260 : Healthcare CEO While Black (w/ Ken Miller)

Zach sits down with Ken Miller, CEO of Nasco Healthcare, and they talk about being an executive while Black, COVID-19, and advice around navigating corporate America. Ken Miller is a global health care executive and cross-industry board member with 30+ years of experience and is known as a shapeshifter for high-potential companies for launching, transforming and evolving world-class companies into profitable & growing businesses.

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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and wow. You know, I’m recording this on May 27th, and it’s challenging times, right? You know, we talk about Living Corporate being a platform that amplifies and centers marginalized voices at work, and one thing about–I’m gonna just speak from a Black perspective–is that we say that being Black is exhausting, like, that’s a common phrase you’ll hear, like, on Twitter and stuff. Black people say it, and we’ll say it also in conversation, like, “Being Black is exhausting,” but the reality is being Black is incredible. It’s the systems of oppression, and that’s cultural, that’s political, that’s legal, that’s legislative, that’s economic, that’s judicial, that’s… like, these systems come together and make being Black exhausting, and so I come to you today, you know, I’m excited, I’m thankful to be here, and I’m thankful wherever you are. I see you. I appreciate you. You’re loved and you’re supported. You know, we exist to really be a space, a digital oasis if you will, of encouragement and affirmation, and so we do that on this platform by having real talk in a corporate world. We interview CEOs. We interview executives and entrepreneurs and authors and activists, scholars, authors, all types of folks, really tackling perspectives from marginalized experiences and marginalized identities, marginalized meaning underestimated, underrepresented, under-supported, and we do that every week, and today is no different, y’all. We have Ken Miller. Ken Miller is, man, one of the few CEOs we’ve had on the platform. I just want to actually get right into it. Ken, welcome to the show. How are you doing?

Ken: I’m doing fantastic, Zach. Thank you so much for having me.

Zach: Oh, man. I have to ask, you know, how are you and your family doing during this time?

Ken: As you said, these are very, very difficult times, challenging for all of us. In fact, you know, this COVID-19 crisis has truly impacted my family. Unfortunately I lost my grandmother to COVID-19. I lost my uncle to COVID-19. My mother-in-law tested positive and is now in the hospital. So this pandemic is truly impacting all of us, in particular my family and moreover people of color around the world, and we gotta do everything we can to try to get this thing under control, Zach.

Zach: Absolutely. You know, I want to get right into it, right? Every now and then, like, I’ll read this huge bio for folks, right, but I really want to give you space to talk to us a little bit about yourself, talk about your company, your background, and just what you want folks to know about you.

Ken: Yeah, for sure. I come from very humble beginnings. I grew up in Westchester County in New York City in a very small town called Greenberg, New York, and growing up in Greenberg, we all grew up like family, and I was fortunate enough to have a very tight network of family and friends that really supported me in my development, made sure that I did everything I had to do academically as well as build some decent athletic skills. And I was fortunate enough to go to college. In fact, I was the first member of my family to go to a four-year university and actually graduate, and fortunately enough I was able to get into school via football, but while there I grew a passion for academics and ultimately wanting to make a difference. You know, I was fortunate enough to jump into the healthcare industry shortly after undergrad where I just continued to progress, be given more and more responsibility. I had a network of leaders that supported me along the way in my development, continued to challenge me and give me new opportunities, and throughout this journey that’s been over 30 years I’ve been fortunate enough to lead organizations here in the U.S. for major Fortune 100 companies like Pharmacia Pfizer, like Roche Labs, like Novo Nordisk. I even had the opportunity to serve as an ex-patriot in Basel, Switzerland for about two and a half years while with Roche Labs, and I believe that that journey, those experiences, actually prepared me to take on more of a leadership role in healthcare, and currently I am the president and CEO of Nasco Healthcare. We are a healthcare company focused on the development of simulation training solutions for first responders, such as folks who are in the frontlines right now fighting COVID-19, nurses and doctors, to ensure that they build the skills so that they are ready to meet the needs of patients however they present themselves, and so I’m very happy and excited to be on this podcast with you, talk to you a little bit about my background and my journey, but the long and short of it is, Zach, that I come from humble beginnings and I feel very fortunate and thankful to be in this role today to try to make a difference in healthcare. 

