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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Moving to New Opportunities: Adding Value, Making a Difference

September 1, 2017 

As I conclude my tenure as the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority on August 31,  I reflect on just how far we have come. We have transitioned the former Wayne County Mental Health Agency into a strong, independent Government Authority.

When we began, we were saddled with tens of millions of dollars in debt and now we are recognized as one of the most fiscally sound and managed government organizations in the state. Being good stewards of public resources allows us to invest in our core mission of serving over 80,000 of our neighbors, family and friends; people with serious mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities and persons with substance use disorders.

Former legislative leaders, staff and lobbyists will remember the battles going back to the days of Governors Engler and Granholm to address the concerns with the delivery of mental health services in Detroit and Wayne County. It took over a decade to convince local leaders to transition the former Agency to become an independent “Authority”. Few thought one would be created because of politics and fewer still expected us to be successful these last four years for the same reason. By any measure, we have been successful. Is there more to do?  Of course. But we can all be proud of our accomplishments.

The improvements our team—our Board, Authority staff and exceptional community partners—have made to both operations and service are remarkable, universally acknowledged and documented in our annual report: http://dwmha.com/files/2814/7940/6323/Annual_Report_2015-2016_Website_Copy.pdf

Just read the side bar quotes in our annual report from community activists, judges, state officials, business leaders, consumers, etc.  That tells the story of how far we have come since we became an Authority. 

Together we built the community’s’ “Authority” on a set of values I set forth as I began my tenure 4 years ago; by listening to consumers, staff, board members and our great community partners and what they had to say about what we should stand for.  I then outlined those values for all to see: http://www.dwmha.com/files/2515/0186/6904/Authority_Guiding_Principles.pdf

The Principles morphed into the Authority’s Strategic Plan led by the Authority’s Board, and they are outlined here: http://www.dwmha.com/operations/strategic-planning/strategic-plan-information/

Together we have laid the foundation for success going forward. I have every hope and expectation the Board will select an exceptional CEO to help guide the Authority to a new level of success. The ingredients are there to continue to make a huge difference in the lives of the people we serve.  Together we have set plans in motion that have the potential to change the trajectory of success for the people in our community.

Pathway to Success

First, the System Transformation Plan laid out with the help of Jay Rosen, Health Management Associates, and Marianne Udow-Phillips, Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation.  Second, the $5 million per year for a 3 year minimum commitment the Authority Board has committed to become a catalyst for change by providing support to help Detroit school kids succeed. I predict before this effort is done, our dollars will be the smallest slice of the investment we will make in our kids and our collective future. Nothing is more important than establishing a future for our children in our community, so the return on this investment will be our legacy and our collective effort will be one of the accomplishments we are most proud of.

These efforts, coupled with the framework and direction of the Authority’s strategic plan, embrace the belief that we must not simply react to “change,” we must lead it!  (With the understanding that plans must have the flexibility to be altered as new realities emerge).

For those that know me, my other great passion is China. We can take a lesson from China’s history and follow the cautionary approach embodied in Premier Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, “Mozhe shitou guo he” or, “Crossing the river by feeling for stones.” A path has been set and the Authority must now proceed with passion, caution and the desire to produce a better future for the people we serve.

These initiatives established a road map for success and a solid foundation upon which a new CEO and the Board can continue to build. The next CEO—working with the Board—has a solid foundation upon which to take the organization to even greater heights. I encourage everyone to continue to be bold and lead change and not simply protect the status quo. Holding onto the past is a pathway to make DWMHA.com and other public behavioral health organizations irrelevant as change continues to wash over the system. I addressed just that in a recent Dome article: Change, Adapt, or Die. http://domemagazine.com/tomwatkins/tw081117

There are far too many wonderful people at the Authority, within our network of community partners, and across the state of Michigan for me to recognize them by name. You know who you are: Current and former Board members, staff (past and present), legislators, judges, Mayors, county employees, MDHHS, MACMHB, PIHP and CMH colleagues, consumers, advocates, media, business leaders, foundations, and community leadership. All of you have contributed to our success. We were an awesome team.

The job to serve vulnerable people in our community is far from over and many challenges remain. I have great faith that if the Board, staff and our community partners continue to align our values with our actions we will be able to lead change that will truly add value and make a difference in people’s lives. A shared vision and common agenda is essential if the DWMHA is to be successful going forward.


Health care is undergoing massive disruptions – a transformational sea-change that is washing over many good people, families, and communities. Nothing short of bold new thinking will truly move us forward. Who wins the idea war for health care will help shape our collective future for decades to come.

I expect DWMHA and its new leadership will grow to even greater heights– adding value and making a difference. The people we serve deserve nothing less.


Note: Many have asked what I plan to do after I end my contract leading Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. I plan to restart my consulting company: TDW and Associates here and in China. (Tom Watkins – CHINA US Focus


TDW and Associates has nearly four decades of experience in creating, building, managing and leading complex organizations in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. Budgets ranging from $2 million to $1.3 billion. Industries include: education (Pre-K-12, Higher Ed), Behavioral Health, business, both here and in China. Contact me: tdwatkins88@gmail.com

Tom Watkins is the past president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He can be emailed at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


August 31, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins



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