’s debut was a renovation of the Detroit flagship hospital that cost $300 million. Revenue has doubled in the last ten years.


No wonder, then, that Fast Company co-founder William C. Taylor talked about Schlichting’s work in transforming her health system in his new book “Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself” (William Murrow).


Given her successes, Schlichting believes that financial acumen is an overlooked but mandatory part of an up-and-coming executive’s skill set. “Many of my colleagues, both male and female, need to have a more in-depth understanding of finances. We are running very large enterprises. How we use resources affects the overall financial health of a hospital.”


The other key to focus on, she says, is simple – people. “Healthcare organizations are very people-centric,” she says. “Having good relationship skills is important. It’s about creating a positive environment for people to work in and helping everyone reach their potential.”


To that end, Schlichting has launched several leadership academies to develop leaders and help retention in a market that has its challenges.


“If you don’t have a good culture,” she says simply, “you’re not going to be successful.”

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