Daniel J. Loepp knew it wasn’t going to be easy when he took over as president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan in mid-2006. The previous president and CEO, Richard Whitmer, was an innovative leader who took the company over when it was in trouble and turned it around.
“Anytime you replace somebody that took the company from being in receivership to being a very healthy company — in that sense, it’s tough shoes to fill,” Loepp says.
Instead of ignoring Whitmer’s impact on the company, Loepp took every opportunity possible to learn from his predecessor.
“I was very fortunate because I had the opportunity to work very closely with (him) before I assumed my current role,” he says. “I got to be involved in almost every meeting and had the opportunity to become intimately familiar with our business. I was able to glean a lot of vital information and get his perspective on our business as well as the state of health care in Michigan. Following Mr. Whitmer set me up to succeed. He put Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan back in the black, and working with him, I got a great understanding of what we need to do to keep it there and how you balance that with our unique mission and commitments to the people of Michigan.”
But there was still more work to be done at the company, which posted $19.4 billion in 2007 consolidated revenue for the Michigan division and has 9,000 employees.
Here’s what Loepp learned on his way to taking Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to new heights.
Loepp had been with the company for more than five years and knew he wasn’t going to just step into his new role and pick up where Whitmer left off.
“What you don’t realize is that it’s a different job,” he says. “When your colleagues become your associates, your responsibility factor, even though it was probably high, is much higher.”
Loepp started by listening to what employees had to say. “I think you end up doing a lot better using your ears than your mouth oftentimes,” he says.
In order to be a better listener, you need to go beyond just hearing what someone says. For example, in a staff meeting, you should follow up statements made by others with good questions.
“Which means, you have to be prepared, but where you’re not pontificating,” he says. “[You do this] by sort of laying back a little bit and listening and then asking the two or three tough questions and then listening again. Generally, that probably heeds well.”
Though not every idea he hears may be useful, getting others to throw ideas out there can benefit the company.
“Sometimes what people say, you aren’t going to use, but by getting a wide variety and really meeting and sitting down with a wide variety of employees, you really do get a wider perspective on where people are coming from,” he says.
For tough decisions, Loepp will listen to the information given to him, but then tends to go with a gut feeling based on all the facts provided.
“Then, invoking the 12- or 24-hour rule is not a bad thing either,” he says. “You allow yourself to run it though your mind again, to look at the stuff again, as opposed to making a knee-jerk decision. Sometimes you don’t have that much time and you have to do what you’ve got to do. But generally, most decisions you make, you can invoke that overnight or next-day rule and then sort of sleep on it, and if you’re in the same spot, it’s time to go.”
Loepp was at a company town-hall meeting once when an employee commented that he didn’t know what the competition did.
That comment verified something Loepp strongly believed — that all employees should become knowledgeable about the organization’s business to become a high-performing company. And comments like that were why the wheels were already in motion to develop the company’s business knowledge initiative.
“We had identified business knowledge as a key component for strengthening our workplace culture as part of our ongoing performance transformation,” he says.
While still in development, the company’s Business Knowledge Learning System will become a systematic approach to providing employees with appropriate levels of business knowledge, whether they are new hires or employees promoted to leadership positions.
“We’re developing the tools and communications channels that will make this information accessible 24-7 and allow us to deliver just-in-time educational materials when employees move into new or specialized job functions,” he says.
“In essence, we’re going to help employees learn and retain information on the language and concepts of BCBSM, the health care industry and general business.”
To get the program off the ground, the company commissioned a cross-functional work group of employees — from the vice president to the staff level — to create the model for the program.
Allowing employees to share their opinions and take part in projects can create important questions and comments. Communicating with employees one on one will especially lead you to a treasure chest of ideas.
“I found that amazing questions and comments come out of people when you deal with them one on one and you don’t say, ‘Well, you can’t ask this; you can’t ask that,’” he says. “I just generally throw it all out, and it’s been very helpful for me. I think it’s helped for the employee base to understand my style and sort of where I’m coming from.”
The priority areas of focus for content were determined based on a business literacy needs assessment conducted in 2007.
“Our Business Knowledge work group interviewed 32 vice presidents and directors within the company and got their feedback on the types of business information employees should have,” Loepp says.
“Content can be tailored based on an employee’s level of work within the company and their specific functions, whether they are in sales, operations, human resources, etc. Ultimately, we want to engage employees at every state of their careers by maximizing their capabilities. I believe you do that through developing a line of sight between each employee’s job and our corporate objectives by helping employees understand the impact their day-to-day actions have on the BCBSM bottom line.”
Loepp expects the system to be up and running in 2009. In the meantime, the company is making a concerted effort to communicate about their business by using a variety of venues.
“We’re reinforcing and extending the topof-mind exposure of business news and information that is currently communicated primarily through Blues News Direct, our weekly online publication for employees,” Loepp says.
Communicate the message
Though it’s impossible for Loepp to communicate face to face with all 9,000 employees, that doesn’t mean he can’t keep his message concise and understandable.
“The less complicated you are in your messaging, the better,” he says. “If you try to get something done, use two or three points and be clear, because the more complex any messaging is, the less clear it is.”
When Loepp took the position, he started using technology to get his message across to employees.
“One of the things that I instituted when I took the position is we do a webcast every first Monday of the month,” he says. “It’s a lot like a podcast, really, where it’s sent and every employee gets it.
“I take a subject matter that is an important issue impacting the business, and I do about an eight- or nine-minute webcast that is e-mailed to every employee on their PC. Of course, in our written communications we follow up with it, too.”
Loepp has been amazed with the feedback from the communication. Employees have been engaged in his messages and have been communicating with him.
“The feedback on that has been phenomenal where people feel like they are part of the process and they can sort of touch you,” he says. “I get a lot of e-mail responses back, but a lot of verbal positive comments that people feel like you’re sharing with them what you are trying to do with the company. When you see folks, it’s really amazing on how they react to you, whether it’s in the elevators, in the cafeteria.”
To get honest feedback from your message, it’s important employees know that you genuinely want to hear it, and you take their statements seriously.
“You have to demonstrate that you sincerely want to hear what employees have to say, and that you enjoy having the opportunity to connect with them through conversation and correspondence,” he says. “I am very big on that. I write back to employees who have questions or comments about my monthly webcast messages. I speak in person with employees across the state by holding up to 10 town-hall meetings each year. I typically share my perspectives on major happenings around the company, and I try to be very transparent. If we are underperforming in a certain phase of the business or if we are facing a major challenge, I try to be very open and honest about it. At the end of these town-hall sessions, I typically field as many questions as employees have for me.
I’ve found that, generally, employees aren’t afraid to ask a tough question and they appreciate an honest response, even if it is just to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll look into it.’”
The webcast also helped employees get to know Loepp, which is important to get buy-in. It’s especially important in Loepp’s case because of the big shoes he had to fill.
“When you have a transition like we did, and my predecessor was here 18 years, I think it’s important for people to get to know you and feel comfortable that they have a leader they can count on,” he says. “I think it personalizes things. I clearly can see that people feel more comfortable today than they did two years ago when I took the job — that people feel we are moving in the right direction.
“This has allowed them to feel like you are a little bit friendlier, a little closer to them. So, it’s allowed people to be a lot more direct than generally you see. People are motivated that we are trying to move in the right direction, and you can feel it.”
HOW TO REACH: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, (313) 225-9000 or www.bcbsm.com