The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to change and adapt in unprecedented ways. But with change comes opportunity, and our shift to a remote working environment brought about new and improved ways of operating, as well as valuable lessons for leading from a distance.
Britt Erler, Quartz Network Executive Correspondent, speaks with Sandra Clarke, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Blue Shield of California about her lessons learned during the pandemic and how to use them to build successful finance teams of the future.
Sandra shares her insights on:
- The importance of human connection
- Keeping teams engaged and agile
- Successfully blending traditional systems with remote technology
Quartz Network: Please give us a quick introduction about yourself and your current role with Blue Shield.
Sandra Clarke: I’ve been with Blue Shield about three years as the Chief Financial Officer, and I was with a variety of companies before that. This is my first time in a health plan and I’m really enjoying the experience.
At Blue Shield of California, I am responsible for our actuarial services, meaning the groups that do the risk assessment and provide guidance on pricing insurance premiums, as well as our corporate financial reporting and analysis, treasury, real estate, our product portfolio, and probably a number of things that I’m forgetting right now, but all equally important. I have a team of between 300-500 people, depending on how many openings I have at any one time that are all supporting me in this.
Quartz Network: How has remote work impacted your company’s recruiting, hiring, and retaining that top accounting and finance talent?
Sandra Clarke: Recruiting and onboarding have changed a lot in our new completely virtual environment. I would say one of the biggest challenges in the hiring process has been the loss of a personal connection you often make when you’re doing a face-to-face interview. So, making sure that you have the right questions, to be able to build a rapport, and to assess culture and fit, are extremely important. I believe those have changed. It requires very thoughtful interviewing. And I think somewhat longer interviews, in order to make sure you have that right fit.
For onboarding, we have people who started with the company since we began work from home that have never physically met their boss, their teammates, or anyone else within the company. Making sure that you have created an onboarding experience that still makes them feel connected to the mission of the company and to their team is really important. And you can rely on tools to a great degree for that, but at the end of the day, that human touch—virtual in this case—is really important to make sure people feel that what they’re doing matters because it absolutely does.
Quartz Network: Once you have these fantastic candidates on board, I think the next concern a lot of executives have is, how do I keep them engaged? How do I keep them agile and really make sure that they’re staying up to date in this fast-paced environment that we’re seeing, especially due to the pandemic? What are some of the key challenges that you experienced in this arena, and how did you overcome them?
Sandra Clarke: Well, I think we’ve all had a number of adjustments to make. You mentioned tools and technology and that’s a really big piece of it, making certain that we are fully utilizing what is available to us. I have done so much more on Zoom in the past year than I think I had done in all my years up to that point. I’ve learned Microsoft Teams. I’ve learned all kinds of things. Did you know you can whiteboard, virtually? That was a new experience. So, I think all of those are important. But then again, the most important thing that you can do is maintain that human connection.
One of the things that was unique about this last year was that it was a healthcare issue at its heart. So, we had no prior reference on how this might impact the health insurance and health care overall industry. So, we had to change our forecasting in our scenario planning and make it much more nimble than it had been in the past. So, we had to quickly get up to speed on tools that we maybe hadn’t fully utilized in the past and use them in a virtual way.
We were also closing the quarter within a week or so of going to work at home, so it was 100% virtual. We were finishing our year-end audit, in a completely virtual environment. All of those things required the finance team to be very flexible and adaptable. And it meant that as managers, we had to be really supportive and adaptable to an even greater degree. We had to be mindful that our people had personal pressures and concerns in addition to what they were trying to do on behalf of the organization. So, as leaders, we have to make sure that we are being mindful of their mental health and supportive of it, as well as making certain that we can be responsive to the business.
The other thing that I think was really different over this past year was how you stay connected to your business partners. Good finance people are good business people. And making sure that we were staying connected to everything happening in the business, the support we were trying to give to our providers, the support that we were giving to our members, the scenario planning, the things that were coming down in terms of government regulations, and making sure we had all of that considered, and that we stayed up to date on all those things, was really important. So again, it’s about how you use the tool, but it’s how you make sure you retain that human touch and communication that are the most important things. That never changes.
