Skip to main content
@marcobertoliphotography via Twenty20

Article

Highmark Health’s Journey to Improved Engagement

Culture transformation could be the key to company success

Elisabeth Klar, Rebecca Savikas

Section:

Strategist

Unleash Your AspirationsPlanning, implementing and driving an award-winning culture transformation at scale for improved employee engagement.

  • As a $19 billion integrated health and wellness organization, Highmark Health employs more than 35,000 people, and serves millions of customers across the United States
  • In 2014, the organization was tasked with driving culture transformation to increase employee engagement
  • In 2020, Gallup awarded Highmark Health the Culture Transformation Award in recognition of ongoing success in Core Behavior alignment, adoption and workforce engagement.

Are your aspirations a realistic glimpse into the future or perhaps a taste of the impossible?

Aspiration. A hope or ambition of achieving something. Sounds straightforward, or is it? Take a moment and think about yourself and what you hope to accomplish in the short and long term. Many personal aspirations will come to mind.  Some big, some small. Regardless of the magnitude, they all symbolize the future. Are your aspirations a realistic glimpse into the future or perhaps a taste of the impossible?

What happens when an enterprise develops aspirations? Should that glimpse be somewhat recognizable to their employees, like seeing an old friend, or should it be so radically different that the only fitting words to describe the aspirations are transformation or reinvention.

For Highmark Health the decision was easy.  It is the latter and the words are not “or” but “and.” Transformation and reinvention. Highmark Health’s aspiration is to transform healthcare in the United States while reinventing its culture. The old “what got us here won’t get us there” is alive and well from both a business and workforce point of view. 

Read more:

@sashapritchard via Twenty20

Highmark Health, a $19 billion Pittsburgh, PA-based integrated health and wellness organization, employs more than 35,000 people who serve millions of Americans across the country.  Highmark Health is the parent company of Highmark Inc, Allegheny Health Network, and HM Health Solutions.  Highmark Inc. and its subsidiaries and affiliates provide health insurance to more than 5.6 million members across the US as well as dental insurance, and related health products through a national network of diversified businesses.

So how did the journey for engaged employees start?  It started with high aspirations and an unwavering leadership team.

The Core Behaviors Were Born

When President and Chief Executive Officer David Holmberg was appointed in 2014, the organization was tasked with building an innovative strategy for continued growth. With a focus on improving operating fundamentals and accelerating transformation, David and his senior leadership team recognized that a cohesive, customer-focused culture was foundational for success. 

Senior leadership, in partnership with Gallup, worked together to architect a set of guiding values – the Core Behaviors – serving as the north star for transformation.  These Behaviors – Customer First, Transformational Leadership, Trust Working Together and Purposeful Execution – represented a consistent, unified set of expectations to create an aligned, engaged and inspired workforce. Throughout 2017, videos, communications, leadership sessions, and an inaugural Our Core Behaviors handbook all played a role in grounding leaders and individuals in expected behaviors. An initial enterprise baseline measurement in 2017, followed by regular measurement of the behaviors and Gallup’s research-based workforce needs, has enabled the organization to keep a steady pulse on adoption and engagement – and nimbly take action when needed.      

In 2020, Gallup awarded Highmark Health the Culture Transformation Award in recognition of ongoing success in Core Behavior alignment, adoption and and engaged workforce. A multi-faceted approach, consisting of ongoing business sponsorship, recognition systems, thoughtful talent investments and data-informed decision making, has successfully reinvented the culture. Looking ahead to the next leg of Highmark Health’s transformation journey, the Core Behaviors will guide ongoing change to achieve its mission – to create a remarkable health experience, freeing people to be their best. 

@howaboutraw via Twenty20

The Employee Engagement Tactics

Business Advocacy:  A Lever for Success

Business sponsorship at all levels has been an integral part of Highmark Health’s engagement journey. Tight alignment between the development of workforce solutions and business needs was critical. That’s why Business Unit talent councils were stood up in 2017, to free lines of communication, develop business-centered strategies, and secure leadership buy-in. Led by an Executive Leader and consisting of 4 – 6 leaders within each business, the councils had dual responsibility to sponsor enterprise initiatives locally while customizing solutions to meet the unique and critical needs of the area. To promote opportunities to learn and grow, the Corporate function talent council launched a mentoring program with a focus on career development, leadership planning, diversity and continual learning. Pairing corporate leaders with executive mentors “allowed for rich discussions between Mentors and Mentees on career experiences, challenges and future aspirations,” says program manager Kara Brown.

In early 2020, the Our Core Behavior Ambassadors (OCBA) network took off as another critical connection point between the voice of the customer and enterprise engagement team.  Consisting of roughly 300 highly engaged key talent program alumni, the network serves as both a “listening post” and “loud speaker” for enterprise initiatives. The engagement team consults regularly with the network to design initiatives that capture employee best practices and feedback.  Ambassadors serve as a distribution channel, advocating for local adoption of practices to connect everyday employees to the Core Behaviors journey.  In June of 2020, the OCBA network played a critical role in the release of an employee Burnout Series, designed to address and support remote employee needs as a result of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic. 

Since 2019, the organization has observed a 23+ basis point improvement (on a 1 – 5 scale) in the action planning item alone.

