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Health care leader advises students to be 'disruptors'

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Rebecca Valli
Nancy M. Schlichting
Nancy M. Schlichting, MBA ’79, delivers the keynote address at the inaugural Sloan Women in Healthcare Leadership Symposium March 3.

During her keynote address, “Unconventional Leadership,” at the inaugural Sloan Women in Healthcare Leadership Symposium March 3, Nancy M. Schlichting, MBA ’79, retired CEO of the Henry Ford Health System asked, “Do we want to be disrupted or do we want to be the disruptors?”

“Because when [health care] quality is still not where it should be, or cost is too high or the patient experience is not where it needs to be, think of how many of you might be the disruptors in the room to … figure out how you can do it better and how you can make all of those aspects of health care improve,” said Schlichting, an alumna of the Sloan Program in Health Administration in the College of Human Ecology.

Speaking to a largely student audience, many of whom will soon enter health care administration, Schlichting admitted her career has been unconventional. She said learning lessons in ageism when she had responsibility and power at a relatively young age and being a closeted then openly gay woman in a male-dominated industry, have shaped the way she has led throughout her career.

“I also don’t think like everyone else,” she said attributing this to her parents who, fearing the impact of peer pressure, taught her not to worry about what other people thought. “As a result, I had the courage, frankly, to not worry about the naysayers … I had the courage to really do what I thought was right.”

“I think the individual thought, the ability to think for yourself and the ability push forward your ideas is incredibly important in an environment where there is so much of a tendency to sort of do what everyone else does,” she said.

A pioneer in bringing hospitality and design into health care, a LGBTQ leader and the author of the book “Unconventional Leadership,” Schlichting is a highly regarded expert on strategic leadership, quality, cultural transformation, community-engagement innovation and diversity.

She was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare by Modern Healthcare magazine. Schlichting also led the Henry Ford Health System, a $5 billion health care organization with an estimated 27,000 employees, when it received the 2011 Malcom Baldrige National Quality Award.

In June 2015, Schlichting was appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the Commission on Care. She testified before the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs on the finding and recommendations of the Commission Report in September 2016.

“We all have stories about why we’re doing this work,” Schlichting said. “How we bring that forward in our leadership in a way that is passionate, authentic and inspires other people, is incredibly important.”

Schlichting encouraged her audience to “face the future, create the future and make sure that you’re focused on what you want to see happen and then thinking through how best to achieve that – we have an incredible opportunity to really change the game.”

Organized by the Sloan Women in Leadership group, the two-day symposium offered students, alumni and members of the Cornell community insights into the challenges and opportunities faced by women leaders in health care, according to co-chairs Samantha Castillo-Davis ’00, M.H.A ’17, and Colleen A. Sullivan ’16, MHA ’17.

According to organizers, the goals of the symposium were to offer students opportunities for professional development and for supplementing classroom knowledge with real-world context in the form of alumnae panels, roundtable discussions and a working group session.

Stephen D'Angelo is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

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