CHRO Jeanie Heffernan’s people-first strategy drives an 89 percent employee engagement rate at Independence Health Group.
By Debbie Bolla
Some relationships have what it takes to stand the test of time, and the 20-year partnership between Independence Health Group CEO Dan Hilferty and the organization’s Executive Vice President and CHRO Jeanie Heffernan is a prime example. The pair began working together in 2000 and they have successfully navigated the complex and ever-changing health insurance industry ever since.
When the two leaders began their journey at Independence Health Group in 2011, Heffernan says their shared goal was “to energize and create hope for the future of the company.” This was achieved through a multi-pronged approach that included developing a strong company culture, a clear diversity and inclusion strategy, and valuable associate resource groups (ARGs).
These efforts have helped the organization achieve an 89 percent employee engagement rate and earned Heffernan HRO Today’s 2019 CHRO of the Year Award for CEO Partnership. Learn more in this exclusive interview with Heffernan.
HRO Today: As the role of the CHRO continues to evolve, how did you create a strategic partnership with Independence Health Group CEO Dan Hilferty and what impact has it had?
Jeanie Heffernan: I met Dan Hilferty in 2000 during my first week of work at Keystone Mercy, which is now AmeriHealth Caritas. At the time, the company could be compared to a start-up—it was only four years old and had grown exponentially. It was a wonderful, family-oriented company, but it needed to make some changes and evolve to be more conscientious around administrative costs.
The goal was to help make the company run more efficiently.
On my second day on the job, the company’s HR leader asked for my help. By the fourth day, we were communicating to 60 people that we were outsourcing their roles but we didn’t want anyone to leave the company. From an HR perspective, this was a challenge because we were eliminating their current jobs, but I knew we could keep them if we gave them the skills and training they needed to transition into another role. I had brought with me nearly a decade of experience with mergers and acquisitions in the banking industry, so I was familiar with redeployment and career transition programs.
With four days under my belt, I met Dan and we partnered to explain to the staff the new plan. I could honestly express to them that there was no reason for concern because we would reskill them, redeploy them into new roles, and give them a $10,000 increase in salary if they were willing to put in the time, energy, and effort. And it was successful: 56 associates went through the program; one retired; two relocated; and one changed careers completely.
This really helped me gain credibility with Dan from a trust, alignment, values, and principle perspective. The effort encouraged Dan to value HR as a partner in executing his vision around the company and the culture that he wanted. And that started our path forward for the next 20 years to where we are today at Independence Health Group.
HRO Today: In 2011, Dan Hilferty took over as CEO of Independence Health Group, which is the parent company of Keystone Mercy (now AmeriHealth Caritas), and asked you to join him after a year-long transition period. What steps did you take to redesign the culture and associate value proposition?
Heffernan: When Dan took over as CEO, our biggest challenge was to energize and create hope for the future of the company. It was a time to drive and communicate strategy, mission, and values through the associate value proposition.
I worked with the HR team to create a culture and environment that’s reflective of Dan and his leadership, as well as the direction we wanted to go as a company in the future.
We developed cross-functional teams within the organization and did intake sessions to understand what the environment was like, what we wanted it to be, and the road map to make it all happen. We decided we wanted a bold vision focused on our people. Our mindset was: As an insurance company, we put our members at the center of everything we do. To make that a reality, we needed to also put our associates at center of everything we do. So, our focus was on building the culture to get associates to live the brand.
In addition to the cross-functional teams, we gathered a lot of research and did focus groups that were inclusive of every single level of the organization, so we had their voice and input. We designed and packaged what we ultimately branded “People with Purpose,” which is defined through four pillars:
- “Live the Mission”
- “Grow and Develop”
- “Strive for Excellence”
- “Act with Integrity and Respect”
This provided something very tangible for our employees to rally around and embrace. All our communications—emails, town halls, videos, testimonials—and programs like learning and recognition were tied to the “People with Purpose” brand. We were building a foundation around the culture of the company.
