Denise Crawford | PRESIDENT AND CEO
at FAMILY HEALTH CENTER

STORY HEATHER BAKER | IMAGE MITCH CONRAD/MATT CARUSO

Define leadership.
The ability to inspire and motivate others towards a common goal.

Who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?
Dr. Allen Kogan. He’s always with me. He was my first real boss in the professional world out of school. He took me under his wing, mentored me, and was a really, really solid good person. The most profound part was just having the ability to watch him and see how he interacted with others as a leader.

He was the chief of staff. He was, at that particular time, over the psychiatry department. Throughout this mentoring process, he would constantly coach me on various situations. In a difficult situation with the doctor, he would say things like, “You always want to end on a positive note. Remember it’s never personal.” It would just be very quick and to the point. He would regularly summarize any interaction. Whether if it was very intense or even if it was positive, he would say, “Never forget the true focus. Never forget the patient.” He was just very humble and profound.

I think people find it interesting, but he’s always with me. A lot of people don’t know the story. When he left, he actually went back to Washington and left me his lab coat. So, I always have it. He’s been gone for 15 years. In every job I’ve had, I’ve always taken it with me. If I ever have a really, really difficult day, then I always slip it on. Those who know me and see me in the coat know what’s going on. I’m pretty proud I can still kind of fit into it. That’s Dr. Kogan.

What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization?
For me, it’s the ability to impact literally thousands of people’s lives from a healthcare perspective. We currently have 36,000 active patients. I take and make those decisions very seriously. I think it comes with more of a responsibility when you operate from a safety net because, oftentimes, other individuals have choices. We always have to make decisions understanding and realizing that we’re it. Our patients don’t necessarily have choices and they don’t have options. We have to be very cognizant of that. I take it very seriously.

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
You got to have vision. It sets the tone for the entire organization. You’ve got to know where you’re going and you have to be able to inspire and have that direction. That’s your job as a leader. You have to be able to bring that out in people. You often hear the saying: “You can’t lead if no one’s willing to follow.”

What’s the biggest challenge facing leaders today?
I think multi-tasking, work-life balance, and ethics. I would definitely lead towards that. The higher you go up, the more you’re presented with various aspects and various opportunities. It’s important that you stay focused and stay true to yourself, stay true to your values, stay true to the mission, stay humble.

Is there one behavior or trait that you are seeing derail more leaders’ careers?
Greed. The greed for power, the greed for attention, financial greed.

What do you do for fun?
I love to spend time with my family. Simple stuff like walks, running, jogging, hanging out on the lake, playing with the dog, watching movies. Nowadays, now that I’m older, with life being so much go, go, go, go, I really just like stopping and just enjoying family time. That works for me.

What’s your “go-to” spot to eat lunch in Southwest Michigan?
Food Dance during the week. On the weekends, I’m a Chinn Chinn girl.

If happiness were the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?
Doing exactly what I’m doing right now. Making a difference. Leading with purpose. I love it. I’m honored that I get paid to do it. I really honestly can say I love what I do.

If you could go to dinner with three people who would they be?
President Obama. He is a phenomenal leader and I’m extremely, extremely impressed with him in a number of different facets. I’ve always been fascinated by Oprah. Oprah Winfrey would be at my dinner table. All my others are dead, so I can’t have Gandhi there and I can’t have Mother Teresa there. I guess I’d bring Dr. Kogan. He would be nice to have there with that group. I think that would be a very engaging conversation.

Who would you most like to meet?
It’s still the same people. Why would I want to meet them? I really admire Oprah’s quest and climb and just her ability. What’s really fascinating about her (for me, it’s not the whole glamour, et cetera) is her ability to stay true to herself. She came from very humble beginnings; I don’t feel like she ever departed or forgot that. She still reaches back in a number of different ways. She’s shared her whole life with us from the “weight thing” to so many others, which makes her real. I think it does a phenomenal job of normalizing (similar situations) for other people. I just really admire her genuineness and her ethics.

What are three things that you cannot travel on business without?
Definitely my purse—have to have the purse. Have to have the cellphone. You cannot leave the cellphone. And, I have to wear my lipstick.

Briefcase or backpack?
Definitely a purse. I’m a purse kind of gal—a big purse.

How do you get your most creative ideas?
They come at the most amazing times, usually at very odd times in the morning. It’s so much so now that I keep a pen and paper right next to my nightstand. They come in the middle of the night. They also come when I am at my most relaxed state.

