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

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.”

Tags: chief executive officer, Detroit, Healthcare, risk, Top 25 Women, Modern Healthcare, Blog, finances, Henry Ford Health System, leadership, leadership academies, Nancy Schlichting, culture