Cardinal Health CEO Mike Kaufmann leads with intention and perspective

Virginia Brown
For Columbus CEO
Mike Kaufmann Cardinal Health

Michael Kaufmann feels a little uncomfortable receiving accolades for what he considers simply doing his job. But the CEO of Cardinal Health, named this year’s CEO of the Year for large business, collects them for good reason.

Having spent his entire career, over 30 years, with Cardinal, he found his path to CEO by making a big change early on. Following graduation with a business degree from Ohio Northern University, he started out in the finance department. But in 1993, he made the pivotal decision to switch to sales.

“I really wanted to learn about and get focused on the customer, because I thought that would make me a much better general manager,” he says. “If I hadn’t done that, I’m sure there’s no way I’d be sitting in this chair today as CEO.”

It’s a seat with a lot of pressure—and responsibility.

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Today he oversees operations in more than 35 countries and approximately 44,000 employees globally.

For the last year and a half, with COVID’s effects ranging from a critical break in the supply chain to efforts to keep his employees safe, Kaufmann says it’s been tough to find balance.

“Most senior executives struggle, at times, finding balance between work and family. ... I purposely schedule family time, because it’s important to me,” he says. “But it’s harder and harder to find balance, because, even when I’m home, it’s really hard not to think about [work]. I’m blessed with a great wife and family that understand, but that’s probably my greatest challenge.”

Still, when he thinks of the hurdles of the last year, he finds inspiration in his people, particularly those who can’t work from home—those who show up daily to keep over 30 global manufacturing plants, plus distribution centers, running.

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In January, the company plans to bring its employees back to the office, beginning with three days a week with two flexible days.

“Trying to get that right balance and figure that out will take a little bit of time,” Kaufmann says. “... But I can’t wait. I get a lot of energy from seeing people.”

Those people—and creating a diverse, equal and inclusive environment—are at the core of his focus as CEO.

Over a decade ago, Kaufmann asked to lead the women’s initiatives at Cardinal. “Something inside of me said, Mike, this is something you got to do. And I can’t tell you how important that has been,” he says.

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“It really taught me about my own blind spots, my own unconscious bias. And I think it’s really helped me be a better leader, a better ally and advocate. It’s made me a better friend, father and partner.”

In early 2020, Kaufmann took the company’s 16-member Diversity and Inclusion Council to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a sobering site dedicated to providing a safe environment in which to reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.

The site’s central memorial is constructed of over 800 steel monuments, one for each county in the U.S., where a lynching occurred. Engraved on the columns are the names of the victims.

“I just don’t know how you don’t leave that spot changed and really committed in a much different and deep way to racial justice,” he says.

Cardinal’s commitment is outlined in its corporate citizenship report. By 2030, the company aims to raise the amount of women in senior roles from 40 to 48 percent, among other benchmarks to diversity leadership.

Company accolades range from Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality, Top Companies for People With Disabilities, 50 Best Companies for Latinas and more. The Institute for Women’s Leadership also named Kaufmann one of their “Guys Who Get it” in 2014.

Despite the pressures of the health care industry during a global pandemic, finding some levity in the day helps Kaufmann keep a positive demeanor, something he says is key to successful leadership.

“No matter how tough a day I have and no matter what news I might wake up to, before I walk through the front door I am smiling and energized, because people notice.”

Virginia Brown is a freelance writer.

Michael Kaufmann

CEO, Cardinal Health

Age: 59

Education: Bachelor of business administration, Ohio Northern University

Employees: About 44,000

2021 revenue: $162.5 billion