Corner Office: Henry Ford Health System exec says she's driven by golden rule

For two years, Denise Brooks-Williams has served as senior vice president and CEO of Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System's north market, the first person in this role. 

Before leading the six-county market, Ms. Brooks-Williams was president and CEO of Henry Ford Wyandotte (Mich.) Hospital. She also served as president and CEO of Battle Creek, Mich.-based Bronson Healthcare. 

Her greatest achievement at Henry Ford has been establishing meaningful relationships that have affected the community and teams she works with, she said. 

Here, she took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven Corner Office questions.

Editor's Note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Denise Brooks-Williams: If I think back, I would say it all started with a favorite aunt who worked in healthcare, and through her work I spent a lot of time around hospitals as a young person.  I knew I wanted to pursue a career in healthcare as I started my college studies. My first exposure to public health was as an undergraduate student working on an end-stage renal failure research project. I learned early the significant health disparities among African Americans, and I was curious about why and how to have an impact. The professor I worked for suggested I apply for a summer internship offered for students of color. The next summer I was selected as an intern in the summer enrichment program — a program developed to expose African American high potential college students to the field of healthcare administration and policy. After that summer I knew I wanted to be a healthcare administrator. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about Michigan and the Detroit area?

DB: I was born and raised in Detroit and love all things about the city. I love the rich culture — music, art and, of course, the food. The diverse neighborhood restaurants offer anything from Coney dogs to five-course meals to the best baked goods. I love the diversity of people you encounter in Detroit. Detroiters are proud, passionate and tough, and when you're in the city you can feel that energy resonate through you.  I also love the state of Michigan and have lived in other parts where we were able to enjoy the beauty of the state — its rich Great Lakes in the summer and our favorite college town in Ann Arbor. Most of my immediate family are in the state, so that's a significant bonus. 

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?  

DBW: Inequity in care. I want healthcare equity and the elimination of health disparities among underserved and underrepresented groups. I have seen the pain in my own family of premature deaths due to chronic conditions and lack of healthcare access. I am proud to work in a health system that aligns with my values and desire for equity in healthcare.

As our community has battled the COVID 19 virus the issue of health equity has been center stage. Henry Ford Health System reacted quickly with support for our most vulnerable patients and deployed resources to provide a safe environment for many who recovered at home. I have the privilege of serving on a governor-appointed statewide task force addressing racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. Our work has resulted in improved outcomes for the citizens of Michigan. I am very excited about one initiative which requires health professionals to have anti-bias training. There is much work to be done, but I am encouraged.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside the C-suite?

DBW: Mentoring and supporting others. I have several mentees that I have had the pleasure of supporting their development for many years. I truly enjoy sharing my insights with the next generation and community organizations that focus on empowering at-risk youth. I serve on a few boards that are not healthcare-related because they allow me to have an impact on youth and future leaders. 

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

DBW: Spending time with my family and friends. I love to travel and have sometimes organized trips with up to 20 family and friends. I have two adult daughters, and we still manage to have an annual family vacation. My husband and I recently purchased a cottage in Northern Michigan that motivates us to spend more time relaxing.

Q: What is one piece of advice that you remember most clearly?

DBW: The advice I remember most clearly is from my mother — "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31).  It reminds me that our actions matter to all we encounter. I understand that being a servant leader that cares for all humankind is important. I am respectful and thoughtful in my actions toward others as a result of this advice. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Henry Ford Health System?

DBW: My greatest achievement at Henry Ford Health System has been the development of meaningful relationships that have impacted both the community served and the teams I have the honor to work with. In my two roles so far, I have been able to achieve improved outcomes and performance by partnering with teams and leveraging our role as a community partner. I have been so inspired to see the impact of listening and developing meaningful relationships can have on individuals.

One example has been supporting the career path of team members who desire to grow and learn. I try to be an ambassador by sharing my experiences — I worked as a unit clerk during college, all the time aspiring to be a leader. Sharing my path with others while developing meaningful relationships has allowed me to see the best in many. 


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