George S. Barrett

George S. Barrett is chairman and CEO of $122-billion Cardinal Health Inc. A global integrated health care services and products company, Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health is ranked No. 21 on the Fortune 500.

Joining the company in 2008 as vice chairman and CEO of the health care supply chain services segment, Barrett was named chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health in 2009.

He has refocused Cardinal Health on its essential role in supporting hospitals, pharmacies and alternative sites of care in its efforts to improve the quality and safety of patient care, while reducing costs and improving efficiency.  The tagline “Essential to care” embodies the company’s strategy and the culture of the organization.

In 2016, Cardinal Health celebrates 25 years of its commitment to supplier diversity. See related article on page 44.

Here, Barrett discusses the key role diversity plays at Cardinal Health.

Tell us a little about your background and how you landed at Cardinal Health.
I grew up in Westport, Connecticut, the fourth of five children. My mother was a teacher and poet and my father was a therapist and a terrific amateur musician. Both of my parents were activists, particularly as it related to civil rights. I grew up playing sports and music from a very young age. I was a college soccer player at Brown University. But, during my junior season, I had an injury that ended my career. I was fortunate in that I had this other passion throughout my life — music. At the urging of one of my professors, I immersed myself in my music and took my voice training more seriously. I was already studying history, but then added a degree in music.

After college, I went to New York to sing professionally and had the chance to teach and coach at a private school. While I loved the performing aspect of the work — both live and in the studio — I didn’t love the lifestyle or the music business. An opportunity arose to join a small pharmaceutical company, and in that job I was able to touch all aspects of the company. I eventually ran the organization, which was acquired by a larger European-based public company in 1990. From there, I spent the next 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry, eventually leading to the opportunity that brought me to Cardinal Health.  

What sets Cardinal Health apart from the competition?
It’s the way we combine the “what we do” — the solutions we provide to our customers in a very complex health care world — with the extraordinary ability of our people to internalize their work and recognize that behind every action we take, there is a patient who needs care. We have a deep culture of service at Cardinal Health.

Why is it important for Cardinal Health to have a diverse employee base and a diverse supplier network?
At Cardinal Health, we realize that diversity is more than gender and ethnicity. It includes thoughts, communication styles, interests, languages, values, beliefs and a variety of dimensions. Inclusion is the effort we make to ensure that each and every employee feels welcomed, supported and valued as a vital part of our organization. Innovation comes from our differences. If you take a group of people who all look the same, act the same and think the same, you’ll get the same ideas and answers. Diversity is an innovation strategy.

In addition to employees, supplier diversity is a differentiating strength that adds value to our customers and to our community. Cardinal Health is committed to diversity in our supplier base. We believe diversity is a differentiating strength for our organization and our customers; therefore, it is our policy to develop and foster strategic business relationships with large and small businesses owned by ethnic minorities, women and veterans.

How has diversity and inclusion changed at Cardinal Health since you became CEO in 2009?
I have continued to build on the strong foundation of diversity and inclusion that was in place through elevated focus, broader internal communications and establishment of bold expectations for us as a corporation.

Why is it important that supplier diversity be part of your business strategy — not a separate program?
Our primary business strategy is to make health care more cost-effective, so our customers can focus on their patients.  To accomplish that strategy requires inclusion. We strive to reflect the diversity of the industry, our customers and the communities we serve. To this end, partnering with best-in-class diverse suppliers is essential to our work.

For our organization, maintaining a diverse supplier base spurs competition, generates innovative thinking and facilitates the exchange of ideas that have the potential to produce value-added solutions.

What’s the value of supplier diversity mentoring programs, and how has having such programs helped Cardinal Health?
Cardinal Health’s supplier diversity mentoring programs include those under the federal government, the National Minority Supplier Development Council and our corporate guidelines. Our mentoring programs encourage true partnerships for learning, growth and sustainability, enabling us to contribute to the development of diverse supplier capabilities and operational excellence. 

What should diverse suppliers who want to provide goods and services to Cardinal Health be prepared to bring to the table?
Suppliers who desire to work with Cardinal Health must be prepared to bring innovative, competitive and lean processes — along with overall value — to our opportunities.  

What advice would you give to diverse suppliers aspiring to work for Cardinal Health?
Understand the health care industry supply chain and differentiate your value. Be agile enough to compete in our complex industry.  

What keeps you up at night?
Health care is at an important inflection point. We need to be able to compete in the world as we’ve known it for many years, and at the same time, be nimble enough and bold enough to take positions that enable us to compete in an environment that may look much different in the future. The challenge is keeping the organization attentive to both needs.

About George S. Barrett

Born: Westport, Connecticut
First job: My first job was washing dishes at a restaurant. My first full-time job was as a singer, teacher and coach.
Hobbies: I enjoy working with other leaders as a mentor, reading and playing music. I’ve been an athlete all of my life — played soccer at Brown University and now swim, cycle and play tennis and golf.
Last book read: “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be” by Moisés Naím
Best advice ever received and from whom: “Don’t let your organization hand problems up to you when they can solve them. Push the decision-making back down to them.” — Ronald Heifetz, founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Favorite leadership quote: “People don’t fear change, they fear loss.” —  in book “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky

By Stephanie Anderson Forest