Quartz Network: You mentioned Microsoft Teams, obviously Zoom, which are common. What other innovations and technologies have you and your team found extremely useful that you’ll continue using, even once you start going back into the office?
Sandra Clarke: I think those are two of the biggest things along with the virtual whiteboarding technology. Because even when we go back to the office, it’s unlikely that we will all be in one location together. We were spread across multiple offices to start. And now, with people continuing to do some degree of work from home, that will become true to an even greater extent. So, making sure that we are utilizing those tools, I keep saying whiteboarding, but I’m a visual person, I like to get up and draw and brainstorm, making certain that we can do that.
Also, making sure that, whether a person is in the office or remote, they feel a part of a conversation, a part of a decision, is going to be really important. That’s not so much about the tool as it is around being a good leader and making sure that you are being inclusive, and that your team all feels that they have an opportunity to weigh in, to speak up, and continue to be part of driving the business.
Quartz Network: The frameworks that you’ve put in place—these new strategies, do you see the pandemic changing the way all finance teams and organizations operate going forward? Or do you believe that these frameworks will eventually go back to normal?
Sandra Clarke: I think there’s going to be a new normal. And I think it’s going to be a little bit of the old and a little bit of this past year. I think what we’ve learned around how to be more nimble when it comes to things like scenario planning, how we learned to be more flexible on how we support our team, how we manage getting the work done, how we meet deadlines in a way that accommodates family considerations. All of that has to stay.
We’ve also learned a lot about what’s really important in a control environment, what things truly matter. And as we stay more distributed, making certain that we’re keeping that in mind and redesigning controls where appropriate, to factor those changes in our work style into the requirements. But there are things about how we worked before that worked well. We’ve largely relied on the same systems, just doing them in a remote manner. So, I think that that will continue. And the fundamentals of accounting and finance won’t change.
Quartz Network: Based on what you’ve experienced and what you see the finance industry moving forward, what do you believe are the top three things that executives can do to not only create a good remote culture, but also make sure they are transferring into this new kind of hybrid model?
Sandra Clarke: I think one of the most important things that a leader can do is to make sure that connection remains. So, are you having enough touch points, not just with your direct team, but more broadly? We instituted more frequent all-hands meetings, so people had an opportunity to hear the same information at the same time, and do it in a way that was interactive so that they could freely ask their questions. I think that is really important.
I also think it’s important for leaders to maintain flexibility. It’s about getting the work done at a high quality and not who’s in the office to do it, or the number of hours that they spend. We’ve been very diligent as a company to preserve personal time, so we don’t have meetings before nine o’clock in the morning, we don’t have meetings after 5pm, we do not have meetings at lunchtime. Now, that doesn’t necessarily apply to me, but for my team that absolutely applies. I do not call them for meetings, if at all possible. We really try to respect that.
And as we continue in this new distributed environment, we need to be mindful of people’s mental health. The isolation that many people have experienced will continue to weigh on some individuals. And so, we need to make sure we have the right things in place to help them with that.
I also have an enormous amount of respect for all the parents out there that had to do homeschooling while they were trying to work this past year. I just cannot even verbalize how much I admire the patients and the organization that they all must have had to do that. Many of those things will improve as children go back to school and again, life returns to this new normal. But it really illustrated that sense that we have lived, they’ve merged a bit more now between that personal and professional, and we need to respect that and give people the space and the time to be able to manage both.
Quartz Network: What final advice would you have, not just for financial executives, but all executives to make sure they’re moving their business in the right direction?
Sandra Clark: Stay connected, accelerate the number of skip levels that you do to make sure that you’re getting the real information, and take advantage of the things that are coming out of a more virtual and distributed environment. Expand where you go to do recruiting. You have the opportunity now, to look much more broadly. For us, that’s playing a big role in where we look to recruit and how it further bolsters our diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, keep those things in mind. And remember that we’re all human—it’s not going to be perfect. I think we’ve all muddled through together for the past year. If we can remember those things, we will continue to do well together.
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