How Sue Schick used culture to put UnitedHealthcare on the map in Pennsylvania

Sue Schick

Sue Schick, CEO of regional commercial business line, UnitedHealthcare

Sue Schick is well-versed in the art of the uphill battle.

Two years ago, she was named CEO of the commercial business line in UnitedHealthcare’s Pennsylvania and Delaware region. It was a unique assignment. UnitedHealthcare is one of the pillars of the health insurance industry, with a strong presence and widespread brand recognition in numerous markets around the county.

But in Schick’s 1,044-employee unit, the company was a relative newcomer, broaching the Pennsylvania/Delaware region less than a decade prior.

“We have only been here seven or eight years, so we don’t have the widespread brand recognition yet,” Schick says. “One of the big things we have done in my time here, particularly last year, was to focus on building our brand and increasing the level of brand recognition.”

And it’s not just about TV commercials, billboards or sponsorship deals. For Schick, increasing the profile of the UnitedHealthcare brand in her region means connecting with the community and teaching current and potential customers what the company’s brand stands for.

“Some leaders think they have to build their brand, so they just go about putting their company’s name on a bunch of billboards and the sides of buses,” she says. “But we wanted to take a really comprehensive approach that included setting ourselves apart as thought leaders. For us, it becomes not just a matter of advertising. It’s a question of how do you become a part of the business community. How do you really put down roots in the community and find ways to contribute to it?”

To develop the connection between UnitedHealthcare and the communities in her region, Schick needed to develop a better connection between several thousand employees and the goals, vision and mission of the company. In short, she needed to reinforce corporate culture, creating a work environment in which employees would be empowered and impassioned to realize the goals and mission.

Paint a picture

The first step in motivating employees is to give them aggressive goals built around a compelling vision for where you want to take the company, then set the example from the top of how you want your people to accomplish the goals and realize the vision.

Schick started by reaching out to community organizations, placing an emphasis on community involvement and philanthropy that she expected her executive team to demonstrate as well, pushing the message to their teams and throughout the unit.

“We had several of our national executives in town meeting with the local chamber of commerce and meeting with an executive women’s forum,” Schick says. “We became very involved with philanthropy and corporate nonprofits.

“In fact, I think just about every member of my executive team sits on the board of a nonprofit now. I’m personally involved with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Pennsylvania chapter of the March of Dimes. It takes an organized effort to get to the point where you are not just advertising, but you are a part of the business community.”

However, you have to create a bigger message around your community endeavors. While community volunteer work and service on nonprofit boards is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself, if you want to integrate it into the overall culture and mindset of your business, you need to reinforce the altruism with internal communication.

Anytime Schick is in front of her people, whether in large audiences or small groups, she uses the opportunity to get her people thinking about their purpose and the potential of UnitedHealthcare in the Pennsylvania and Delaware marketplace.

“For a leader, one of the most important things you can do is paint a picture of the future,” Schick says. “Showing everyone what success is going to look like — what is the vision and what is the company’s full potential in the marketplace. It is a matter of inspiring those leaders to fall in behind that vision, and it all starts with communication.

“When you don’t have a team behind you, when you have failures in teamwork, many times the root cause of that is a lack of communication. Every opportunity I have to communicate with the entire team, I am talking about the vision, focusing them on our purpose and what we are trying to get done for our customers and members in Pennsylvania.

“Whether I am meeting with them one-on-one or in large groups or sending out a written communication or a video communication, it’s always a focus on reinforcing the vision of the future.”

With UnitedHealthcare, a relatively speaking new kid on the block, part of that vision involves embracing competition. Schick knows UnitedHealthcare faces stiff competition from health insurance providers that were established in the region long beforehand.

In connecting with the community and promoting the organizational goal of spreading the brand, Schick wants her team to embrace the challenge provided by competition, and realize that competition can benefit everyone in the end.

“If our ultimate goal is to help people live healthier lives, we have to look at the opportunities to make that mission real in this region,” Schick says. “The opportunity to really breathe life into that is to create a situation where employers and businesses have a choice, where they have true competition in health benefits so they can make the best choice for their employees.

“We see that wherever there is competition, that is going to lead to better and more innovative products, higher service levels and, over time, it is going to lead to more affordable costs.

“So when my team members get up in the morning, I want them to really think about what we can do to serve the business leaders in Pennsylvania and Delaware, what can we do to serve the consumers in the region, so that we are really helping to bring choice, which is a key component in bringing this vision of health and wellness to life.”

Live the culture

Schick thinks a lot of CEOs look at culture as a touchy-feely thing — an aspect of business leadership that has its place, but covers the rather squishy, formless subjects of motivation, purpose, morale and assorted other topics that might be more suited for discussion on a therapist’s couch.