Zach: You know, let’s talk about your role. You’re the second Black male CEO we’ve had on the show. I’m curious to get your perspective on what you would say are the biggest factors that have led you to the seat that you’re at in Nasco today.

Ken: Yeah, absolutely. I would say that it is 1. my faith, as well as my support network, that has led me here. You know, trusting in God, trying to be the best person that I can be, living my life with integrity I think has positioned me well to take on this opportunity. And then having a strong support network. My wife, she’s my #1 champion. She’s always in my corner. She always helps me make good decisions, as well as my broader network of family members and friends who coach me along the way. I think those two elements have prepared me to be here as CEO and president. Don’t get me wrong – I was very fortunate to go to a four-year school, get my undergrad education. I went and got my MBA from the University of Chicago, one of the best business schools in the world. I’ve worked all around the globe, so I’ve had great experiences, and I think that those things coupled with the first two points that I made have absolutely prepared me to take on this type of leadership role, Zach.

Zach: I’m curious, especially during times like these, and we’re coming up right after this whole Amy Cooper situation and the continual just brutalization of Black bodies that continues to be broadcasted on, like, major media platforms… I’m just a manager, but even I as a manager, I feel like my safety net has gotten smaller and smaller as I’ve progressed in my career. Am I overstating the pressure to succeed as a Black male CEO and, like, the small degree or the lack of grace that you may have the higher up you get? Am I overstating that?

Ken: No, not at all, Zach. I do believe that our circles are getting smaller, and the challenges of assuming these leadership roles for men of color are even more and more difficult.

Zach: So let’s talk about that. How do you manage that stress for you? Like, how do you manage the stress of having to constantly be on your Ps and Qs? What does that look like for you? 

Ken: Yeah, absolutely. Let me come to the stress element second. Let me start with how to get there, okay? One is you’ve got to have to an unwavering belief in yourself. This makes me reflect back when I was in third grade, and my third grade teacher seeing me as a Black boy in class tried to put me in a remedial reading group, and my mom was not having it, Zach. My mom marched up to the school and she told that teacher, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him. He has all of the capabilities as any other kid. All you’ve got to do is put him in the position and challenge him and hold him accountable.” From that moment on, I committed myself to being my absolute best, to having a commitment to excellence in everything in which I do, and so that brings me back to this unwavering confidence and belief in yourself and never giving up, Zach, and I think that if you do that you will achieve your greatest opportunities. You will fulfill your greatest opportunities. Now let me get to your question about the stress, right? You know, listen, obviously being president and CEO comes with a number of pressures. It’s a 24 hours a day, 7 day a week job. You’re never off. There’s always a flood or a fire that you’ve got to deal with. There’s always a great opportunity that needs your input to lean on, to pursue. So it’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I think that early on when I assumed this role it was far more challenging and far more stressful because I didn’t have the experiences and I reacted to each individual situation with everything. I think that what I’ve learned, Zach, is to treat triumph and disaster as the true impostor of which it is. I try not to get too high when things are going great. I try not to get too low when things are going poorly. Second aspect of it is that I realize through my career to be successful it’s going to take a team, therefore I try to gain organizational alignment and input and have strong trust and agreement among my team, because I know what it’s gonna take to win is that it’s gonna take the collective effort of all of us working together to achieve our aim or overcome any individual challenge. As a result of that, I think that I’m managing the stress much, much better. Because I don’t get too high or too low, as well as because I lean on the capabilities and strengths of my teammates, recognizing that I don’t have to take it on all on my own, that there are others that are in this with me to help me solve these challenges.

Zach: What does it look like for you to navigate white fragility and build relationships and coalitions of trust with folks that don’t look like you, considering where you sit as an executive?

