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Linda Rosenberg

Former President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health

Making the World More Diverse, One Leader at a Time

February 11, 2019 | leadership | Comments
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The headlines say it all.

The 2018 midterm election was historic on many levels. More than 100 women are now serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in history. They include that chamber’s first two Native American women and it’s first two Muslim women. Texas elected its first two Latina representatives to Congress, and both Massachusetts and Connecticut have a black woman representing them in the House of Representatives for the first time.

At the state level, both South Dakota and Maine elected their first female governors, Colorado elected the first openly gay man as governor, and the U.S. territory of Guam elected its first female governor, along with 10 women elected to the 15-member Guam Legislature. More openly LGBT people were elected than in any previous election.

Diversity in Congress and across the states is critical at a time when America is becoming increasingly non-white. It’s also critical in health care, and especially behavioral health, where people of color and those who are LGBT frequently receive less and lower quality care than their white, heterosexual counterparts. The U.S. Surgeon General had it right when he said, “culture counts.” Culture can determine so many things – from how a person views mental illness to whom they reach out to for help.

Unfortunately, American business lags behind in promoting a diverse workforce to serve an increasingly diverse clientele. Harvard Business Review reports that “there are more CEOs of large U.S. companies who are named David (4.5 percent) than there are CEOs who are women (4.1 percent) – and David isn’t even the most common name among CEOs. That would be John, at 5.3 percent.”

Nonprofits fare no better. While 42 percent of nonprofits surveyed for a 2017 report were led by female executive directors, 87 percent of all executive directors or presidents were white, with minimal representation of African Americans (6 percent), Hispanics (4 percent) and Asian Americans (3 percent) in these positions.

And while a survey of minority behavioral health providers in Michigan showed that, overall, respondents feel their organization values and fosters a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion, 55 percent believe they have limited opportunity for career advancement. This is despite the fact that 35 percent report being interested in a leadership position and 78 percent report they have the necessary credentials to serve in a leadership role.

The National Council is working to change this equation. Since 2011, we have invested in more than 150 leaders through our Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program. This program supports mid-level managers to develop their voice, agency and power to advance health equity within their organizations and across their communities.

Managers like Regina Ford, whose participation in the program led her to go back to school and to start her own consulting practice, Willow Communication Strategies, to integrate health between health care facilities and social service agencies. Addressing Health Disparities “pushes you out of your comfort zone to equip you with the skills needed to make a greater impact in your profession while making meaningful connections with others,” Ford says.

Allison Bernier parlayed her experience in the program into a role as vice president of the Central Community Health Partnership in Worcester, MA, helping to provide care coordination for Medicaid recipients. During her participation in Addressing Health Disparities, Bernier helped her former agency train all 600 of its staff in working with LGBTQIA clients, with a specific focus on transgender clients. “I learned so much through the journey and was able to ensure lasting changes in the agency I was working for during that time,” she says.

The new CEO of Siouxland Mental Health Center is program graduate Sheila Martin. She was promoted to the top position two years after completing the Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program. Siouxland serves approximately 5,800 patients and has more than 75,000 encounters a year. “If you want to make the C-suite someday, this is the program to help you,” Martin says.

Steven Loos is a member of the leadership team at Central Minnesota Mental Health Center, where he was promoted to be director of outpatient mental health services. He directly credits the Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program for his promotion and says, “It was the perfect balance of uncomfortable stretch and support.”

We are even helping make the business world more inclusive. Program graduate Maileen Hamto will become the first inclusion and diversity program manager at Arrow Electronics in Centennial, CO. “From leading cross-cultural dialogue to effective conflict management, learnings from the Addressing Health Disparities cohort have wide-ranging application in health care and other industries,” Hamto says. “I’m grateful to maintain a community of lifelong learners who are committed to advancing the work of equity and inclusion.”

This is what the Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program is all about. Our goal is to take good leaders and make them great. Leaders who can change systems, build collaborations and resolve conflicts. Leaders who can build knowledge and awareness about health equity and can eliminate disparities among individuals and within organizations. Leaders who can understand privilege and chart their personal and professional growth. Our new class begins this month, and we know its members will go far.

How are you addressing health disparities in your organization? What initiatives or programs are you seeing make a difference in your communities? I’d love to hear from you. Respond to this post or write to me at I read every letter!