Dennis Casey knew that his company was at a crossroads. It was May 2005, and Casey had just been named president of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Indiana. The company, with 700 employees and annual revenue of more than $1 billion, was six months away from embarking on a complete change of its core operating system.
This wasn’t the kind of change that could be conveyed in an e-mail, a note tacked to the bulletin board next to the water cooler or at a morning staff meeting in the conference room.
This change was too big for that.
Once implemented, it would put the company in a better position to handle the increased workload in the midst of the mergers and acquisitions that have made it part of WellPoint Inc., the largest health insurer in the country. “If we don’t make this change now, we are not going to be positioned competitively in the marketplace,” Casey says.
The challenge Casey faced was figuring out how to convey that message to his employees.
“It takes time to change the direction of an organization, and it takes time to create your vision within your organization,” Casey says. “You have to be able to work through people to achieve success.”
Using a comprehensive plan of open dialogue, inclusion and collaboration, Anthem was able to overhaul its core operating system while continuing its pace of rapid growth. Since 2000, it has grown from 450,000 group members to 800,000. “If we were not delivering on our promises to our customers and to our providers and to our brokers, we would not have seen the growth,” Casey says.
Opening a dialogue
After holding a variety of senior management positions over the years with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Indiana, Casey knew how important the system conversion was to the company’s future.
Making it work rested with his ability to develop a strategy that would convince employees of its importance and get them enthused about the benefits of the new system.
“The real challenge is, how do you drive that home with people who, day-to-day, are accustomed to working on one system?” Casey says. “They are very good at it and they were providing a good level of service to our client. You go to them and say, ‘Guess what? We’re going to change everything you look at every day.’
“It was really challenging the folks to say [to them], ‘Hey, this is really important to our company long term and to our customers. Therefore, it should be important to you. We need your help to get this done.’”
One advantage Casey has in implementing new strategies is the familiarity his tenured employees have with change through the numerous mergers and acquisitions that eventually led to the formation in 2004 of WellPoint Inc., of which Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Indiana is a subsidiary. “Our folks are sitting here today and understand where the organization is going,” Casey says. “The next thing you know, we have another merger acquisition on the table. So immediately, the question comes up, ‘What does this mean to me?’ “There is less panic and fear and concern now around our growth because people are more accustomed to change. They accept change, see it as a challenge and they look for new opportunities. It’s more of a positive challenge than a threat.”
But this particular plan was about a lot more than just asking his employees to take one for the team.
He wanted them to know that once they got past their initial uneasiness about the system conversion, it would also make it easier for them to do their jobs.
“It was kind of like if you are a right-handed hitter and I’m going to teach you how to switch-hit,” Casey says. “You know how to hit, but you’ve just never seen the ball coming from the other side of the plate. It’s that kind of environment, and there is a natural hesitancy to learn the new ways.
“The key was communication and involvement. We had a lot of our staff folks that do the work day in and day out in terms of answering our phones and communicating with our customers involved in the design phase of our new system. We basically brought a core system to them and said, ‘This is how this works. What changes do you need to make it even better for what you do?’” Casey says once that was done, training began in earnest for virtually every one of the 700 employees. The message was also conveyed through simple correspondence from one employee to another, where it became clear that the effort had paid off.
“They say, ‘Hey, it’s a change, but you’re really going to like it when you get used to it.’ If they have that level of confidence and respect for the leadership of the company, they are going to step up and want to be part of that,” he says.
“In order to do that, they’ve got to believe that the management of this organization understands their needs as well as our customer needs, cares about both, balances the needs of both and responds to that. The core element is two-way trust.”
With the new system now in place, Casey says efficiency, speed and accuracy have all increased, along with growth in Anthem’s customer base.
“I bill and credit our success to our people,” Casey says. “The real differentiator becomes your ability to harness the energy and brilliance of other people and do that better than your competitors do.”
Inclusion and collaboration
Casey’s success in changing over the company’s core operating system illustrates that developing a strategy is never as easy as just sitting in a room one day and drawing up a plan. It must include contingency plans that address changes that may occur as the strategy is put into place.
“There really aren’t a lot of people that are just smart enough to absolutely predict the future every time,” Casey says. “So you better be ready to change, and you need to be flexible.”
And before trust can be developed between employees and management, there must be trust among members of the management team.
Casey says a good CEO recognizes the importance of gathering input from other senior leaders in the company, even if that input does not exactly match the view of the CEO.
“I’m a very aggressive, very competitive person,” he says. “And I really enjoy having people around me that will challenge me. Our unspoken rules around the planning table are very simple. First of all, we’re a team. I believe, and I know that my people know that I believe, that our best solutions will come from the collective minds of the people in that room.
“Often, I will shape a discussion and throw something out on the table and say, ‘Hey, I think we might want to consider this or that.’ But the end result is always better than what I put on the table or what any member of the team puts on the table.”
The key is to have leaders in your company with whom you are willing to place your trust and confidence.
“You have to have strong people around, and you can’t be threatened by that,” Casey says. “If somebody comes back at me and says, ‘Dennis, I think you’re all wet on this one. You’re missing a really critical point,’ then I think you need to pay heed and attention.
“Some people use a power response, saying, ‘Too bad. This is where we’re going. Get on the bus.’ Personally, I don’t believe that. If one of them is questioning something that I put on the table or something one of their peers put on the table, I have an inherent trust and belief that they are trying to make things better and they truly believe there is another path to go down.”
Casey realized the benefits of a more collaborative style of leadership in college.
“You’d have a study group, and five people would present a paper,” Casey says. “I may have been a little egocentric in those days because I basically said, ‘I can’t really trust my future and my grades in these people’s hands because I don’t know them.’”
As he moved into the business world, Casey learned that guiding a company by yourself does not work nearly as well as writing your own research paper.
“My responsibilities started to expand, and all of a sudden, I realized that you can’t do it all yourself. The definition of management is getting things done through other people. If you could do everything yourself, you wouldn’t need the four or five or 50 people you have on your staff. By developing that skill of delegation, I’m that much more effective.”
The team approach has served Casey well. But once a consensus is reached on how to move forward, he expects the group to march in lockstep to execute the plan.
“Once that team makes a decision, you owe it to the team to support that outcome,” he says. “One thing I do not tolerate is people walking away from a key decision in our organization and saying, ‘Well, that’s what they decided. I didn’t think it was a good idea.’
“If things are mandated from the top down and everybody is told what to do, I assume people might disagree with the outcome. If people have the ability and the right to participate in the development of the outcome, you have a responsibility once that decision is made to work very hard to execute it on behalf of your team.”
Success breeds success
Once everyone is on the same page with a new strategy, most companies get a boost from the simple fact that people like to be part of something successful.
“There are not a lot of folks that really want to go to work and just sit in a corner by themselves all day long,” Casey says. “Most people, regardless of personality, enjoy success, and they want to be part of a successful team.”
One of the greatest rewards of being an executive is watching people step up to a challenge.
“They always respond better than you imagined if they trust you and they trust your leadership,” Casey says. “Nothing breeds success like success. People get involved and start getting recognition for the work that they are putting in. Those are incredible motivators. People get in that frame of reference and say, ‘Wow, what’s the next big challenge?’”
Casey also believes that a successful CEO is only as good as the family he or she has standing by them. He and his wife of 32 years, Ginny, have three children.
“As the kids grow older, they really ask very insightful questions that really cause me to think about who I am,” Casey says. “Business can be very challenging and very trying. That is where that family piece centers you, no matter how crazy things get around here or how difficult the challenges are.”