Vicki Perry was stepping onto a sinking ship. She was brought in by Sagamore Health Network Inc. to save its health maintenance organization and if she couldn’t do it, the failing health plan would be left to die.
“The business owners had poured millions into it and it had been unprofitable since day one,” Perry says. “What I had to do was take a failing product and a handful of teams and create an energetic, market-responsive health plan in a very short period of time, a time when provider-owned health plans weren’t doing well and nobody else was starting new ones.”
If Perry was to succeed in rescuing this failing organization, which would eventually become ADVANTAGE Health Solutions Inc., she needed a team of people who could manage a project and accept that the line from Point A to Point B was not always a straight and smooth one.
“The first thing you have to do is look to your leadership team, and if you don’t have a defined leadership team, figure out within the organization who has the sphere of influence,” says Perry, the founder, president and CEO of ADVANTAGE. “You have to address the issue with that individual or team and get a consensus. Once there is that consensus, you have to make sure it is pushed from the top throughout the organization and that you are constantly recognizing when the plan needs to be executed differently or needs to be changed.”
It’s that ability to accept change and to be ready to make a right turn when you had planned to turn left that has confounded many business leaders.
“One of the biggest dangers when you are going through challenges is to say, ‘This is what we’ve decided, and we’re going to stick to it,’” Perry says.
“You stick to it instead of being more fluid and flexible and having those metrics and milestones to meld into your change plan so you can figure out when you need to adapt.”
Perry’s flexibility has paid off. She has helped ADVANTAGE reach many of its goals, the biggest one being the fact that it still exists. Perry says the key to turning success into failure is realizing that even as the leader, you’re just one piece in the process. An important piece, but just one piece nonetheless.
Her company is now a successful and independent health plan that has no debt and reached $375 million in 2009 revenue. It has been accredited by the National Committee for Quality Assurance and is now preparing to deal with new health care reforms in the coming years.
Here are some of the other lessons she learned while taking ADVANTAGE from dying to thriving.
Flesh out the challenge
When attacking a challenge, you and your people need to be clear about what it is you are trying to accomplish. At ADVANTAGE, Perry felt the best way to begin turning things around was to identify the company’s best practices and get everyone intently focused on them.
“As a small regional health plan, we don’t have a lot of what I call ‘reserve power,’” Perry says. “We don’t have the mass wealth that our competitors have. We don’t have a huge staff that we can draw on. So we just have had to turn to doing what we know best and work at doing it as best we can.”
When you identify the challenge that you’re trying to conquer, you need to present it as clearly as possible to your team.
“The challenge or the plan of attack needs to have clarity or purpose and it needs to be defined by organizational goals and then goals and milestones,” Perry says. “Give the management team the tools to drive the right activities within their functional areas to support and contribute to those goals. Once people on the team understand the importance of their own contribution, they are more apt to do the right activity the majority of the time to reach those goals. It’s all about execution to a point.”
It’s that point that you need to make sure everybody is clear on so that your company has the best shot to meets its objective. But before you get too far in your efforts, take the time to make sure you’re assessing the scope of the problem accurately.
“We look at a couple of things,” Perry says. “Is it a management problem or is it a systemic problem? If it’s a management problem, it’s a very different approach. If it’s a systemic problem or external threat, then it requires the full attention of the organizational leadership and that’s when we put it through the process.”
In working with project managers over the years, Perry has learned that there are key questions you need to ask yourself in regard to a potential project.
“Do you have the appetite to do it today?” Perry says. “Are there so many things on the plate right now that this becomes less of a priority than a more critical issue? Do we know when we have achieved some measure of success?”
If the answer to these questions is yes, Perry prefers to get away from the office with her team, hunker down and develop a plan of attack.
“We actually go through and we have a lot of mini strategic planning sessions,” Perry says. “We identify that there is a significant challenge that has broad organizational impact potentially. We define it as a team. We define the worst-case scenario, and we define what we think the goal should be.”
Perry brings the manager of whatever department the problem is centered in and gets in depth as to what is happening.
“They address the problem,” Perry says. “Maybe the problem is sales not outpacing expenses. From their perspective, define the problem for me. Why is this a problem? What can you do, if anything, to effect a change? Once they start to think about it from their perspective, they have to own it differently. We write those things down. We may have two walls on a four-wall room that have the problem from a lot of different perspectives. Then we take that and vet that into one or two problems that we all, with purpose, can communicate.”
Use a small team of people, including people that have a stake in the problem, but keep the group from getting too unwieldy.
