Nancy Schlichting, Chief Executive Officer of Henry Ford Health System

In December of 2016, Nancy Schlichting will step down as the chief executive officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, after a two-year-long succession planning transition process.  During her 13-year tenure in this role, Ms. Schlichting has effected a dramatic financial turnaround for HFHS and implemented award-winning patient safety, customer service, and diversity initiatives, including the achievement of Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award status in 2011, a John M. Eisenberg Patient Safety Quality Award in 2011, and the Foster G. McGaw Award in 2004.  She has helped to bridge gaps between the organization and its community and made it a “destination” health system that offers quality, innovative services to patients from around the world.  Through Ms. Schlichting’s efforts to invest in her employees and partner with community, legislative, and business leaders, HFHS has become a national benchmark for quality, innovation, and diversity.

Ms. Schlichting graduated magna cum laude from Duke University in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in public policy studies, and went immediately on to earn her MBA from Cornell University.  After completing a year-long fellowship with the American Hospital Association, she joined Summa Health’s Akron City Hospital, where she remained for eight years in a variety of positions, followed by eight years in various positions at Riverside Methodist Hospital, including that of chief operating officer.  In 1996, Ms. Schlichting became the president of the Eastern Region of Catholic Health Initiatives in the Philadelphia area; the following year, she was recruited back to Summa Health to serve as the executive vice president and chief operating officer for the system.

Ms. Schlichting joined Henry Ford Health System in 1998 as the system’s senior vice president and chief administrative officer.  HFHS is a nationally-recognized, five-hospital, $5 billion healthcare organization with over 24,600 employees.  Its physician organization is one of the largest medical groups in the country, with 1,200 physicians.  The health system has also owned its own insurance company (Health Alliance Plan) for over 30 years, and includes more than 30 ambulatory care sites and a community care services division that encompasses retail pharmacies, vision centers, a PACE, home care and hospice, and other services.  HFHS serves a large indigent population in one of the most economically depressed cities in the country; Ms. Schlichting was originally drawn to the organization for the “exciting” opportunity it offered to be part of the transformation of a struggling city.

The year after she arrived, she was promoted to the role of executive vice president and chief operating officer; two years later, she also took on the role of president and chief executive officer for the system’s Henry Ford Hospital.  At that time, in addition to facing a significant population decline in the city, the health system was experiencing a $90 million annual operating loss.  Ms. Schlichting found that not only community members, but also some of the health system leadership, had a defeated attitude about the future success of the health system.  In just one year, however, she was able to reduce losses to $12 million, and achieved profitability the following year, resulting in her promotion to her current system leadership role in June of 2003.  She was the first female chief executive the system had ever had, and one of only two female senior leaders in the entire system.  Since taking on her current role, the health system has demonstrated positive revenue growth year after year and, despite having closed three of its hospitals, she has managed to double the size of the health system overall.

During her time with Henry Ford, Ms. Schlichting has focused on strengthening the urban core of the health system, successfully leading a major expansion of the campus, despite the economic difficulties of its community.  She has had an appreciation for the opportunities presented by the diverse and challenging environment to create a unique academic and clinical center served by people who love their work.  One of Ms. Schlichting’s major victories while serving as the president and CEO of Henry Ford Hospital was securing the funding to establish the Vattikuti Urology Institute at the hospital in 2001, which was built on the pioneering robotic surgery work of Dr. Mani Menon and helped the hospital become a worldwide destination for prostate surgery.  Overall, Ms. Schlichting has put approximately $350 million into Henry Ford Hospital, keeping a priority on recognizing that the success of the hospital, which employs approximately 10,000 city residents, and the success of the community are interdependent.  In addition to opening and expanding ambulatory sites in the city and partnering with schools, churches, and other community organizations to improve health, HFHS purchased land surrounding Henry Ford Hospital to create affordable housing and retail businesses.

