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Luis Portela of Cardinal Health Sonexus Access & Patient Support: “Establishing strong interpersonal relationships”

Establishing strong interpersonal relationships. When you have remote teams, establishing and maintaining strong relationships and trust is more challenging. The distance can make it difficult to build rapport because it’s not as easy as just walking over to someone’s desk or chatting with them at the water cooler. You have to be intentional about getting […]

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Establishing strong interpersonal relationships. When you have remote teams, establishing and maintaining strong relationships and trust is more challenging. The distance can make it difficult to build rapport because it’s not as easy as just walking over to someone’s desk or chatting with them at the water cooler. You have to be intentional about getting to know the people on your team and finding out what matters to them, both in their professional lives and outside of work.


As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luis Portela.

Luis has more than 20 years of experience working in customer service, a discipline and passion that he continues to share with his teams today in their approach to patient support. He joined Cardinal Health Sonexus™ Access and Patient Support in 2016, where he now serves as Director of Access and Patient Support, bringing his wide-ranged expertise in managed care, specialty pharmacy, technology solutions and call center excellence. He has contributed to several key initiatives that have led to cost savings for clients, improvements in patient services, and informed our hub services framework and standards. Today, Luis works with multiple drug manufacturers and leads patient access programs in vital disease areas including inflammation and immunology, oncology and rare disease. Prior to joining Sonexus™, Luis led customer operations for the Texas and Illinois Medicaid/MMP programs focused on servicing the aged, blind and disabled population. Luis holds a marketing degree from DePaul University, an MBA from Elmhurst College and is Lean Six Sigma certified.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I was born and raised in Chicago with my sister and parents. I moved to Texas 11 years ago when my wife was offered an amazing career opportunity that she couldn’t pass up. Career wise, I’ve worked in customer service my entire life, starting out at Bank Administration Institute (BAI), before transitioning into the healthcare space. For me, working in healthcare was not something I had planned, but when a great opportunity presented itself, I took it. During that first experience in the healthcare industry, I realized how rewarding it was being able to help people.

Today, I serve as Director of Access and Patient Support at Cardinal Health Sonexus™. Sonexus™ is a patient hub that works on behalf of biopharmaceutical companies to help patients with chronic illnesses overcome barriers to care. I lead a team of patient support representatives who work with patients to help them navigate the benefit investigation and prior authorization processes that most insurance companies require before they will give approval for a patient to begin a new medication. We provide support to very sick patients at a critical time in their life, which is very fulfilling. I believe that people are meant to do certain things in life, and the moment you find what that is for you, it makes your life more meaningful. For me, I found that meaning in working to help patients in the healthcare space.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Although not a career moment, something that has consistently shaped my life and my approach to business is martial arts. When I began martial arts training at the age of eight, all I knew was that studying the art of Kung Fu could help me to become more like my heroes, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. By the time I was 13, I began to take this art form more seriously and perfected my training at the Degerberg Academy in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to train under individuals who helped me to develop a strong foundation based on self-discipline, honor, loyalty, determination, and hard work. Not only did these attributes benefit my martial arts skills, but they also helped me to stay focused on my priorities and grow as a person. When I got to high school, I began work as an instructor at this academy and later took on additional responsibilities as a program director enrolling new students to the school. This leadership role of helping students get into better shape and defend themselves was what first introduced me to business. I was able to understand the responsibilities of how to run a business, set financial goals and expectations, meet performance objectives, and more importantly, make a difference in the lives of others. This experience is what motivated me to pursue a professional degree in business and commit to being in an environment where I could positively impact others. Martial arts still plays an integral part in my life and I’m forever grateful for the mentors who positively shaped my life and helped me to learn not only about myself, but who I was meant to become in the future.

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 23 years old and I had just started my new job at BAI. Everyone was issued a security badge that we had to use to enter the building. One day, I was coming back into the office and there was this gentleman right behind me who was trying to get in with my ID swipe instead of using his own. It was my first week on the job and I had just read the employee handbook so I knew that tailgating wasn’t appropriate. I politely stopped him and asked if he could use his badge. When he told me that he didn’t have his badge, I went over to the HR office so someone could come help him. Well, he ended up being the president of the company and I had no idea because I had just started working there. I was so embarrassed and thought I was going to get fired. He was very nice about it and thanked me for being vigilant. Looking back, if I could do it over again, I wouldn’t do anything differently. A lesson I learned from that was to definitely do your homework and understand who the key players are in an organization when you join a new company.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

This may sound funny, but I think about the quote “Be excellent to each other” from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It reminds me of the culture at Sonexus™; We work hard, we play hard, but most importantly, we treat each other with respect. I think an important part of being a leader and keeping employees engaged is being aware, available and connected.