In other words, culture is soft. It doesn’t impact the bottom line like hard data and numbers.

Schick sees it differently.

“When you have a positive, supportive culture, you can drive better results,” she says. “You can improve team satisfaction and engagement, you can improve customer service. If you’re focused on people and building relationships, if you’re focused on innovation, high integrity and developing people who approach their work with a compassionate spirit, you have a positive culture.

“Some people might say that’s soft. I say it’s not. A culture like that drives hard results.”

The CEO’s role is to set the values that comprise the foundation of the culture and ensure the company’s goals and vision are attained by methods that are in line with the cultural principles.

Schick began taking steps to strengthen the culture in her unit from her first day on the job and hasn’t stopped performing daily maintenance. She realized early that UnitedHealthcare’s success in branding and connecting with the communities of Pennsylvania and Delaware would heavily depend on how her employee perceived the company’s culture.

Before you can go out and build your brand to prominence, you need to know who you are as a company.

Schick focused on developing a mentality that embraced ambitious goals, learning from failures and creating the resourcefulness necessary to take advantage of market opportunities. She wanted a company in which focus on the cultural principles was a priority, not an afterthought.

“We talk about culture all the time,” she says. “The key to success in creating a really positive culture is that you talk about the culture first. You don’t have a business activity and then talk about the culture at the end. Culture is not like a side of fries. It’s not something that is optional. Culture should be embedded in everything you do.”

A positive culture is rooted in engagement, particularly when it comes to employee ideas and innovations. Employees have to feel like they’re a part of what is going on at the company. To that end, Schick and her leadership team carefully monitor the process by which employees are encouraged to bring new ideas to the table for consideration.

No company can use every single idea that employees bring forward, but how you accept or reject an idea can go a long way toward determining whether that employee accepts or rejects the culture of the company.

“It started small, with people bringing very small suggestions to life, and then we acted on them,” Schick says. “We publicized it and recognized people for bringing their ideas forward.

“The result has been that we have created a culture where people see innovation as their job. We set the pace, and now everybody wants to wake up in the morning and say, ‘How can we operate even more efficiently? How can we bring innovative products and solutions to market?’ It is a positive cycle of encouraging people, acting on their ideas and recognizing people when their ideas are successful.”

If an idea can’t be used, or isn’t ultimately successful, the creator of the idea receives recognition for speaking up in the first place.

“We celebrate failure, too,” Schick says. “The worst thing you can do is not speak up if you have an idea about how we can do a better job of serving our consumers out in the marketplace. Not every idea can work, so what can we do when it doesn’t work? We can recognize that person for having the guts to suggest the idea.”

It comes back to Schick’s philosophy on goal setting: If you really believe in something, aim for it. Don’t be afraid of overambitious goals.

“I’d rather aim for the stars and celebrate if you can get close,” she says. “I would rather not aim low or set low standards on goals. Sometimes if you take that approach, it requires a little bit more flexibility from a leadership standpoint, but it has worked pretty well for me in my career.”

If you want your employees to believe in your culture, your role as the leader is to avoid saying “no” unless the situation absolutely calls for it. That can be a judgment call, and it can be difficult to make at times, but if you have an employee who truly believes in an idea and truly believes it will be good for the business, work with them to modify the goal.

Schick believes goals can be both ambitions and sensible. When you can attain both, you’ve hit the sweet spot.

“If you’re setting a goal for an idea or project and people don’t see any way to reach it, you’ve just demoralized and disengaged your entire team,” she says. “The challenge for leaders is to figure out how to find that sweet spot. That gets back to the vision, the ability to see the future and paint a picture of what’s possible.

“If you can paint that picture, and you have a team that is engaged in the mission and values of the organization, they might see that this goal really is attainable.

“If you can work together to create the plan, and find a way for everyone involved to really contribute to that plan, I think that is when you are in the best situation.”

How to reach: UnitedHealthcare, (914) 467-2039 or www.uhc.com

The Schick file

Born: Long Branch, N.J.; Grew up in Fredericksburg, Va.

Education: Economics and business degree from Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Va.

What was your first job?

I was a dishwasher at a steakhouse in Virginia. You learn a lot about hard work doing a job like that. I was 15 at the time.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the importance of taking care of your team members. That means investing in them, making sure we’re meeting their career goals and needs, and making sure we’re letting them bring ideas to the table.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

My answer is probably a little different from what it would have been a few years ago. Now, I’d probably say resilience and flexibility. The world is always changing, and what has worked in the past might not work in the future. So you need to have an attitude where you embrace innovation.

What is your definition of success?

I don’t look at my own success. I look at the success of my team and the satisfaction of my customers as my yardstick. If my employees are meeting their career goals, I am successful if I have helped them do that.

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