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How To Focus On The Human Element Of HR with Blue Cross Blue Shield Association VP, Kelly Williams & Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

Blue Cross Blue Shield Association Human Resources Hiring Strategies

When I’m listening to a candidate describe the work they’ve done I’m listening for “we” vs “I”. We can buy expertise. Partnership is essential; collaboration is a place that someone comes and leads from.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Kelly Williams.

Kelly Williams is vice president of human resources for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), a national federation of 36 independent, community-based and locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies. The Blue System is the nation’s largest health insurer covering one-in-three of all Americans. Prior to joining BCBSA, Williams held a number of HR executive positions, including chief talent officer with Talent Partners and VP, Human Resources, Learning & Development with international travel company Abercrombie & Kent. Earlier in her career, she served as a clinical social worker before transitioning into corporate HR and organizational development roles. Williams holds a Bachelor of Science degree in human resources development from Oakland University and a Masters of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’d love to say my career path was strategic and intentional and that I knew exactly the course I wanted to charter. If one were to look at my educational background (Bachelor’s Human Resources; Masters in Social Work) or even just my first position post graduate school (social worker on a brain trauma unit), it might appear that a career in Human Resources with a healthcare organization was inevitable. The truth is that the one constant throughout my life has been a personal passion for people and organizations. I get juiced when both thrive and it is that which motivates and drives me. Over the years, I’ve looked for opportunities to work with leaders and organizations that understand the potential of the human spirit and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity I have today with Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA). It’s almost as if my career path has come full circle — to work alongside passionate and talented individuals committed to improving and influencing the health of all Americans.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of my favorite a-ha moments surfaced during a company leadership retreat. Picture this: a group of eight to ten executives standing in a circle with an improv facilitator leading us in an exercise that involves her randomly introducing and throwing imaginary objects our way. The goal is to catch an object if thrown to us, to make eye contact with a colleague, and then toss the object their way. She starts our group off slowly. First it’s an imaginary orange basketball to one of my colleagues which we diligently begin tossing around the circle. Then she increases the rate of objects introduced into the circle and they get very creative — like a toaster, tennis shoes, a toothbrush, furry pillow and I think there was even a happy baby. By this time there are numerous imaginary items flying around the circle. The exercise ends with the facilitator asking each of my colleagues what if any object or objects they might have in hand. Some are holding onto one or two items, some don’t have any items. When it’s my turn, I start listing all the items I have — and there are at least a half a dozen including the happy baby — to which my colleagues are all now laughing. The facilitator helps draw out this a-ha moment: I have a tendency to take on things with/for others often at my own expense. I’m still working on this.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) has a long history of providing health coverage for 90 years and we’re taking what we learn from covering one in three Americans to make healthcare work better for everyone. At BCBSA, we represent 36 independent companies and provide a strong foundation of national leadership with healthcare industry leaders, government officials, national media and the public, providing a wide variety of opportunities to shape the future health of America and adapt to the rapidly changing industry.

You asked about exciting projects that are helping people — one of our Health of America reports published this year focuses on millennial health. Nearly 73 million people in the U.S. are millennials — people born between 1981–1996 and who were 21 to 36 years old in 2017. I was surprised to learn that just 68% of millennials have a primary care physician (PCP) and that millennials are less healthy than Gen X members were at the same age (ages 34–36). As a result, BCBS companies are facilitating Millennial Health Listening Sessions across the country and our employees are truly having an impact on Americans nationwide!

Ok fantastic. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example for each idea.

  1. Passion + Purpose: in addition to expertise, we focus on individuals who are mission driven as there is great power that comes from combining passion with purpose. There a variety of questions that can be embedded into an interview. My preference is always to go with very open-ended questions and see where the conversation takes us. Truly, it can be as simple as what are you most passionate about and why?

2. Experiential Interviewing: learning agility is a key competency that can be assessed with case studies and/or second interview assignments. I’m also an advocate for a “just in time” exercise during an interview as we all know the best laid plans in our daily work rarely ever go as planned. So the ability to pivot successfully is essential. An example of a second interview assignment is asking a candidate, who you know will need to facilitate workshops or give presentations in their position, to come prepared to facilitate a five minute conversation on a topic of their choice. Set the expectations up front: you can facilitate any topic in whatever way you prefer. Eye-opening!

3. Intellectual Curiosity: the types of questions candidates ask and also how they ask the question is a talent differentiator. I always write down the questions the candidate asks to help inform my decision. Were the questions inspired by a desire to understand, learn and grow? The spirit of inquiry? Or where the questions derived from a place of assessment and judgement? There are scenarios where you want and need both. That said, I have a bias for inquiry over judgement.

4. Partnership over Perfection: when I’m listening to a candidate describe the work they’ve done I’m listening for “we” vs “I”. We can buy expertise. Partnership is essential and collaboration is a place that someone comes and leads from.

5. Listening to Understand: if you’ve ever had the experience of really being listened to, it’s easy to describe the difference between listening to understand and listening to respond. Interviews tend to fall in the latter. Candidates come prepped to answer our questions. Which is why I like to flip the interview to a conversation. It provokes listening to understand and has the side benefit of getting at the other four areas I mentioned above.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are the top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

  1. Share Your Passion: it’s true what they say, timing is everything and you never know when someone might be looking for a career change. There’s always the chance that a causal conversation turns into a hiring lead.