For example, when I’m on vacation, I’m very much into the water. I love water, love sun. If I’m on a vacation or if I’m on a cruise or if I’m on the boat, just relaxing, and I allow my mind to just come down from the go, go, go and the hustle, hustle, bustle, it’s amazing how clear so many really good ideas come to me that quite honestly I implement pretty regularly.

What inspires you?
Definitely making a difference. Being true to who I am and remembering that. Staying humble. My ethics really inspire me, my history, and my humble beginnings. I believe in giving back and making opportunities and ensuring equity for all people. I’m honored that I get to do that.

What are your daily routines that keep you developing as a leader?
My ability to check in with my staff. I have a style where I’m very interactive. It’s important for me to stay connected to what I refer to as boots on the ground. Oftentimes, a lot of the work that I do and a lot of the decisions that I’m making in the environments that I am in, by virtue of the work, remove me so to speak from the work. I’m not involved in the day-to-day patient care. I take it on myself to make sure that I am regularly downstairs. I’m out at the various sites. I can only do so much. I try to make sure at least weekly, for some period of time, I’m actually there and connected. It shapes my work and keeps me grounded. It keeps me connected. It keeps me fresh. I think it’s empowering for the staff, but I get far more out of it.

What is your favorite leadership book?
I would say Good to Great. That’s an old one but one that was read during my times of progressing and coming up as a leader. I still go back to the various symbols and sayings and knowledge facts in there to make sure that I have everybody on the bus and in the right seat. It has those kind of old adages that really kind of stick with you.

What’s the App on your phone that you can’t live without?
Yelp. I use Yelp a lot.

How do you maintain your and your team’s daily motivation?
Outside of sugar, I think a lot of different ways. I’m really big on gratitude. Very simple but genuine forms of gratitude. We celebrate our successes in small ways. It’s everything from a high five; we’re big fist bumpers around here. We purposefully and intentionally do not allow a good thing to go to waste, so to speak. Similarly, I pride myself as the leader that doesn’t allow too many bad things to get past her. We will definitely address that and hold you accountable for that. I think we have to be equally as vigilant when good things happen. We’re not superficial. When a positive act happens, when people go above and beyond, or we get positive feedback, we are really, really focused on celebrating. That helps sets our different culture and atmosphere. People will tell you all the time that this is the hardest place they’ve ever worked and the best place they’ve ever worked. I think we stand true to that.

What are you doing to ensure your continued growth as a leader?
I believe in mentorship. I do believe in continued development. I make sure that I consistently reach out and have access to advanced trainings, advanced understandings. I hugely center myself around people who I admire, who I want to be like—leaders who are far more advanced, far more skilled than I am. I go above and beyond to make sure that I can get next to them, get in front of them, have opportunities to interact with them. Continuous learning and development are important. I don’t think you ever “arrive” particularly in this day and age as a leader. You’re constantly changing and you’re constantly growing.

What excites you most about the future of Southwest Michigan?
Innovation. The commitment to community. The innovation. All of this synergy centered on what’s happening. I’m amazed from my own personal position how generous the community is, how focused they are towards our population and our work. Not just from a talking standpoint, but actually from a boots on the ground one. Whether if we need volunteers on site or if we need local philanthropic dollars, the community is concerned on a number of issues from the most vulnerable to the progressive and the sustainability of the community. I love Southwest Michigan. I can’t see myself anywhere else.

What was the last book you read that impacted you?
There were a couple. At work, we read Strength Finders 2.0 by Tom Rath. We followed that up with Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, which was his sequel. Probably my third one was, because I was reading all three at the same time, The Unstoppables. That was a book about professional women and I’m quoted in that one, so I just think that is a phenomenal book.

What’s one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
Forgetting your true purpose. What I mean by that is taking things personally and believing that it’s about you. One should not forget about whatever they’re representing—it truly should be about either the organization or the stakeholders and, in my case, the community—the patients.

What is your “Life Quote?”
“Never, never, never give up,” said by Winston Churchill. I’ve taken one that with me since college. It has been with me throughout my entire life. I hold it near and dear, and it always works. It’s never failed me yet.

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1. Phil Knight – Shoe Dog 2. Damon Mogavero – The Underground Culinary Tour: How the New Metrics of Today’s Top Restaurants are Transforming How America Eats

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