We created a quid pro quo within each pillar, showing employees what we expected as a company as well as what they would get in return for hitting their goals. For example, we have a college tuition reimbursement program for both undergraduate degrees and master’s degrees. We formed partnerships with local colleges so that those colleges would come onsite and provide services. This allowed our associates to easily do their day jobs and then jump into evening classes in order to fulfill career aspirations from an educational perspective. We also negotiated pricing discounts with those universities. This showed our commitment to investing in employees and we were hopeful we’d see the same in return.
That year, we decided to do engagement surveys to measure our efforts. We had done one in 2010 as a baseline and the results were not that great. But a yearand a half after launching “People with Purpose,” we could see scores moving in the right direction. We’ve kept this in play over the last nine years and it’s been successful. But as we move into the next business strategy cycle, we are looking to enhance it.
HRO Today: Can you describe Independence Health Group’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy?
Heffernan: We have always had a lot of diversity in terms of demographics within the company, but we were not fully leveraging D&I from a business perspective. We didn’t have a formal strategy or programs for D&I or the means to hear the voices of the different demographics we had.
When we did our engagement survey in the early years, I asked for data slices on certain demographics and how they responded to certain questions. Through this practice, I spotted some challenges. For example, turnover was much higher among multicultural men. Some comments showed that the multicultural men demographic felt like they were just here for a job, there weren’t many growth opportunities, and they didn’t see people that looked like them in higher ranks. It was disenfranchising.
We launched focus groups for our multicultural men at all levels and did intake from them. We saw how much work we had to do to truly embrace this group and make them feel respected and valued. We brought them into the fold and asked them for help because we were not where we should be. As a result, we founded our first ARG, “Multicultural Men.” It was a result of taking advantage of data and converting it into meaningful business intelligence. This cohort was instrumental in driving the company and culture forward by engaging them in business solutions.
Now we have 10 ARGs that are key components to our company, our strategy, and our engagement. Each ARG has an executive sponsor from our leadership diversity council to help guide, lead, and support. We also have an associate resource council that helps with training, development, and best practice sharing about what’s working and what’s not.
The ARGs are self-directed and are typically a grassroots effort that is pitched to our director of D&I. When a new ARG is formed, we publicize it through an interest meeting and information sharing session. Associates identify if they want to be part of the leadership of the group or if they want to join as a member.
ARGs meet during work hours and the frequency depends on the nature of what projects they have coming up. As an example, our “Women of Independence” ARG hosts an annual conference in October with more than 300 attendees. They spend a lot of time planning and preparing right before the event.
Not only do we have a strategy in place around D&I, we also have a lot of form and function to support it. Many of our associates who were previously in non-management jobs took on leadership roles in the ARGs and were able to leverage that experience into higher-level positions within the organization.
HRO Today: What results have you seen from the ARGs and the overall D&I strategy?
Heffernan: As we have evolved and become more sophisticated as an employer, our demographics have shifted dramatically. As an example, our millennial group is 37 percent of our workforce, but in order to build it to that level, we had to leverage D&I as a core value in our recruiting efforts. We were finding that insurance as an industry wasn’t that attractive to that generation. We had to show them that there were opportunities to make a difference within our organization through our ARGs.
In our market, there is a significant uninsured Hispanic population, but we were not reaching that audience in the best way possible. So, we asked our Latino ARG to look at all of our communications and marketing material and help us refine it. The ARG was significant in helping us not only translate from English to Spanish, but also in helping craft the right messages and collateral to distribute.
We consider D&I a core value and even built it into our long-term incentive plan five years ago. We wanted to hold ourselves accountable to support and deliver on the execution of the strategy. And we’ve exceeded our goals every year to the point where it’s no longer necessary to have it as a metric because it’s a part of our DNA.
In 2019, we measured the success of our HR efforts through an employee engagement survey. The feedback showed that we had increased scores in eight out of eight categories from 2016, with overall engagement at 89 percent. And in 11 out of 11 categories, our results showed we were above the national norm. The data indicates that we are on the right path. As it correlates back to D&I, our engagement is even higher. Within the ARGs, the data shows associates with engagement levels of 95 percent.