Recent Interview: "A Conversation with Janet Pinkerton Dombrowski"

Interviewed by Kim Pham, Global MHSA Candidate '17
(January 2017)

This is part of an ongoing series where students (like me) conduct in-depth interviews with alumni (like Janet) and post the results. I hope you'll get as much enjoyment out of reading the following excerpts about the successes of our fellow HMP alum as I did hearing them.

Q. What do you cherish most from your experience as an HMP student? And now as an HMP alum?

As an HMP student, one of the things I cherish most has been all of the connections I have made, as well as the people that have comprised this program. It was great to observe so many different perspectives and walks of life, but all with the same interest in impacting health care in a different manner than my direct health care experience. Another thing was the exposure to all of these new ideas. It really broadened my perspective and helped me to understand what health care was outside of clinical care. I loved learning about urban health care, community health, and policy - really getting to understand the underlying themes in healthcare administration.

As an alum, I would say the same still rings true today: it's the connections and exposure that I still cherish. I've enjoyed staying in touch with my cohort, and other alums, and being connected with students as well. That's really special – the students always give me so much energy. I also love seeing how the HMP program has evolved – seeing new focus on subjects we didn't get to discuss as much, like mental health, international health, and population health.

Q. You currently serve as President of JCD Advisors here in Ann Arbor, which combines strategy and organizational development with executive coaching. Traditionally, HMP students are more exposed to hospital administration, consulting, or policy positions. What made you decide to pursue this venture?

[Chuckles] If you had asked me 20 years ago if this is where I would end up, I would've never guessed this. I only applied to fellowships after graduation and was set on hospital administration. I was fortunate to get a lot of experience in strategy development, and business development in both health systems and consulting. Understanding business operations - the value proposition, pitch, and delivery - I had the opportunity to get involved with mergers and acquisitions. At Trinity Health I led negotiations for the acquisition of St. Mary in Livonia, and was part of the leadership team to help integrate St. Mary's into Trinity Health. It was that endeavor where I realized that strategy and business development skills alone were not going to be enough for this organization's success; leadership, culture, and organizational structures were even more important. This was my aha! moment and my opportunity for growth and development.

Through the system's HR department, I was able to train in executive coaching, culture transformation, and other organizational development skills. With these skills, the strong professional relationships I'd built over my career, and a desire for flexibility for my family, I decided to start my own business upon leaving Trinity Health.

Q: How would you advise students interested in pursuing a track like this?

I believe that to do this type of work, you need to have lived the experience of a senior leader or have "sat in that seat". The necessary intuition and gravitas, or the ability to sit with power (to speak candidly with a physician or CEO), comes with experience. A big challenge is finding people who can have the credibility and authority to be able to do this effectively. That being said, anyone can always be a student of organizational behavior. When you and other students start out in your next job, observe how leaders lead, how work gets done, and how teams can be effective. Ask yourself questions, like what would you do differently? What do you think is really important? There are some tools out there that can help give structure to what you are seeing. A great book is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, it provides a great framework.

Q. Additionally, your firm has emphasized key leadership competencies more widely discussed in positive organizational scholarship, like compassion and gratitude. Could you please speak on the importance of honing those, and potentially other aspects of emotional intelligence, as we all continue developing ourselves as leaders?

You can always build more technical competencies, but it's the behavioral competencies (or lack thereof) that tend to create problems for people. I work with professionals who are already "successful", so it's this idea of having them build self-awareness, getting them off autopilot, and intentionally choosing how to behave as a leader.

I am also learning a lot about the significance of neuro-leadership, the biology and physiology of leadership. For example, when you encounter a social threat (like an organizational or role change), functional MRIs show that your brain's response is similar to when it responds to a physical threat, like entering fight-or-flight mode. While you might not recognize this psychologically, understanding this innate response is important because it means you may have to fight against your self-protective mechanisms in times of change.

Q. As we enter an era of change for health care policy, how would you advise students and professionals in navigating change?

What leaders really need right now is to get the best out of themselves and the best out of other people. Build resilience. Keep people healthy and at their best - this is essential in tapping into their best thinking for innovation and creative problem solving. I like to use this analogy: when we are threatened during change, it's like an aperture in a camera that narrows and closes in (to protect ourselves). What we really need in the face of change or difficult times, is to open our apertures. We need to open up our minds and broaden our perspectives, engaging others' viewpoints.

Q. Any last words of wisdom to share with other fellow Wolverines?

Stay connected to the program and stay connected to each other. This helps to keep your aperture open. There are a lot of ways to stay connected and there's a lot of value in that. Also remember your network - it is there to give you a broader view of the world. Foster relationships, rather than "a network". For example, with LinkedIn invitations, include a personal note. Remember the reciprocity in relationships. Seek to provide value as you grow and maintain your relationships – that is when the value of your "network" will come back to you.