Ken: Hey, that’s tough, right? You know, it’s much easier for us to connect and bond with those that look like us, talk like us, walk like us. It’s far easier. But at the same time, that’s not the world or the environment in which I work in, right? It never has been, from the minute I walked into corporate America. I’ve always been surrounded by predominantly Caucasian males and to some degree Caucasian females, very few minorities. And so what I’ve learned to do throughout my career is find my authentic self, Zach. Be me. Be the best Kenny that Kenny can be and always present that to others, and I think that with me being authentic and genuine I connect better with others, as well as I can have more candid, open and honest conversations about things that are working and things which are not working. Sometimes, you know, my culture–listen, I’m a little direct, you know? I’m a little forward, but I want to make sure that we’re having the real conversation and we’re not sweeping any issues or concerns under the rug. And so with doing that I think that I’ve built really strong, long-lasting, trusting relationships with those which I’ve worked with. If you ever look on my Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook page, you’ll see all of my colleagues throughout my 30-year career who are still my friends, who still recognize me for having a contribution in their development and helping them to progress and get to where they are today, and many of them are my Caucasian counterparts.

Zach: Let’s talk a little bit about Nasco and your journey in healthcare and, like, why this industry specifically.

Ken: You know, it’s very interesting. Zach, when I came out of undergrad graduating from the University of Albana in 1990, I just wanted to get a high-paying job, you know? So I wanted to get paid, so I jumped out and accepted a role down on Wall Street with Morgan Stanley. You know, I could see my future. I thought I’d be living the high life like The Wolf on Wall Street, but I quickly realized after a short six months in that industry that, although I was succeeding, I was growing, I was learning, I wasn’t being fulfilled or personally rewarded, and so I got recruited by a pharmaceutical company and ultimately accepted that role, and I immediately began to flourish, and what I found was that I was able to do good while doing good, and what I mean by that is I was able to grow professionally, be successful, achieve my professional goals and aims, but at the same time I was able to bring healthcare solutions to physicians and nurses that were ultimately on the frontlines of impacting and saving people’s lives, and from that I was tremendously rewarded. So throughout my 30-year career I have, with all of my passion, jumped into the deep end with these communities, whether it be the diabetes community, whether it be the psychiatric community, whether it be the simulation and training community of frontline healthcare workers, because I truly believe that the work in which I’ve done over my 30-year plus career and even to this day is really making a difference in helping to ultimately save lives and make our communities even better.

Zach: So we’re in extraordinary times. Can we talk a little bit about how Nasco’s business is adapting to the market and challenges presented by COVID-19?

Ken: Yeah, this is a very challenging time, Zach, and for us we’ve tried to modify and adjust our business to these times. First and foremost, the number one thing is to keep everyone safe, both the associates that work within Nasco Healthcare as well as their family and friends and the communities in which they live. So what we’ve first done is that we’ve enabled as many associates within the organization that have the ability to work from home to work from home. For all of those who are essential and critical to maintaining our business on a day-to-day basis within the building, we’ve instituted all of the normal social distancing measures, staying 6 feet apart, having mask requirements, limiting vendors into the corporate facilities, putting our manufacturing associates on staggered shifts to limit the bringing together in common areas like lunch rooms and break areas. We disinfect the entire facility from top to bottom four times a day, as well as we’ve put extra care into disinfecting all of our products as they are being shipped out of the building and ultimately arriving at our customers. So safety is the #1 priority. In terms of meeting the demands and the needs of the markets in this changing time, we’ve created more remote learning solutions. So we’ve partnered with universities, healthcare systems and governments around the world to create simulation training solutions that can be delivered digitally online so that healthcare professionals can continue to get certified and trained so that they are ready and prepared to meet the challenges of this pandemic. The last thing that we’ve done is that we’ve ramped up the production of our life-saving solutions, specifically our CPR solutions, our intubation heads, as well as our patient communication simulators that aid healthcare professionals in diagnosing COVID-19 during this crisis. 