“You’re never going to get consensus if your team is too large,” Perry says. “The other important point is that you have to be confident that you have the problem identified and that you have the right tools to execute the plan that you have developed. If you lack that confidence, you’re not going to be successful.”
As the plan begins to take shape, start to put together some metrics that will be used to guide the process.
“We vet that with the management team and they develop and draw upon our vision and develop their action plan,” Perry says. “That’s what they manage by. It becomes a very inclusive process, but what’s key is really getting clarity around the challenge and clarity around the plan.”
Track your progress
Project managers bring credibility to an effort, especially when the person in that role reports to you. Perry wanted to get everyone focused on best practices and she felt a project manager would help her stay tuned in to the progress that was being made toward putting her company back on the right path.
“When you have an individual who reports to an executive owner on a project on a regular basis, they tend to have more legitimac
y and more credential,” Perry says. “They can move through the organization laterally much more easily than someone who just reports to a manager or is just another day-to-day person.”
Find someone with the skill set of a leader who you can have confidence in to keep the process moving without your constant involvement.
“[It should be] someone who is very goal-oriented, very passionate and very high energy,” Perry says. “They have to have excellent communication skills and very good people skills because they are influencing change through the efforts of other people.”
Your appraisal of a project may include regular meetings with your project manager. But you shouldn’t feel the need to get a constant score of the game, as it were, for your team’s efforts.
“More important for me than to know precisely where we are on track or off track is to feel the pulse of the organization,” Perry says. “The more open door, the more accessible a CEO or any C-level individual is as a person, the more credibility and confidence your team is going to have toward you. At the end of the day, being a good leader means that you have the ability to get things done through other people.”
Focus on being a good listener when you speak with people and be sure not to just be thinking about what you want to say when the other person is done speaking.
“Slow down and speak in smaller sentences,” Perry says. “If you take the time to breathe, you’re going to learn how to pause. And if you pause, that allows someone else to interject. That creates a two-way dynamic instead of just communication. That’s really important. I try to slow down and spend lots of time listening and give lots of pause.”
One-on-one meetings with various people involved in a project can be very effective at getting a good read on how things are going. Perry keeps specific notebooks on the people who she talks with regularly.
“They have their own notebook and I just keep a running list of challenges and opportunities and I review that before I meet with them again,” Perry says. “Then you know what was said or what were the burning issues or successes that [the] individual is experiencing at the moment.”
Everybody likes to be a winner, and it’s no different in the business world. By taking the time to celebrate victories along the way, Perry kept everyone at ADVANTAGE focused on positive results.
“I don’t care how big or little they are,” Perry says. “Sometimes little successes can drive a lot of momentum and get you over that hump to really get back on track. Departments will celebrate successes. On a larger scale, we may have team competitions to drive some type of action. It’s really celebration and competitiveness. We found that competition is a very strong motivator for driving forward on an initiative or a goal so we create fun opportunities to drive change.”
One thing to keep in mind when instilling competition into the workplace is to always keep it simple.
“If it’s a competition merely to drive change, it’s probably going to fail,” Perry says. “If it’s simple and fun and part of the organizational culture, it is going to be successful. But it truly has to be simple.”
Perry used a game to help her employees get more familiar with HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that spelled out privacy standards for patients in the medical industry.
“My compliance team made a game of it,” Perry says. “It was a cartoon. They had a theme, and each aspect of learning, they would have a contest and throw that contest out on the Internet. The first five people that got all five answers right would get some type of reward. You can make it fun like that to drive change, education or compliance. You get people’s attention, and it makes it kind of fun, and you recognize them, and it’s a way to keep them motivated.”
Motivation becomes very important when you begin to look at accomplishment and how close you came to meeting your goal. Even if things didn’t go exactly according to plan, you often can still find victories to celebrate.
“Every initiative can be declared a failure or success, even initiatives that may not have hit the end goal you thought it would 12 months ago,” Perry says. “If you declare it a success because these five things occurred, maybe it was nothing real glitzy, but you identified three other specific issues that by changing those three things you’re going to have a higher degree of success, that’s a success. You have to be flexible.
“Being CEO or a president of a company doesn’t automatically give you the right to be respected or trusted and confident about what you can or can’t achieve,” Perry says. “The ability to adapt communication style and to be more effective when dealing with people who may have a different style of listening or learning, that is so critical to a successful outcome. That flexibility and the ability to interpret other perspectives is what really drives influence. If you can influence the team, you’re going to have a higher level of success.”
How to reach: ADVANTAGE Health Solutions Inc., (877) 901-2237 or www.advantageplan.com