Blue Shield of California CFO, Sandra Clarke on Finance Teams for the Future

Sandra Clarke

Chief Financial Officer at Blue Shield of California

Learning Objectives

The last year will be remembered for the unprecedented challenges it brought to everyone. Even through the hardship and difficulties wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, finance professionals must nonetheless provide stability, model adaptability, and ensure business continuity and growth. Join Blue Shield CFO, Sandra Clarke, as she discusses finance talent, investing in innovation, and leading through COVID-19.



  • Evaluate how remote work has impacted recruiting, hiring, and retaining top of the line talent

  • Analyze the key challenges Sandra faced while maintaining agility in an ever-changing post-pandemic landscape

  • Explore the new innovations Sandra's team utilized to stay connected and engaged and how the use of this technology will continue to shape the business


"The most important thing that you can do is maintain that human connection."

Sandra Clarke

Chief Financial Officer at Blue Shield of California

Transcript

Britt Erler

Hello, everyone and welcome to the Connect CFO Leadership Summit hosted on Quartz Network. My name is Britt Erler, QN Executive correspondent, thank you so much for joining us. I am pleased to welcome our executive speaker here with us today Sandra Clarke, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Blue Shield of California. Today, she will be sharing her insights on remote work, how to keep teams agile and engaged, as well as new technologies that are impacting the finance industry. Welcome, Sandra.


Sandra Clarke

Hello, Britt, thank you for having me.


Britt Erler

Of course, it’s a pleasure to have you here and thrilled to hear more about your insights and experience. But before we do so, if you wouldn’t mind giving 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, I’ve been in a variety than 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 all equally important. But I have a team of between three and 500 people, depending on how many openings I have at any one time that are all supporting me in this.


Britt Erler

Fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing, Sandra. And, you know, I’m going to assume that after last year, everything was COVID. Having a team that large, especially in so many different sectors, having to work remotely is not an easy transition. So I want to start there and ask you how remote work impacted your company’s recruiting, hiring, and retaining that top accounting and finance talent?


Sandra Clarke

Well, you’re right, Britt, it certainly did cause a lot of changes. We were largely in the office, the majority of the time, probably not 100% work from the office. But a significant number of the finance and accounting team were mostly in the office. And all of a sudden, literally overnight, we were all working from home. As you noted, recruiting and onboarding in particular have changed a lot in our new completely virtual environment. I would say one of the biggest challenges in the hiring process has been that loss of a personal connection that 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 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. And then the onboarding process, 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. And 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—that’s still a human touch is really important to make sure people feel that what they’re doing matters because it absolutely does.


Britt Erler

I completely agree with you. I have a majority of my team here as well that was hired during the pandemic. And you’re so right, it’s very hard to get them immersed into that company culture and feel like they’re making a difference. So, it really is on the leaders to make sure that they’re taking advantage of those tools and really communicating with their team. So, I think that’s an incredible insight there. And that leads perfectly into my next question: 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. And you’ve 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, Britt, 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 perhaps what it had been in the past. So, that’s another place where 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, 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 that we had all of that considered, and that we stayed up to date on all of those things, was really important. So again, how do you use the tool, but how do you make sure you retain that human touch, and communication is absolutely the most important thing. That never changes.


Britt Erler

It doesn’t change. And I think, you know, that’s one of the silver linings, so to speak, of the pandemic, is it really did force more communication, more transparency—what you just talked about all right there. And I think another point of that, too, and you’ve talked about it a little bit is this spur of innovation, these new tools, these new technologies. Walk me through that a little bit more. You know, you mentioned Microsoft Teams, obviously Zoom, which is really common, and what other innovations, what other 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 that 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’d like to get up and draw and brainstorm, making certain that we can do that. And making sure that, whether or not a person is in the office, or remote, they all feel a part of a conversation, a part of a decision is going to be really important. So, 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.


Britt Erler

And now, I want to talk a little bit about the finance industry specifically because I truly believe it was hit the hardest out of all of them in terms of risk. And what we’re seeing virtually now as well. The frameworks that you’ve put in place—these new strategies, do you see this crisis really 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 learn to be more flexible on how we support our team, how we manage getting the work done, how we meet deadlines, but do it in a way that accommodates family considerations. All of that has to stay. We’ve also, I think, 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.


Britt Erler

I completely agree with you. And I think what changed a lot last year was the way that people manage their teams, how executives are even working in that particular role. 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 that they are transferring into this new kind of hybrid model that we’re about to see?


Sandra Clarke

I think one of the most important things, Britt, that a leader can do is to make sure that again, that that connection remains. So, are you having enough touch points, not just with your direct team, but more broadly. We instituted much 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 think leaders maintain flexibility, it’s about getting the work done at a high quality and not who’s in the office to do it, and 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 at the same time that 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 now as children go back to school and again, life returns to this new normal. But I think 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.


Britt Erler

I think we’re seeing a lot of leaders coming from a perspective of more humanity, more empathy when it comes to their teams and how they deal with everyone. And I really hope that that’s an aspect that sticks moving forward, because it really is creating this much more flexible, much more mindful environment for these people to work in. So, I completely agree with you on that mark. And, Sandra, as we wrap up our conversation today, you provided some incredible insights for not only finance executives, really executives in any department across the board, but final pieces of advice that you have for them during this time to make sure that they’re moving their business in the right direction.


Sandra Clarke

They 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 environments. Expand where you go to do recruiting. You have the opportunity now, to look much more broadly. I know 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. And if we can remember those things, we will continue to do well together.


Britt Erler

Fantastic advice, Sandra. Thank you so much for being here sharing your experience and your insights. I wish you the best and your company the best of luck and everyone else as well. They transfer kind of into this new normal that we just talked about. So, appreciate you sharing everything that you just have. And thank you to all the audience members who have joined us today as well. I’m sure you will have further questions for Sandra, and we will have a discussion forum underneath this presentation. Be safe, be healthy, and thank you again for joining us at the Connect CFO leadership virtual summit.


Sandra Clarke

Thank you, Britt.


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