Already a subscriber? Log in
- Unparalleled business coverage of the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids corridor.
- Immediate access to subscriber-only content on our website.
- 26 issues per year delivered digitally, in print or both.
- Support locally owned and operated journalism.
Michelle Niermann wasn’t always destined for a career in health care administration. A native of the small central Illinois town of Carlinville, she worked for a summer at her hometown hospital, learning the value of teamwork to a mission-driven outcome. But her undergraduate career at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, concluded with a double major in communications and psychology – far from an automatic path to a medical career. Uncertain of her career aspirations, Ms. Niermann began looking at grad schools to continue her education. To what end? At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear. “I wasn’t sure what sort of career path I might pursue to make use of those degrees and to start in some way to have an impact on an organization,” she said. “I can remember pretty clearly, sitting in the library at Bradley one afternoon, looking through grad school lists and programs, and came across the idea of a master’s in health care administration,” she recalled. “And nearly as soon as I saw it, I thought it was the right thing for me because it was an opportunity to be able to provide leadership and to have an impact. But most importantly, I was attracted by the opportunity to work in mission-driven organizations – places that have an important purpose in serving their community.” She got that master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and – let’s just say it worked out well. Ms. Niermann has spent her entire 27-year career at UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, most recently succeeding Ted Townsend in 2019 to become the organization’s president and chief executive officer. And now, she adds another honor to her professional career – being named the Corridor Business Journal’s 2021 Most Influential Leader in the Corridor. It’s been an honor years in the making. After earning her master’s in health care administration from the UI in 1994, she came to St. Luke’s in 1994 as an administrative fellow, a program she credits with helping broaden her knowledge of the health care industry and its leadership expectations. “It really gives you much earlier exposure to what senior leaders do, the ways they work with the broader medical community to improve and meet needs,” she said. “It gets you to places that you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to (access) until much later in your career. In my case, I got to observe in the operating rooms and do a lot of other things at the front. It’s a really great experience.” While Ms. Niermann said she was “never drawn” to working as a health care clinician, she stressed her deep respect and admiration for those who work directly with patients, noting that the hospital’s nursing staff leaders were among the first to welcome her to St. Luke’s. “They put their arms around me, showed me that they cared,” she said. “They were interested and supportive. That was fundamental for me because it’s been a career-long reminder that the reason why we’re here is to take care of patients. Nurses don’t ever let you forget that, and they shouldn’t. I kind of smile at those times.” The notion of public service has remained top-of-mind for Ms. Niermann, and it continues to motivate her daily. “Sometimes, when I walk into St. Luke’s in the morning, it’s hard for me to fathom that I’m in this role,” she said. “You have to remember that your reach has grown, and your potential to influence has grown, so you have to be conscious about how you want to use that extended reach for good. It’s about the core purpose, the mission, but it’s also about the social construct that surrounds the work we do and how we can help improve the health of our community. Ms. Niermann is the first woman to lead the UnityPoint Health – Cedar Rapids team, overseeing one of the state’s most extensive health care facilities, including the 532-bed St. Luke’s Hospital and nearly 4,000 employees at the hospital, area clinics and offices. And in a variety of ways, she says she’s come to recognize the significance of that milestone. “I remember many times earlier in my career, I was often the only woman in the room,” she said. “It’s almost hard to do in health care because (the industry is) 85% women overall, but back in the day, there were more than a couple of occasions when I was both the only woman and, almost certainly, the youngest person in the room. For the most part, I was there because I was to be there, and I had a contribution to make. But it does remind you what diversity is about. It can be very hard to bring your best qualities forward in those situations. I really think the most natural response for most, and especially when it happens every day rather than just occasionally, is to withdraw. But how much is lost when people withdraw, both for them as individuals and for us as an organization? We, as leaders, have a responsibility to make sure that those environments feel welcoming because we’re going to get the best folks when we do that.” Ms. Niermann said she sees her influence as part of a broader effort to improve the community as a whole. “My life philosophy is that you can be really good in your own skillset and what you do as an organization,” she said, “but there’s always a way to be better. I think our team has that history of firsts we’ve brought to the community, but you don’t settle. You keep going and getting better. That sense of having high aspirations, to innovate, to move forward, provides a certain amount of influence as well. Who wants to just stand still?” UnityPoint peers offered effusive praise for Ms. Niermann’s award. “The last two years have been incredibly hard on health care workers,” UnityPoint Health President and CEO Clay Holderman said, “but Michelle continues to lead, support, and inspire her staff every day to deliver high quality, compassionate care to the Cedar Rapids community.” “No matter what comes our way – a derecho, a global pandemic – Michelle and her team always stay focused on how to best serve the patients and families of Cedar Rapids,” added UnityPoint Health Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John Sheehan. “Congrats, Michelle, on this well-deserved honor. We value your leadership and appreciate your contributions.” In sharing her recognition with UnityPoint’s staff, Ms. Niermann was quick to credit her co-workers’ efforts, particularly in the face of an ever-evolving pandemic that continues to present new challenges to the health care industry. “In many ways, you have seen the very best we have to give during these last two unbelievably difficult years,” she told hospital staffers. “Our purpose is to serve our patients and our community, and our legacy mission is to give the health care we’d want our loved ones to receive. Until now, no one on our team has ever been asked to fulfill our purpose and live our mission under these kinds of circumstances. And yet, everyone on our team has risen to the occasion time after time, with integrity, grit, resilience and compassion. I think it’s these qualities, in all of us, that are being recognized.” MICHELLE NIERMANN Current position: President and CEO, UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids, 2019-present Previous UnityPoint positions: Administrative fellow; executive vice president and COO; vice president of clinic operations, UnityPoint Clinic-Cedar Rapids Education: Bachelor of arts, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois; MA, hospital and health care administration, University of Iowa Honors: Fellow, American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE); past president, ACHE of Iowa; past president, University of Iowa Health Management and Public Policy Alumni Board; Outstanding Alumni Award, University of Iowa College of Public Health; Corridor Business Journal 40 Under 40 recipient and Alumnus Award winner.