Leaders can foster connectivity through one-on-one meetings, skip-level meetings and just in general through listening to your employees. Seeking out ways to offer support to your employees will go a long way in helping them to thrive and avoid burnout.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

I have about 10 years of experience leading remote teams. In some cases, my remote teams were working from home, and in other cases they were in remote office locations, or both. At Sonexus™, I’m working with employees located all across the country and, for the past two years, I’ve also been working with Sonexus™ employees based in Manila, Philippines. About 30% of my team was remote before the COVID-19 pandemic and today, 100% of my team is remote.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

1. Establishing strong interpersonal relationships.

When you have remote teams, establishing and maintaining strong relationships and trust is more challenging. The distance can make it difficult to build rapport because it’s not as easy as just walking over to someone’s desk or chatting with them at the water cooler. You have to be intentional about getting to know the people on your team and finding out what matters to them, both in their professional lives and outside of work.

2. Building a strong sense of “team”

A related challenge is creating strong connections between team members and establishing a sense of community. When team members are located in different places, connections between team members don’t develop organically — you need to work at it. Whether it’s through team meetings, after-hours social events or healthy competition activities, team building is integral to making sure remote employees stay connected.

3. Hiring and onboarding

While hiring remote positions can be liberating because you are removing the geographic restrictions, it can also be more challenging to gauge whether candidates will be a cultural fit or if they will have the self-discipline to be successful in a remote work environment. Onboarding and training new employees can also be more difficult. When an employee starts a new job at an office location, they can be immediately immersed in the company culture. But when a remote employee joins a company, both technical training and cultural indoctrination must be managed through virtual channels.

4. Equipping teams with the right technology and tools

Remote teams are, by definition, dependent on technology, so it’s critical to have the systems and hardware in place to ensure your remote teams can be effective in their roles and stay connected. Some elements may be outside of your control, such as the strength of the employee’s wifi connection at home. You also need to have a plan for technology disruptions or failures. What happens if someone’s computer dies? Or they lose power at their house? In my case, my teams are on the phone all day assisting patients with chronic illnesses, so having a business resiliency plan is critical to ensure we are delivering seamless patient support.

5. Helping remote teams with work/life integration

Supporting teams as they integrate work responsibilities and personal responsibilities is particularly important when employees are working from home. I say “integration” rather than “balance” because it more accurately describes how we are working today. Since the start of the pandemic, many people are working while caring for or homeschooling their children. Some are also caring for elderly parents or grandparents. As leaders, we need to recognize this and provide support so employees can successfully manage both parts of their lives.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

When it comes to building relationships and trust, maintaining a high level of communication is important. Whether it’s one-on-ones or skip-levels, having regularly scheduled touch base meetings is important. Also, I always try to have conversations that are not solely about the business — I take the time to get to know my team members on a personal level by asking about their interests outside of work, including family, friends, hobbies, etc. Being available and accessible to your teams when they want to connect also builds trust.

Virtual social events and healthy competitions are a good way to keep teams connected while working remotely. My boss at Sonexus™, Tara Herington, does a great job at this. A couple of times a month, she organizes an after-hours social event via Zoom for her directors. Each one has a different theme — we’ve done a cooking class, a cocktail party and even a few game nights. These events have fostered healthy, meaningful connections with our team. Each of us is also encouraged to host similar events with our own teams. No one is pressured to join, but it’s great to have the option to socialize in a non-business-related environment.

Creating positive experiences for new employees when they come on-board is important for retention and long-term success, so we are intentional about connecting frequently and making sure new hires know who to call when they have questions. Having a well-structured online training program so that new hires can quickly and easily access the information they need to do their jobs is also essential.

When it comes to technology, it’s critical to have a team in place that can help remote employees to set up their technology and provide support when technical challenges arise, such as a 24/7 Help Desk. Business resiliency planning and redundant systems are also critical. At Sonexus™, we have business continuity plans that include different servers for managing patient calls. For example, if the server in Illinois is down, we have the ability to bounce those calls over to other servers within Cardinal Health without disruption. In addition, cross-training your team is important, so if one person experiences an outage, someone else on the team can step in to provide continuity.