Ms. Schlichting also built a new $350 million hospital in the nearby suburbs in 2009, and hired an executive from the Ritz-Carlton as its first CEO.  This unconventional choice was aimed at accomplishing a vision for a new type of hospital – a “wellness” facility – that would be focused on patient comfort and care.  West Bloomfield Hospital has subsequently become a very successful model for organizations around the world.

Ms. Schlichting’s leadership style has been influenced by great leaders throughout history that were not necessarily in health care themselves, such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who did not always take the expected path.  She sees leadership as necessarily taking on “a higher degree of change and discomfort” in order to “chart new territory.”  Ms. Schlichting has authored a book entitled “Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me about Reinvention and Diversity,” which addresses the role Henry Ford Health System has played in helping Detroit make positive strides forward, and how Ms. Schlichting’s unconventional leadership style has figured into this success.  In the book, she writes, “Unconventional leadership is by far more fun and versatile than taking the traditional route, but it also requires courage and a willingness to commit to ongoing change.  My most valuable career lesson to date:  when it comes to becoming a leader, courage is the very best lever for personal success.”   She has been a leader who is not afraid to take the path less traveled and one who is courageous in 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.”  She feels that the challenges she has faced leading an organization in Detroit have made her a better leader.

As a leader, Ms. Schlichting has also placed a priority on developing and nurturing relationships:  “I think you have to understand that every interaction matters.  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.”  She built a reputation through her employees recognizing that she was genuinely interesting in getting to know them and keeping her finger on the pulse of the organization.  She has been a champion of diversity, as well, with strong personal involvement in setting these goals.

Ms. Schlichting has consistently participated on a variety of community, professional, and corporate boards, including those of the Greater Detroit Area Health Council, the United Way of Southeastern Michigan, and the Federal Bank of Chicago-Detroit Branch; she currently sits on the boards of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, The Kresge Foundation, the Walgreens Boots Alliance, the Detroit Regional Chamber, and the Detroit Economic Club.  Through her board work, she has had the opportunity to learn from a variety of individuals’ strategic thinking, and to demonstrate to her staff and to her community that her leadership transcends health care.  As a result, Ms. Schlichting was asked by the mayor of Detroit to chair an advisory committee for the creation of the Detroit Innovation District.  Subsequently, in 2015, she was appointed by President Obama to a year-long chairmanship of the Commission on Care, an organization created by Congress in 2007 to work with the VHA in proposing recommendations for improving healthcare delivery to veterans.  Ms. Schlichting is also a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and a member of the International Women’s Forum.

Ms. Schlichting has been honored with a bevy of awards recognizing her accomplishments in healthcare leadership.  Becker’s Hospital Review named her one of its “Women to Know in Health Care”; Crain’s Detroit Business named her one of “16 Women to Watch,” a “Health Care Hero,” one of “Detroit’s Most Powerful People,” “Newsmaker of the Year,” and one of the “100 Most Influential Women in Michigan”; the American Hospital Association presented her with its Grassroots Champion Award; she received the Excellence in Leadership Award from One Hundred Black Men of Greater Detroit, the Excellence in Health Care Award from the Arab American and Chaldean Council, and the National Human Relations Award from the American Jewish Committee; Modern Healthcare named her one of the “100 Most Influential People in Healthcare” and one of the “Top 25 Women in Health Care”; she earned the Arthritis Foundation’s Tribute to Excellence Award; Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion recognized her with its Humanitarian Award; she was named “Michigan Executive of the Year” by Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business; she was selected as a winner of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association’s Health Care Leadership Award; and was given Ernst & Young’s Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award for Michigan and northwest Ohio.

Ms. Schlichting resides with her family in suburban Bloomfield Township.  She looks forward to pursuing a variety of interests in her retirement, including playing the violin, gardening, cooking, and golf.  She also plans to remain active in the Detroit community, participating on local boards and working with young people and others in the underserved community.

Contributed by Holly Valovick -QLK