Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me About Reinvention and Diversity
Nancy M. Schlichting
Bibliomotion, Inc., 2016
Reviewed by Justin Shapiro
Nancy Schlichting’s Unconventional Leadership provides unique insight into the career of an illustrious American health care executive. Schlichting recounts the triumphs, setbacks, and surprises that occurred as she rose through the ranks of health care, culminating in her appointment as chief executive officer of Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) at age 48. While tracing her professional journey, Schlichting shares her experience in leading successful turnarounds throughout her life. She offers poignant accounts of the struggles she faced as a female and LGBT CEO in a male-dominated industry.
Unconventional Leadership is split into eight chapters that focus on three unconventional strategies for driving long-term success: putting people first, fostering a culture that is conducive to innovation, and embracing diversity in all its forms. In the contemporary health care landscape, disruption is the norm. Schlichting clearly illustrates how leaders can harness the power of disruptors for the benefit of patients, workers, and communities alike. She credits Henry Ford himself for providing a paradigm of innovative leadership. As Ford pioneered a living wage by paying his employees $5 a day, HFHS offers a formula to rejuvenate a community in distress while working toward profitability.
When Schlichting became CEO of HFHS, the organization was bleeding cash. Detroit was in economic, cultural, and population decline, and government regulation was disrupting traditional models of health care delivery. However, Schlichting reinvigorated the culture and fiscal outlook of the organization within two years by slashing inefficiencies and cutting costs, while investing in quality improvement and innovation. Top
Schlichting offers an insightful case study of an intended merger between HFHS and a neighbouring health system. The cultural differences between the two organizations were deemed too large to amalgamate seamlessly, and the deal was abandoned at the last moment. Despite the hardships of rescinding the merger, the experience provided HFHS with the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of a large competitor’s business model, reaffirm its own core values, and appreciate its unique mandate as a not-for-profit health system serving Detroit’s most vulnerable populations.
Schlichting also expounds on the role of HFHS in helping Detroit emerge from its current decline. She outlines the many efforts, including redeveloping real estate around its flagship hospital and co-founding an innovation hub, that HFHS undertook during her tenure to spark a renaissance in Detroit. Schlichting came to Detroit in the middle of the exodus from the city, and she recounts how many of her new colleagues were perplexed by her decision. However, from her first day in Michigan, she intended to be immersed in the community. As Schlichting demonstrates, building a trusting working relationship with stakeholders is crucial to effecting meaningful change within any industry, including health care.
Schlichting also focuses on the importance of diversity. HFHS is located in a city that was 83% Black, but the board and leadership team were unrepresentative. As CEO, Schlichting changed the identity of the organization to reflect the surrounding community. Schlichting brilliantly explains how placing people with varied life experiences in decision-making roles helped the organization better address the needs of patients and employees. She also posits that diversity does not stop at race or socioeconomic status; cognitive diversity is equally important for an organization to thrive. Diversity of thought is often overlooked when discussing diversity at large. It is crucial to create a culture that encourages the healthy clash of ideas. If employees do not offer dissenting perspectives, organizations will not fulfill their creative potential, and disruptors will work against their organizations rather than with them. Top
One illustrative account was how Schlichting championed a urologist who had been trying unsuccessfully for years to secure funding to pioneer robotic surgery at HFHS. Despite the dire financial situation, Schlichting acquired the necessary equipment. HFHS is now a world leader in robotic surgery because of investment in the organization’s human capital and ideas.
Unconventional Leadership offers invaluable insight for any student of leadership. Schlichting does not purport to offer a panacea for the complex issues that health care leaders face, but rather an unorthodox mode of operating and a method to evaluate an organization’s strategic landscape. This is a must-read for anyone interested in creating a culture of innovation, collaboration, and ethical leadership.
Born and raised in Montréal, Justin Shapiro is a third-year medical student at the University of Toronto. He is concurrently pursuing an MSc in health system leadership and innovation.