Nancy Schlichting

Today’s voice for unconventional leadership and driving innovation

“How did a 95-year-old health care organization emerge as an island of stability in a sea of despair?” asks Bill Taylor, author of the book Practically Radical, in which Henry Ford Health System is featured. “Part of the answer is savvy management.”

“The first thing to notice is that this hospital and these doctors are an example of what is right about American health care – not what is wrong. The Henry Ford Health System, which owns Henry Ford Hospital, is a well-run example of a large medical group practice.”
– Time magazine, Dec. 13, 2010

Though not a medical practitioner, Nancy is a healer.

In 2001, Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System lost $90 million. The organization was in free fall – depressive employee morale and hospital patients dwindling – in a city that was in the midst of its own economic and political crisis.

With Nancy at its helm, losses shrank to $12 million the very next year, and the health system was profitable again by 2003. That year, Nancy’s successes were rewarded with her appointment as president and CEO – the first woman to lead the system. Since then, the organization has experienced positive revenue growth every year.

In 2011, the culmination of Nancy’s leadership contributed to the system being awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award – America’s highest honor for innovation and performance excellence.

In her book, Unconventional Leadership, Nancy reveals what it takes to succeed and how courage played a big role in both her personal and professional life. A few excerpts begin to paint the picture:

“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. And it will look and feel different in every case.”

“One experience launched my journey as a leader and taught me my most valuable career lesson to date: When it comes to becoming a leader, courage is the very best lever for personal success.”

“Being a woman on the rise in a male-dominated domain and a closeted lesbian running a region of Catholic hospitals are two pieces in a larger puzzle of experiences that made courage and confidence mandatory for me. They are also a part of why I am considered unconventional – because I’m different and I have come to see that as a major advantage. It has given me the license to depart from business norms and traditions that are no longer effective.”

By investing in jobs, people, the community, education and radical innovation, Nancy’s vision is the reason Henry Ford is a national benchmark for quality, innovation and diversity, and one of the country’s most admired health care systems.

Her touch restored a financially struggling institution to economic health, vastly improved the overall quality of the care it provides, bridged a gap with the community it serves, and made it a worldwide destination for those seeking excellence and innovation in medical treatment.

She did it by scrapping conventionality, ignoring conventional wisdom and daring to contradict obvious choices with unorthodox solutions.

For instance:

  • Nancy hired a Ritz-Carlton hotel executive to be the CEO of a new Henry Ford hospital, with the aim of establishing it as a “wellness” facility focused on patient care and comfort.
  • During her tenure, the health system doubled in size – though she closed three of its hospitals. “As a math equation,” she says, “that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
  • In the midst of a major recession for Detroit, she built a new $350 million hospital and plowed another $325 million into Henry Ford Hospital, in Detroit.

It is not difficult to list her achievements at Henry Ford Health System in impressive numbers, lists of new programs and innovations and other concrete measures. It’s harder to calculate and describe the enormous shift in perceptions and attitudes of Henry Ford Health System’s people.

They live and work in a community that has survived the toughest economic and social challenges of perhaps any city in America. Yet their sense of mission and values and their energy and optimism about the work they do and the lives they influence – their patients, families, colleagues and the community they serve – continues to grow and deepen.

That is perhaps the most enduring legacy of her leadership.

Schlichting serves on several national and community boards including The Kresge Foundation, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Duke University Health System, Encompass Health, Pear Therapeutics, Hill-Rom Holdings and Arboretum Ventures. Nancy is also a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and a member of the International Women’s Forum. In the fall of 2015, Schlichting was appointed by President Obama to chair the Commission on Care. The Commission was tasked to examine veterans’ access to Department of Veterans Affairs health care and to examine strategically how best to organize the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), locate health resources, and deliver health care to veterans during the next 20 years. The Commission reported to the President of the United States through the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and completed the Commission Report in July, 2016. Most recently, Nancy served as Co-chair of the Michigan Economic Recovery Council, which advised the Governor of Michigan on both health and business issues during the first 12 months of the pandemic.

She has an exceptional ability to balance her service to the community with her own exemplary career, resulting in many forms of recognition over the years. Among her most recent honors, Nancy was named for the fifth time as one of the Top 25 Women in Healthcare by Modern Healthcare magazine, and for the eighth time as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare by the same publication.

Nancy received her A.B from Duke University and her M.B.A. from Cornell University. She and her family reside in Northern Michigan and Southern California.

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