Genevieve D. Caruncho-Simpson: “how” or “what”

As the CEO, I don’t have to have all the answers. In my experience, asking the right open-ended question that typically starts with a “how” or “what” reframes the problem into an opportunity to involve others in problem-solving. And in turn, it makes others feel valued, included and appreciated. As a part of our series […]

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As the CEO, I don’t have to have all the answers. In my experience, asking the right open-ended question that typically starts with a “how” or “what” reframes the problem into an opportunity to involve others in problem-solving. And in turn, it makes others feel valued, included and appreciated.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Genevieve D. Caruncho-Simpson. Genevieve joined Texas Health Aetna as chief operating officer in April 2017 and currently serves as the company’s President, COO and interim CEO. In this role, Caruncho-Simpson provides overall management and oversight of strategic and operational plans, member services and clinical programs, strategic partnerships and initiatives, as well as outsourced services.

Caruncho-Simpson joins Texas Health Aetna with more than 15 years’ experience working with health care providers and payer/insurance organizations where she held a variety of domestic and global strategic, operational and consulting roles.

Previously, Caruncho-Simpson was the national strategy leader for Value-Based Care for Ascension Health. Additionally, she held leadership roles at Humana, PwC, New York Presbyterian Hospital and University of Washington Medicine.

She is currently Adjunct Faculty at St. Louis University’s Department of Health Management and Policy.

Caruncho-Simpson received her Master’s in Health Policy and Management from New York University, as well as Bachelor degrees with Honors in Health Information Management and Clinical Social Work from University of Washington. She was also a Bill and Melinda Gates Leadership Scholar and received multiple awards for her work with clients, employers and communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Genevieve! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My passion for healthcare started in my early years as a former clinical social worker. I had an opportunity to help coordinate U.S. Veterans and service members’ health care and provide them with much needed mental health services. And their plight was an eye-opening experience for me. We must make life better for these brave men and women who have risked so much to protect our freedom and our country. But unfortunately, our communities do not sometimes give them the care and support they deserve.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Early this year, while I was out on maternity leave, I became a mom–- and the interim CEO of my start-up company, Texas Health Aetna. Talk about a lot of change, and a lot of balls (or more) in the air!

As a woman who’s mostly worked in high-paced, male-dominated positions, I didn’t know how I was going to approach this change successfully. I’m not as young as some other working moms out there. Taking three months off to bond with your newborn also isn’t typical for most of my colleagues, especially in a start-up environment.

But the most beautiful thing I’ve learned is that this is an individual journey, and like the other challenges I’ve come across in life, I’ll need to set a new pathway for myself. I needed to build a support system — both at work and at home. And that for most days, I’ll need to navigate through this organized chaos with grace and compassion-–and on many occasions, asking for help as no one can’t do this successfully without support. I’ve come to embrace my perceived imperfections and limitations because it is what makes me a more compassionate and relatable.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was particularly young when I entered healthcare management. And due to my inexperience, I previously would write long-winded emails. I didn’t know how business email was different from personal emails. You didn’t need to always ask someone about their family or their dog to start a business correspondence.

It wasn’t until a colleague told me in a very direct manner that I needed to keep my emails short and to the point. That I should write in a manner that one should be able to know what I’m asking for within my first sentence or two. Initially, I was a bit offended by this colleague’s blunt feedback — but I guess I wasn’t that offended because I ended up marrying him. And now, ten years later, we often talk about our family and our dog, happily.

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

To be able to lead and contribute to my team’s success. As the person setting the vision and strategies of my company, Texas Health Aetna — co-funded by two premier organizations, Aetna and Texas Health Resources — it’s a lot of responsibility placed unto me.

But as we’ve had a chance to advance the Dallas-Fort Worth’s community’s health status and provide innovative and cost-effective solutions, it’s been a very rewarding experience.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words, can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

As the CEO, I see my number one role as the coach to my team. So much of Texas Health Aetna’s success depends on having a high-performance culture, with the necessary talent. A significant portion of my time is seeking out and recognizing high-potentials and providing them with the necessary coaching and opportunities that allow them to lead challenging complex projects and relationships.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Growing relationships through the development of rich internal and external networks. Increasing the breadth and depth of client relationships. Developing business by listening to the needs of others, proposing effective solutions, and leveraging relationships.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

There’s never enough time in the day. Being a working mom means endless to-do’s, problems, and on occasion, awkward situations. On occasions, you feel that you’re burning both ends of the candlestick. I have had to improve my communication skills to ensure I manage expectations better, both at home and at work. I have also come to embrace that there will be hard choices that I’ll need to make — but ultimately, I’m a better mom and executive because I’m able to pursue both my personal and professional goals.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

As the CEO, I don’t have to have all the answers. In my experience, asking the right open-ended question that typically starts with a “how” or “what” reframes the problem into an opportunity to involve others in problem-solving. And in turn, it makes others feel valued, included and appreciated.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Executive presence and communications are perceived quite differently as a woman of color. Often, I come into a meeting or an event where typically someone assumes that I am a more junior associate, rather than the CEO of my company. There have even been several occasions where someone has chosen to talk to my CFO instead of me because they perceived him as looking like the CEO, despite the fact I introduced myself appropriately. I have used these as opportunities to understand the perspective of others. But also demonstrate and convey that senior leaders come in many ways — gender, ethnicity, age, and background.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

That acquiring and applying new technical expertise is a lifelong requirement. Healthcare is going through a lot of change at this moment. To ensure Texas Health Aetna’s continued market competitiveness, I have had to stay current with business and industry news and trends — both within the healthcare industry sector and even those adjacent to it. Given non-traditional healthcare companies are entering the Dallas-Fort Worth market, I must stay one step ahead of new, potential competitors.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

Being accurate is an understated quality. But CEO, the details matter, and delivering on expectations builds trust.

Another important quality is being mindful and present. Focus shows appreciation. Too many folks attend meetings, yet they are multitasking. By demonstrating your focus, you are telling your clients and team members that they are important to you.

In this era of healthcare, anyone who does not have change agility will likely not be successful in healthcare management.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be generous to up and coming talent, especially younger female leaders. Spread knowledge, value, and opportunity. Learn from as younger staff members as you can and give everyone a chance to learn from you.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to those who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been very fortunate to have had great mentors in my life. And on many occasions, I had very progressive male mentors that spent a lot of time teaching me what leadership is all about. One that I’m particularly grateful to is Rick D’Aquila, who is currently the President of Yale-New Haven Health System. Ten years before the book, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, many of the book’s takeaway he was already emphasizing to me as something I’ll need to learn to be an effective leader. To this day, I’ve very grateful to his words of wisdom, especially as a woman of color who never grew to have access to such mentors before.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As someone who grew up in a more impoverished background, the concept of social determinants of health was not something I had to learn — because I lived in communities and came from a background where those concepts were in my everyday life. Thus, when I had an opportunity to develop a unique community health program called Texas Health Aetna Cares — it just made sense to me that a new approach to doing well by doing good. We’ll be announcing this later in 2020 and we expect significant interest in how we are taking care of the most vulnerable members of our Dallas-Fort Worth community.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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