Health System CEO Wades into Candid Conversation about Diversity with Sanford Staff and Students

Schlichting book jacket“I think we might need to call Nancy and get her to turn around Duke,” Master’s of Public Policy student Matt Bunyi told the group meeting with Nancy Schlichting, the CEO of the Henry Ford Health System and member of the Sanford School Board of Visitors.

That comment captured the candor of a luncheon conversation Sanford students and staff had with Schlichting, who recently published a book entitled Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me about Reinvention and Diversity. The Hart Leadership Program co-sponsored the luncheon with Sanford’s Development and Alumni Affairs office.

After having led four health care organizations through dramatic financial changes, Schlichting said she learned many important lessons, and she talks about diversity as a key for growth in Unconventional Leadership. In one anecdote from the book, Schlichting recalled meeting Zakaria Nyongesa, who worked as an assistant parking supervisor on weekends at a hospital in Ohio when Schlichting was COO there. In a brief conversation, Schlichting discovered that Nyongesa had a PhD and was teaching at Ohio State part-time. Nyongesa said that he had been working as a parking supervisor because he needed a second job. Schlichting spent a lot of time with Nyongesa and created a position for him as the director of diversity at the hospital. She said that she found many people like Nyongesa who were underutilized – people who did not have big titles, but could help if they were in the right roles.

During the luncheon Schlichting asked the Sanford staff and students about the diversity of Duke’s leadership. When some people hesitated before saying that they weren’t sure the leadership was as diverse as it could be, Schlichting said that the leadership of an organization should reflect the diversity of its community. The group agreed that diversity at the top has become even more of an imperative after broader conversations about race on college campuses across the U.S., and racist incidents on Duke’s campus last year.

Schlichting also spoke with the Sanford group about North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2 (HB2). The new law restricts municipalities from creating nondiscrimination ordinances that offer protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity and requires that people use public restrooms that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate.

Nancy Schlichting was outed publicly during her time at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio when someone sent an anonymous letter to the CEO of the health system and all the trustees saying, “Congratulations on hiring a lesbian to run your hospital.” At the time, Schlichting had not yet come out to her family.

Several years later, when Schlichting was the first in line to run the entire Riverside health system, a board member who opposed her leadership position because of her sexual orientation told the board, “If you follow through and she gets promoted, I am not giving this health system another dime.” Schlichting stepped down without having lined up another job. “I was unemployed for the first time in my life and felt humiliated and shell-shocked by how it all went down,” she writes in her book.

Research Service-Learning Coordinator Diego Quezada, who attended the luncheon, asked Schlichting why she thinks the business community has been voicing their concerns over HB2 so loudly – something that did not occur to the same extent during the battles over same-sex marriage just a few years ago. Schlichting responded that businesses are speaking up because more people have come out, and many people these days have openly gay colleagues and friends.

In her book, Schlichting argues that a diverse, inclusive workforce allows people to maximize their potential and form high-functioning organizations. More organizations are beginning to get the message, she said.