Zach: And, you know, I’m hearing the parameters and the measures that you’re taking. I’m curious, with that in mind, and as we look at–you know, folks are saying that this may be going on until, like, next year. You know, when you look at the next 18 months, what are you most excited about with Nasco?

Ken: Yeah. I’m really excited about our ability to be able to take training from the classroom and take it into the home. With our digital remote learning solutions, I think that we have the ability to really help healthcare and first responders to be ready to 1. navigate through this crisis as well as be better prepared in the future. As well, we are ramping up our production of COVID-19 simulation solutions so that… and I shouldn’t say just COVID-19 simulation solutions, Zach, but pandemic response simulation solutions so that once we conquer this pandemic and we use these solutions, we’ll be much better prepared for those in the future. I think if there’s one thing that we learned from the COVID-19 crisis is that we were not ready. We were not prepared as a nation or as a globe, and so I believe that our local, state and federal government leaders have clearly identified how woefully unprepared we were. So at Nasco Healthcare, our aim and our goal is to ensure that everyone be ready, and so we are building those life-saving solutions that help first responders and healthcare professionals be ready when the time comes. So whether it be to diagnose a patient during this crisis, whether it be to train a respiratory specialist on how to put someone on a ventilator, or to be able to resuscitate a patient that’s in cardiac arrest that’s right by the bedside or on the side of a car accident. All of these solutions we believe we will be coming forward with over the next 12-18 months that show a very bright future for Nasco Healthcare, and we ultimately hope to help the community be better prepared in the future. 

Zach: So before we let you go, what advice do you have to the marginalized professionals, especially now, in the workplace?

Ken: Yeah. Well, I’m one of those marginalized professionals in the workplace, and so the first thing I would recommend is to believe in yourself. Never allow anyone to steal your confidence. That’s #1. Have an unwavering belief in yourself. Two, commit yourself to excellence. Do the absolute best you can do at whatever you are doing. My mom taught me at a very young age that if you’re gonna clean a bathtub or clean a toilet, scrub it until it shines, you know? Give it your best. Give it your all. Third is to build your network, right? Find individuals that you believe that you can learn from and ask questions. Be inquisitive. And last but not least is you’ve got to get up every day, right? You’ve got to get up every day and commit yourself to doing all that you can to grow. I think that there’s one thing that I want the marginalized associate to remember, and one of my leaders taught me this a few years back in my career, Linda [?], one of my fondest leaders in my career, and what Linda told me was, “Ken, you might feel like you’ve got your back against the wall and there’s only one way out of this situation, but remember, there are hundreds of options. You just have to down-select to the option that you think is most attractive for you.” So Zach, for that marginalized associate, the last thing I’d want them to remember is that you’ve got many, many options to succeed. Don’t believe there’s only one path to your success. But choose a path and then get on that road, and if you find yourself deviating, course-correct, but stay focused, stay committed, continue to believe in yourself and I’m confident that you will achieve your goals and your aims. Chase your dreams. Never give up.

Zach: You know, Ken, I gotta tell you, I appreciate your energy, man. Before we let you go, any shout-outs?

Ken: I would just like to thank you, Zach, for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of this podcast. I’d like to thank Tina Chang and the pioneering collective for the work in which they do on my behalf, and I would just like to thank all of my friends and family who have supported me throughout my career that have allowed me to get to where I am now. I would just pray that everyone stay safe and stay healthy, and I’m wishing all of you and your families, you know, positivity as you navigate through this COVID-19 pandemic.

Zach: All right, Ken. Thank you so much. Y’all, this has been Zach. You’ve been listening to the Living Corporate podcast. We do this every single Tuesday. Make sure you check us out. We’re all over Barack Obama’s internet, okay? So if you type in Living Corporate we will pop up, okay? Make sure you check us out on Twitter @LivingCorp_Pod and on Instagram @LivingCorporate. Until next time, you’ve been talking to Ken Miller, CEO of Nasco–CEO and president of Nasco Healthcare. Peace.

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