BCBSM's Big Picture Focus

With the big changes posed by health-care reform, it is no small feat when a company in the healthcare space can maintain its laser focus on long-term goals. That's just what Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan achieved in 2015.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act has brought waves of historic change to the health-care industry. Imagine equipping your organization with the necessary education and information to manage through these changes, while continuing to build on foundational initiatives. That’s just what the Learning and Development team at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) did in 2015. By creating new strategic behaviors necessary for future success, called cultural attributes, and educating employees about them, the BCBSM training organization balanced the need for change with ongoing work around customer focus and empowerment.

“In an industry going through massive change, BCBSM has found success by keeping its eye on strategic priorities,” says Daniel J. Loepp, president and CEO. “A key part of our success has been sharing those priorities through our innovative town hall format provided to all our employees.”

The town hall sessions offer a unique learning experience:

  • Town halls include every employee. All 8,000 employees attended one of eight sessions offered in Detroit and Grand Rapids over a four-day period. Additionally, all new employees are provided a similar experience locally within their first 90 days at BCBSM.
  • Town halls are highly interactive. Not just a pep talk and a Q&A, these sessions engage all employees in targeted strategy discussions among small groups—at tables of eight led by other employees trained to facilitate the discussion. In all, 300 employees from all areas of the company, including 22 executives, volunteered and were trained to be facilitators.
  • Learning maps are included—a takeaway visual that captures BCBSM’s strategy and new environment in an easy-to-remember manner. The most recent town halls focus on new opportunities the company has as a result of the Affordable Care Act and BCBSM’s transition to a mutual insurance company.
  • A foundation for future action is provided, a center point upon which future training initiatives are built.

“The town hall training includes an activity asking employees to identify the specific behaviors necessary for past, present, and future success—hitting home the point that behaviors we exhibited in the past alone are not sufficient for our future success,” says Laura Byars, vice president, Human Performance. At each table, employees are asked to select three cultural attributes from a list of 18 possibilities. Point values are assigned for each attribute, creating a game-like atmosphere.

“Throughout this exercise, employees experienced many ‘a-ha’ moments about our challenges and made personal commitments to change, while learning about the six new strategic drivers and the six cultural attributes necessary for future success,” says Valerie Keesee, director, Organizational Development. At the end of the exercise, point totals for the cultural attributes are revealed, rewarding participants for the right answers.

Investing in Development

BCBSM has developed several programs specifically designed to ensure employee realize the value placed on their development. One of the newer programs is focused on sales professionals. Starting in 2015, all salespeople at BCBSM are required to obtain licenses to sell both health and life insurance, and the company invested in training to help them achieve those certifications. “This licensing enables our salespeople to represent our full product line,” says Ed Wilkie, director, Sales Force Development. “And, perhaps as importantly, also sends the message that the company is invested in their career development and success.”

Wilkie mentions that a shift in sales training strategy from content-based to behavior-based is also one of the reasons for higher retention rates in BCBSM’s internal sales force, especially among new hires. “The added focus on self-improvement on top of product knowledge is building stronger bonds and increased satisfaction among sales staff,” he notes.

Another training program showcases the organization’s commitment to employee development and simultaneously has increased retention. Designed specifically for all new employees, “Beyond Beliefs” introduces the organization’s seven Cultural Beliefs, and encourages development of a personal plan to apply the beliefs in their new positions.

BCBSM also is planning for the future with comprehensive leadership development programming. “We continue to expand our suite of leadership development offerings to help reach our corporate goals to improve financial performance, market strength, and customer experience,” says Byars.

Leading 4 Impact is one such program for mid-level leaders. This training includes a Web-based session; a leadershipstyle assessment; a two-day, in-person interactive classroom experience; and post-classroom follow-up. The focus is on enhancing a leader’s ability to effectively lead “upward” with one’s boss, “across” with one’s colleagues and customers, and “downward” with one’s direct reports. This program receives outstanding feedback from participants, as reflected by the 78 percent Net Promoter Score.

BCBSM’s Learning team also conducts a “Coach Forward” development program to provide team leaders and supervisors with tools to improve leadership skills and positively affect business performance. Linda Oliver, director, Operations Development and Learning Management, describes it as a fast-paced, 90-day program, with supervisors meeting at least eight times with their assigned coaches. A key element of the program, she explains, is a 360-degree assessment of the team leader’s strengths and opportunities for improvement as determined by the team leader, his or her manager, staff and four or five peers or customers. Results of the assessment are shared only with the team leader and the coach at an introductory all-day workshop. Together, they identify two or three items to work on as part of an individual development plan, plus one business metric. Surveys are conducted at the mid-point and end of the program, with follow-up surveys three and six months later. Survey results show the program is working:

  • 95 percent of the managers said they’ve seen a positive change in the team leader after the training.
  • 90 percent said the improvement they identified earlier had been sustained six months later.

Focusing on the Future

Ramping up their efforts to prepare leaders to successfully navigate the world of change with clarity, commitment, and skill, BCBSM has developed BREAK THRU Leadership. This new, six-month program is offered to high-performing employees and includes a set of personal assessments, coaching, group workshops and activities, a community give-back project, executive networking events, team action learning projects with a team learning coach, and an executive mentor. It is BCBSM’s response to further solidify the leadership pipeline with BREAK THRU Leadership.

In addition to other customized courses on targeted leadership topics and an extensive e-learning library of leader development resources, BCBSM offers a Leadership Competency Learning Series, a monthly Webinar for leaders on their leadership competencies and strategic drivers. In 2015, the focus of the series was “leaders as teachers.” Byars says that each month, 400 to 500 leaders attend the voluntary sessions, representing approximately 40 percent of the company’s leader population.

Along with leadership development, BCBSM offers comprehensive succession planning for all executive-level roles, under the direction of the Board of Directors. The process includes preparing individual succession plans, using input from the incumbent, the senior executive of the division, and the CEO.

Successors are identified at a range of readiness levels, from ready today to ready in three to five years. While all executive positions have at least one successor identified, currently 75 percent of succession plans have a successor who would be immediately ready to assume a role. Executives are encouraged to think through longer-range organizational design decisions in the context of succession planning.

While succession planning occurs for executive roles, there are additional company-wide talent conversations conducted to gain a better appreciation of the strength of the organization. HR business partners, using a traditional nine-box matrix to assess performance and potential, facilitate Talent Reviews.

Darrell Middleton, executive vice president of Operations and Business Performance, credits executive leadership for embracing Talent Summits. Launched in 2015, vice presidents of specific functional areas come together in Talent Summits to discuss the manager and director talent in the spirit of identifying development challenges and opportunities, as well as make specific plans to address them.

Building on the Momentum

With so many accomplishments in 2015, BCBSM’s Learning team is not pausing to rest. Middleton says they are continuing to assess and focus on areas where they can do even better. “As our industry keeps changing, we need to help employees and leaders deal with change. To that end, our leadership training focuses on building skills around leading change,” he stresses. “We can expect company strategy to evolve in response to change. Our goal is to connect strategy to our employees’ work.”

Byars says one of the ways they will help the company achieve its strategic goals is by pushing for ever greater employee engagement. “As employees take part in strategy discussions, the sense of ownership builds for their decisions, action, and work. We work in close coordination with our internal partners from other areas in the company to ensure that we are sending aligned messages,” she notes. “We continue to measure our progress. Input from our surveys helps us more finely calibrate our training efforts to more precisely address company and employee needs.”


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