2. See Potential: when I encounter someone who exhibits amazing service, I start a conversation to see what might be possible even if I have no open job in mind. Right now, I’ve got my eye on a retail store manager. I have no idea what she is looking to do with her career, I just know how she makes me feel as a customer when I swing by each morning for a cup of coffee, and equally important I see how her team relates to her.

3. Brand Ambassadors: some of our best recruiters are our own employees, and like most companies, we have a strong referral program. In addition, we are currently working on a new, creative strategy that will highlight what we all know to be true about the significance of the relationship between a manager and employee.

What are the 3 most effective strategies used to retain employees?

  1. Inspired Leadership: Position your best people managers — those who love to support others in being brilliant, into positions that play on their strengths. There is a lot of research out there that highlights the immense value of hiring/promoting leaders who amplify others. From a personal standpoint, it has always been more important to me who I work with than what I work on.

2. Context & Connection: in my experience, most of us thrive when we have context and can see/feel/understand a connection or possibility. Engagement comes from within and is tethered to connectivity. Every day at BCBSA we are working to connect dots and model what’s possible — one conversation at a time.

3. Human Centric Design: In keeping with our mission of supporting the health of all Americans that includes supporting the well-being of the 1200+ employees who work in our Chicago or Washington D.C. office. In partnership with colleagues around BCBSA, we are focusing on human centric design, and while we are in the early stages of the conversations, I love that we are focusing together on what truly matters — from the employee lens — the human in human resources.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? Can you give some examples of what this looks like?

For me, the focus is on Organizational Development — ensuring our strategy mirrors business strategy. BCBS leads the healthcare industry by rising to the challenges that change brings. One example is innovation in healthcare. At BCBSA our “Innovation Activators” are helping our teams solve challenges in new ways through our “Business as Unusual” conversations. This grassroots model of innovation relies on an openness to doing something different — and it started with a group of approximately 20 employees participating in a workshop where they learned techniques and behaviors to help them serve as “Innovation Activators” upon request. These employees are voluntarily serving in this role and they are helping embed innovation into our organizational DNA.

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

Circling back to our commitment around context and connectivity, here are a few examples of how we are crafting mission and purpose driven initiatives with and for our employees.

Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield Fearless Food Fight: Earlier this year, BCBSA employees were invited to submit a short, personal essay for the opportunity to join colleagues in Little Rock, Arkansas, to make a direct impact on the community by participating in the Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield Fearless Food Fight event. Here’s an excerpt from one of the chosen submissions: “I am an Arkansas native and know first-hand that Arkansas has one of the highest rates of food insecurity and obesity in the nation. I saw this growing up in Hughes, Ark., where many families relied on free school breakfast and lunch to support the nutritional needs of their kids. In fact, Hughes, Ark., is a food desert where the closest full-service grocery is nearly 40 miles away.”

Health of America: Another recent example includes inviting employees inspired by the recent Health of America report to share a personal story for an opportunity to join The Health of Millennials forum held at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Once again, the submissions we received from employees were amazing and here’s what we heard from the employees who attended the event: “I was excited to be part of this listening tour session because it was important to me to share how I lead a healthy lifestyle with other millennial employees. It’s empowering to take part in something we’re doing as a system that focuses on improving the health of my generation.” And from another employee, “For me, this opportunity showed me how we’re using information and data to find solutions and connect the dots for millennials needing to make changes in their lives to promote health and wellness. This experience made the work I do every day at the Association make more sense and reminded me why I came to work here — to make a difference.”

From my perspective, the return on investment for these initiatives is priceless — I still get goosebumps when I read the submissions and hear the stories shared as a result of the experience. Our employees inspire me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

How many times have you heard or perhaps even said “life is short” and made a vow to live differently? I know I have. Spend more time with family and friends, meditate in the mornings, volunteer in my community, exercise daily and my list goes on. For me, most of these life-affirming moments arise or are in some way connected with a health-related event — either my own or someone I love. Which is why I’m proud of the work we are doing at BCBSA to collectively leveraging our resources, data and reach for the health of America. True well-being requires intentionality. If I could inspire a movement it would be this: Take care of yourself — your health, your equanimity. Value preventive care. Your personal well-being impacts everything, and everyone.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” — Eleanor Roosevelt

What I love about this quote is that you can interchange the word “inferior” for any word that may be meaningful or relevant to you in the moment (i.e. no one can make you feel ______ without your consent). Earlier in my career, I was blessed to work with one of the best coaches I know who taught me many things, including the power of choice which still resonates with me today. I remember describing to him a situation that was incredibly frustrating and he responded with this question “how long would you like to be frustrated by this situation — 5 minutes, all day, the entire month?” I remember laughing out loud and replying something like “this situation deserves at least a 30-minute pity party.” Long story short, what his question provoked for me is this: my reaction to any situation is always my choice.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

Brené Brown! I’m embarrassed to admit that until just recently I wasn’t familiar with her work. Thankfully someone mentioned Brené to me in the context of shared similarities and synergies. I won’t give anything away for those who haven’t yet watch her Ted Talk on The Power of Vulnerability, let’s just say I was all in after sixty seconds or so. From storytelling to human connection — I would love to break bread with Brené!

Thank you for sharing so many valuable insights with us today!

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