Robert Gamble of RxBenefits: “Prioritize Your People”

Challenge yourself to understand others’ perspective of the situation. Leadership is often about putting yourself in another person’s shoes and leading from that standpoint. We are in the business of healthcare and giving back to healthcare organizations — especially during COVID-19 — is important to us. RxBenefits made a priority to deliver over 150 meals to local Birmingham and […]

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Challenge yourself to understand others’ perspective of the situation. Leadership is often about putting yourself in another person’s shoes and leading from that standpoint. We are in the business of healthcare and giving back to healthcare organizations — especially during COVID-19 — is important to us. RxBenefits made a priority to deliver over 150 meals to local Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama hospitals, as well as PPE to rural communities through the Black Belt Community Foundation.

As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Gamble, President & Chief Financial Officer, joined RxBenefits in 2016 and brings over 16 years of executive experience at growing healthcare companies. Robert previously served as CFO and President at HospiScript Services for eight years, where he played a critical role in the high-growth pharmacy benefits management business with significant earnings growth and shareholder value creation during his tenure. Robert’s depth of experience across multiple growth platforms in Finance, IT, and Operations, as well as Sales, brings a unique set of skills to the RxBenefits leadership team.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

After finishing graduate school at UVA Business School, there were a few different tracks people typically went down. They were usually going to larger companies for finance, consulting, marketing or operations. I wanted to do more entrepreneurial because I wanted to be part of a smaller company where I felt I could impact many different pieces of the company. As part of that effort, I ended up working with a private equity group in Birmingham. They were in the early stages of their first investment fund looking for smaller businesses to invest in, and I worked with them on one of their opportunities that they ultimately acquired. After working with them on that deal, I went in as the VP of Finance into that company, which was not coincidentally a PBM. I didn’t know anything about healthcare. I could barely understand my own health insurance. It was very challenging because I hadn’t led a team before, and I was in a new industry. I knew numbers really well but was thrown into that opportunity. This is how I got started in a leadership role in this line of business. Since then, based on that experience and the relationships I’ve built, I’ve had the opportunity to be both CFO, COO, or CEO of three or four different healthcare businesses.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

In my job with the private equity group, I had a great team and we achieved much success growing the business. Ultimately the company became part of another larger PBM, and I continued to grow in that ‘thrown into the fire’ type of environment, which led to a lot of key learnings for me. I learned a lot from my own mistakes.

When I first started hiring, I had to build a completely new team because we were relocating the business. I had to hire five or six people in the finance team. I wasn’t good at sourcing or interviewing people, so I had to rely on my natural instincts. It was the first team that I ever built, and I didn’t have a plan, so I ended up making some bad hires. In one example, I hired someone and on their first day they came to me for help with something. This person was later in their career and didn’t know how to send an email. It was clear they were way behind on the technology curve, and there was no way they could be successful in that particular job. It was eye-opening to realize that this happened with the “perfect hiring process” we thought we had put in place. I learned that we needed to adjust our process, and also that it is easy to build a persona that doesn’t exist. Describing the perfect candidate and not accepting anything less until you find them is unrealistic because no one is perfect. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. It made me realize the importance of being organized and having an infrastructure for my hiring plan.

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

An old mentor of mine was an engineer by trade and later a business executive. As an engineer, he could build a perfect plan and would often say, “We have a great plan. You just have to flip the switch, and you will get the exact result you intend.” I now know this is not true at all. You can have a terrible plan — or no plan at all — but if you have great people, you’re going to end up better off than if you had a perfect plan with a few of the wrong people. Of course, you want a great plan and great people, but that was a key macro learning point, particularly in my early days.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

This is a cliché, but it’s all about the people. The spirit that lives within our business today at RxBenefits is about how we treat each other and the way we approach our customers. It was already very strong when I joined the company, and we’ve continued to hold true to that and maintained it even with all of our growth. What I’ve learned being here for four and a half years is that momentum is key. The more we repeat those positive things as an organization, the more it feeds on itself. I’ve been in distressed atmospheres where the momentum is the opposite way, and it’s difficult to get around that curve when it’s going the wrong way.

Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

When things are uncertain or challenging, I believe it’s important to look within. Stepping back and realizing that I can’t fix this for the world, or I might not fully understand what is happening or how it will impact the business. Instead, I have to think, who are we as an organization? What can I do to understand? Where are our gaps?

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic and even with the Black Lives Matter movement, the first tactical thing we said as a leadership team is that we would not try to be experts on the unknown or interpret what the experts were saying. We’re going to use this inner reflection to learn about ourselves and address any gaps found in our organization.

When COVID hit, we recognized there was nothing we could do to fix it, and it wasn’t what we should try to do. We had to have the mentality that whatever we needed to do for our teams and people is what we would do, because their personal situations are as important — if not more important, and completely tied to the success of the organization. This wasn’t a new mentality for us, but we had a new environment to apply it to.

