Can Minnesota Nice Help GHI Director Lois Quam Succeed?

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Sarah Arnquist
Sarah Arnquist is editor and co-founder of the Global Health Hub. She is a health policy consultant in California. Previously, she worked in global health research at Harvard University and before that as a newspaper reporter, contributing to the New York Times and other print and online publications. She has a master’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
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Lois Quam, the newly appointed executive director of President’s Obama’s $63-billion, six-year Global Health Initiative (GHI), introduced herself to the world on Tuesday at a public event sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Minnesota business woman once named Fortune magazine’s “50 most powerful women in business” is new to the global health and development arena. While building her private-sector career at UnitedHealth Group, she eventually led a $30-billion division. She also was involved in numerous public-health sector reform efforts in Minnesota.

Quam said on Tuesday that she accepted Secretary of State Clinton’s request to take on this role because she “couldn’t think of anything more important to do.”

“My profession isn’t medicine, or epidemiology or development,” Quam said. “What I feel my profession is is how to take a good idea, and bring it to scale, and then sustain it as a legacy.”

When Quam mentioned that she grew up in rural Minnesota early in her comments, my ears perked. When she recounted a memory of her cousin Orville talking about corn prices and his commitment to Lutheran World Relief Services, I felt I knew her. As a rural Minnesota native, I feel confident in my assessment that Quam is quintessential Minnesota nice sans accent.

Now that I’ve come clean with my bias, I also was intrigued when Quam mentioned the challenge of raising three boys under age two. This profile from Harvard Business Review describes how Quam managed career and family and provides a decent snapshot of her life to date.

Perhaps chasing after three toddler boys is the best preparation one could have for trying to manage several federal agencies and all their leaders into a coherent global health systems strengthening strategy?

“I really like the challenge of collaborating and working with people who look at problems in very different ways and finding ways that they can work together very effectively,” she said.

Quam’s appointment comes a year a half after the GHI was first announced in May 2009. Since then, numerous questions have been raised (and few answered) regarding its implementation and roll out.

As Nandini Oomman, of the Center for Global Deveploment, wrote more than a year after the GHI’s creation, the lack of transparency and details about how the GHI is supposed to work led to rapidly depleting confidence in its viability as a overarching strategy. In her excellent post, Oomman hesitantly commended the inter-agency approach, but pointed out that the lack of an obvious leader created an accountability vacuum.

Now, Quam has stepped into that void. Unfortunately, she didn’t reveal many more details on Tuesday about the GHI’s structure, accountability, or specific objectives. Only five weeks into her job, Quam’s responses were perfectly political. It’s difficult to know if her shallow responses were due to her newness to the field or if it was an overt effort to be opaque. I’m suspecting both.

While not a global health expert, Quam has a stellar management background. Strong management probably is what’s needed most to corral all the agencies and egos under the GHI umbrella into a working strategy. Adding a touch of Minnesota nice can’t hurt.

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