There is no “silver bullet” when it comes to helping teams integrate their work and personal responsibilities. It starts with empowering employees to have ownership and accountability for managing their job responsibilities. As leaders, we need to create a safe environment where team members feel comfortable speaking up if they are struggling or need extra time to manage a personal issue. Making team members aware of company resources, such as employee assistance programs, is also important. As an example, Cardinal Health has a resource that can help employees locate child care in an emergency. That resource has been incredibly helpful for several of our team members, particularly since the start of the pandemic when many daycare centers shut down.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

In the past, I had a lot of conversations with remote employees over the phone. But now, the pandemic has normalized the use of video conference technology like Zoom. Having face-to-face interaction really helps to personalize the message and makes it easier for the leader to read the employee’s reaction using facial cues and body language.

In general, it’s important to keep in mind the fundamentals of constructive feedback. You have to be respectful and objective. We’re all human and everyone is going through something in their personal lives. It’s important to understand that there is probably a valid reason for a particular behavior, so don’t make it personal, but focus on the action that is taking place. Provide examples and be sure to dig deep to get answers. Why is this happening?

I like to follow the “platinum rule” — treat others the way they want to be treated. Instead of prioritizing how you would want to be treated, keep their feelings and their perspective in mind. It puts a sense of ownership on the leader to really understand who they are talking to and to personalize the conversation. In the end — whether you are speaking to someone in person, on the phone or on video conference — it’s just about being honest and respectful.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I don’t believe in giving constructive feedback over email; I think it’s the worst thing you can do. It comes across as cold and removed from the situation. Email is not a tool for conversations — especially a difficult conversation. Instead, provide the feedback via phone or video conference and use email as a follow up to a discussion you’ve had to make sure you’re aligned.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

With remote workers, it’s important to foster a culture of connectivity and flexibility. I set up group forums on Microsoft Teams as a way to encourage connectivity and communication throughout the team. Each program team has a business forum and a non-business forum so that we can continue to foster those personal relationships that teams are accustomed to when working in an office environment. The key to implementing these types of things is, as a leader, you cannot pressure anyone to participate or contribute. Whether it’s a group forum or a virtual happy hour, it’s important to encourage participation but not require it so that people can feel comfortable making their own decisions.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

When it comes to the more practical side of building and maintaining an empowered workforce, training and measurement are two key factors. A couple of years back, we established a measurement system that we call “balanced scorecards,” which help us to measure both the quantity and the quality of our work. These scorecards assess everything from” How many calls were conducted in a day?” to “Did the representative use the correct terminology?” to “Were the appropriate HIPAA privacy protocols followed?” These components are measured on a monthly basis, not only at the employee level but also at the supervisor level and manager level. The great thing is that the pandemic hasn’t had any impact on this process, other than the way in which they’re conducted — via Zoom call instead of in person. It’s important to hold yourself and your employees accountable. If you’re not measuring performance properly, things can go south quickly.

Training our employees has always been a priority at Sonexus™. Before COVID-19, we had both virtual and in-person training, but since the start of the pandemic we have moved to all virtual training. The centralized training platform that we use, called Birdy™, makes it really easy to ensure everyone has the resources they need. Everything is stored on this one platform and there is a gamification aspect to most of the training courses. Turning training into interactive games helps keep employees engaged while also creating a customized experience based on their personal strengths and weaknesses.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I would like to inspire is to “Be in the moment.” Too often we are focused on what happened in the past, or we are thinking forward to the future. In my view, nothing should get more attention than interactions we are having today. Whether you are engaging with a colleague, a customer, a friend or a family member, be in the moment, maximize the interaction and be “you.”

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

I have a few different quotes that are important to me.

“If you win say nothing, and if you lose say less.”

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.”

They all have a central theme and that’s the importance of staying humble. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating successes, but nothing is ever final, and there’s always more to learn. My parents were immigrants to this country and they always inspired me and my sister to stay positive and work hard. They instilled a passion in us to be positive, be strong and to focus on prevailing. This mindset also applies to my career at Sonexus™; we want to win every contract, but when we don’t win, we take a step back and identify how we can improve. Ultimately, when you fail, you learn and get better.

Thank you for these great insights!

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