Taking into account the 500+ employees across the United States who are all in this completely new and unknown situation, we acted quickly and got everyone set up to work from home within 48 hours because the unknown risk was not worth taking. We felt that it was best to take the safest route and get people settled and comfortable. We are lucky to be in a position where we can work from home, and our teams responded so well to our early action.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

The biggest challenge I faced personally was the mentality that if there is uncertainty, there is risk. I fell into the early trap of letting the frustration get to me. I had to remember that everyone is in this, not just me — and I have it better than most. The situation is what it is. I must embrace it and plan the best I can.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

The best decision a leader can make is taking a personal perspective on the situation, whatever it may be. Staying connected and communicating with employees provides a real sense of comfort, especially when everyone in the company is feeling the anxiety of the unknown and adapting to new adjustments that are necessary to keep the business running.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Pivoting quickly to address and prioritize employee needs is key, especially during a time of crisis.RxBenefits has historically been a very face-to-face and relationship driven business. When COVID hit, we had to change our strategy completely — and quickly. The company went completely remote on a dime, without any hitches. In doing so, we made sure to meet not only customer needs, but also our employees’ needs. No employee so much as missed needing a pen, printer, or notebook. Our senior leadership team saw to it that every employee need was taken care of, which was critical to ensuring business continuity and motivating our teams to keep going to meet our goals despite the whirlwind around us.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Get that face time and really spend time with your team. Focus on how your people are feeling and keep them focused on what is important. While working remotely, I, along with the rest of the RxBenefits senior leadership team, made weekly appearances on videos sent to the entire staff. In the beginning of the COVID crisis and also during the Black Lives Matter protests, we sent out 2–3 videos a week addressing the circumstances and concerns among employees, and how the company was reacting. And these weren’t scripted, contrived videos — one take, filming yourself on an iPhone. This helped make the transition to virtual work easier and make the team feel at ease with knowing the leadership team is there for them.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Sometimes you have to acknowledge that you can’t fix a problem or that it isn’t yours to fix. You must establish what communication means and determine who are the best decision makers and identify who will interact with the organization.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

As I said earlier, it’s all about the people. Put your people and customers first. That really is the overarching theme to what I’ve learned throughout my career.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

When there is a moment of difficulty, use it as an opportunity. I would tell leaders, put yourself in others’ shoes to understand what they are feeling. Focus on how your business can pivot to address what your customers need to get through that difficult time. If you have down time, focus on tightening the resources you have internally as you wait to feel out the market.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

RxBenefits is lucky in that we are in an industry that didn’t shut down overnight when COVID hit. At first there was a sense of “the market isn’t ready to talk business yet,” so we needed to determine when it was a good time to start talking business again. But we used that time as a chance to focus on other projects and we let the market settle a bit. For example, over the summer, I spearheaded the development of a Diversity Council, which is being led by employees, to show our employees that the leadership team is deeply committed to building an equitable and diverse workplace, and to ensure that everyone feels included in this process. We really focused on looking within — where are our gaps in understanding the unique perspectives of our people? RxBenefits’ employees responded positively to these initiatives, which was critical to team morale and maintaining momentum during these challenging times we are all facing. Eventually, by the third quarter, momentum started picking back up for us in the market because employers need our help now more than ever — to lower their healthcare benefits expenses and find savings so that they could keep headcount, and frankly for some, keep the doors to their business open.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Challenge yourself to understand others’ perspective of the situation. Leadership is often about putting yourself in another person’s shoes and leading from that standpoint. We are in the business of healthcare and giving back to healthcare organizations — especially during COVID-19 — is important to us. RxBenefits made a priority to deliver over 150 meals to local Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama hospitals, as well as PPE to rural communities through the Black Belt Community Foundation.

Be Truly Genuine in your Communication: Communicating with your people and your customers in a way that provides comfort and ease when you can’t be together is crucial. In the past, our video communications to the company were more structured and scripted. The videos we shared at the beginning of COVID were far more candid. It was important for us to speak openly to everyone about the organization’s status and inform them of conversations taking place in executive-level meetings.

Prioritize Your People: It is essential to cultivate an environment where people feel safe and free to voice their thoughts and emotions, especially in challenging times. Our first response to COVID-19 was to send our people home. We did this early on, and promptly because the unknown risk was not worth taking chances with our employees’ health and safety. During this time, equally challenging and important circumstances in our nation led to the formation of our Diversity Council. Our employee-led program ensures we are addressing employee inclusivity and diversity in a way that acknowledges that we have to start by looking within.

Unify: With change and separation, it can become easy to feel divided or isolated. During the transition to working remotely, we encouraged face-to-face conversations by turning on cameras during meetings and continued company-wide activities from home as best we could. At RxBenefits, we embrace a good sense of humor, and we didn’t want to abandon that because things were tough. We held activities such as work from home dress-up days and even a virtual fun-run to keep things light when they could be. Aside from our efforts to make the situation feel as normal as possible, we made sure to address our teams’ needs so that they felt empowered and cared for as they transitioned to working from home. Our teams do an excellent job of working together to address their thoughts and strategies when facing a challenge, and we are fortunate that we can rely on one another.

Listen: In turbulent times, it is easy to get lost in the volatile environment around you. When it comes to your people and your business, it is critical to listen to your surroundings before acting. You are not expected to fix or have the answers to things that are out of your hands. But you can sit back and listen to your employees, listen to the market, and gather your thoughts to establish what the next best steps are.

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

“The state of mind [you’re] seeking is already present, right now, regardless of circumstances.” Bruce Tift, Already Free

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