Schlichting Talks Leadership And Being An LGBT Role Model

By |2015-12-17T09:00:00-05:00December 17th, 2015|Michigan, News|

Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System, discussed her new book with Linda Forte, SVP Comerica Bank. The event was sponsored by Inforum, a professional womens networking organization, and attracted over 300 people to The Gem Theatre in Detroit Dec. 9.

True leaders are rare. They possess a magical mix of vision, the ability to inspire others and the skill to motivate people to do things they may have believed themselves incapable of achieving.
Nancy M. Schlichting is one of these rare, uniquely talented leaders. As CEO of Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System, a $5 billion enterprise and one of the city’s largest employers, Schlichting is one of the highest ranking – if not the highest – out, LGBT corporate leaders in Michigan.
In her new book, “Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me About Reinvention and Diversity,” Schlichting chronicles her rise to the top position at one of the nation’s most prestigious health systems, and what it was like when she was anonymously outed and passed over for promotion expressly because of her sexual orientation.
Schlichting was the featured speaker to about 350 people Dec. 9 at The Gem Theatre in Detroit at an event sponsored by Inforum Healthcare NEXT, a professional organization for women in Michigan. She spoke about her book and her leadership philosophy in a Q&A format moderated by Linda Forte, SVP at Comerica Bank.
A woman in the male dominated world of health care management, and a lesbian, Schlichting has a unique perspective that has shaped her concept of unconventional leadership. “Being out and open for 25 years has made me a better leader, intent upon fostering a safe and comfortable environment where people can bring their unique gifts and true selves to work each day,” she wrote in her book.
Schlichting stressed how important it is to find the right people, create an environment where they feel valued, productive and challenged and allow each of them to reach their full potential. She said sometimes the right person can be found in unconventional places, and told a story about a parking attendant she got to know while CEO at Akron City Hospital.
“Talking to him I discovered that he had a Ph.D and far more skills and talents than were being utilized overseeing parked cars. I moved him into the personnel department where he eventually rose to become the hospital’s chief diversity officer,” she said.
Schlichting has had a meteoric rise through the ranks of hospital administration – at age 28 she was named COO of a 650-bed hospital in Akron, Ohio and just a few years later named CEO of a 1,000-bed teaching hospital with 6,000 employees in Columbus. But an anonymous letter to her board of directors outed her upon her promotion to CEO, saying, “Congratulations on hiring a lesbian to run your hospital.”
Most of the board rallied behind her and she was able to keep her position. But a few years later the system-wide CEO position opened up. One board member, and big donor, threatened to pull his support if she was hired for the job, solely because of her sexual orientation. Someone else got the job. She soon resigned and left Columbus for good.
“I was unemployed for the first time in my life and I felt humiliated and shell-shocked by how it all went down,” she wrote. “It was the worst time in my life in a number of ways. My mother was dying of cancer, I’d left a job I loved and I was forced to abandon my career aspirations simply because I was gay. But I wouldn’t change what happened in Columbus because it is part of what made me who I am today. I took some time off to reflect and regroup. I resolved to stop hiding my sexuality and raise my head high to become a role model for others in the LGBT community.”
Eventually Schlichting returned to Akron as CEO of Summa Health Care, formerly Akron City, but was there only 18 months when Henry Ford Health System called. The board was looking for a skilled leader to help turnaround a hospital system that was facing near bankruptcy. She jumped at the chance.
Her talent for leading through tough times was never more challenged than when she became COO of HFHS in 1998. The organization was in financial free fall, bleeding more than $900,000 every year, and the city itself was is rapid decline. Schlichting was charged with overseeing the system’s turnaround, and she claims that she relished the opportunity.
And she has delivered.
Under Schlichting’s leadership HFHS has completed reinvented itself into a world-class hospital system. Schlichting said she is especially proud that HFHS won the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2011, the only formal recognition of the performance excellence of both public and private U.S. organizations given by the president of the United States. HFHS was named to the Becker’s Hospital Review 100 Great Hospitals in America 2014 list. HFHS is now financially stable and looking to invest heavily in Detroit, medical research and service expansion.
Schlichting’s said she has crafted a leadership style that blends intense empirical data analysis and rigorous accountability with keen attention to the culture of the organization. In discussing the HFHS turnaround, she writes, “The other major issue we worked on in terms of culture was reducing blame and encouraging camaraderie. That effort started during the turnaround and is something we continue to work on even today. For my part, I try to set the right tone.”
Schlichting dedicated the book to her wife Pam.

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