Locally, the teams that are most successful in driving engagement over time are those that use team survey data as a conversation starter for thoughtful action planning.  That’s why Highmark Health has invested significantly in leadership education and tools to equip leaders with the capabilities to comfortably talk about employee needs and improvement areas. Action planning has really taken off, with Highmark Health now observing an increase of 44% in the number of action plans since 2018.  Action planning progress is now captured consistently via regular employee surveys, with the action planning item acting as key listening post to design and deploy appropriate solutions for teams struggling with engagement progress.   The continued measurement and education on action planning has paid off.  Since 2019, the organization has observed a 23+ basis point improvement (on a 1 -5 scale) in the action planning item alone.

@bellphoto1 via Twenty20

Recognizing Core Behaviors in Action

In 2017, an enterprise-wide recognition program – Living Proof Awards – was established to capture and celebrate the Core Behaviors in action.  Six award cycles later, dozens of teams and individuals across Highmark Health’s footprint have been celebrated for extraordinary efforts in bringing the Core Behaviors to life. The Summer 2020 awards cycle was dedicated to COVID relief efforts, recognizing individuals such as Diane Blakemore, Director of Ambulatory Services at Allegheny Health Network. Diane worked tirelessly to meet the needs of patients, members and community to stand up drive-through and mobile COVID-19 tests at multiple locations throughout the network.

A recent survey reflected a 63+ basis point increase in recognition since the launch of the enterprise recognition platform alone.

Locally, Highmark Health launched an enterprise recognition platform to recognize everyday heroes via personalized, branded e-cards.  Linked to each Core Behavior, the e-cards empower employees to celebrate the Core Behaviors in action as they navigate their daily roles. On average, more than 5,000 employee-initiated e-cards are sent monthly across the organization. With a steady dual focus on enterprise and everyday recognition, Highmark Health has realized significant progress in employee-reported recognition. A recent survey reflected a 63+ basis point increase in recognition since the launch of the enterprise recognition platform alone.

Invest in Key Talent

Since the Core Behaviors launch, Highmark Health has thoughtfully invested in the ongoing development of key talent groups, resulting in impressive talent and engagement outcomes. In 2017, the Leadership Acceleration Program (LAP) program launched – attracting early career recent college grads to experience two years of dynamic rotational assignments across the organization. Providing focused development, networking and mentoring opportunities for LAP Associates – coupled with the opportunity to learn the nuts and bolts across the business – has resulted in upper quartile engagement year over year.   Program manager Eric Dellich says, “the LAP program has been designed to recruit, develop and retain future leaders.  Associates are provided with diversified experiences across the organization, and accelerated leadership development – which is all foundational to achieving the future Highmark Health strategy.”

Recognizing change champions as a lever for bringing its 2025 strategy to life, Highmark Health partnered with University of Pennsylvania’s Executive Education team at Wharton to co-design a robust executive development experience centered on strategy, customer experience and leading change. Two cohorts of 70 Highmark Health executives have now experienced the program with extraordinary retention, mobility, eNPS and engagement outcomes. Through thoughtful and targeted investments, the organization has built a cadre of high performing, highly engaged enterprise change champions.

Data-Led Decision Making

The Accelerate program cohort observed a 50+ basis increase in action planning progress on a pulse survey following the pilot, and consistently recognized improvements in employee basic needs following the conclusion of the program.  

A steady and thoughtful multi-year approach to measuring engagement has allowed enterprise leadership to use data to identify gaps and design the appropriate solutions to increase engagement. Recently, an exclusive three-month learning experience – Accelerate – was launched to provide leaders with individualized coaching and support. Employee-reported action planning data was reviewed to identify and invite leaders of teams struggling with engagement progress. At the program conclusion, 95% of participating leaders reported they feel confident they can apply what they’ve learned to their job. The Accelerate cohort observed a 50+ basis increase in action planning progress on a pulse survey following the pilot, and consistently recognized improvements in employee basic needs following the conclusion of the program. 

The use of engagement data has enabled Highmark Health’s engagement team to send tailored communications to key leader populations – supporting ongoing improvements in engagement. Leaders of highly engaged teams are regularly recognized via email and featured in regular leader communications to highlight best practices, including a “Best of Highmark Health” eGuide. Engagement data is regularly monitored to identify trends and gaps in engagement, and inform the development and targeted deployment of webinars, resources, and learning programs.

The Future

Where does Highmark Health go from there? With engagement as a springboard, the focus is squarely on enterprise mobility. Highmark Health fully understands the impact of rotating its talent across the enterprise. Greater workforce experience and development means greater business results, continued engagement and less reliance on the external talent market.

Talent Strategy Revisited

From program curriculum to performance management to talent assessments to leadership development, every part of the talent lifecycle was touched and rooted back to the “leadership profile”

Late in 2019 Highmark Health created a 2025 enterprise talent strategy. The goal of the strategy was simple – “One enterprise strategy that radically transforms our talent to deliver a remarkable health experience.” There are four pillars and three enablers – diversity and inclusion, Core Behaviors, and technology and analytics. The strategy has the support of Highmark Health’s most senior leaders and its board of directors.

Because Highmark Health understands the importance of continued business support, an enterprise talent steering committee was established to ensure all business units are represented, with a top-level senior executive named as the sponsor.  In addition to senior level support, over 100 employees and leaders were asked to take part on work teams and be a voice in bringing the four pillars to life.

Highmark Health’s 2025 talent strategy’s first pillar is to develop an “Integrated Talent Approach”.Highmark Health realized it had to act as one and leverage its entire organizational scale to fully capitalize its workforce. The more enterprise core programs, processes and standards are established, the more acting as one enterprise can be realized. 

As an “Integrated Talent Approach” became the mission for 2020, a “leadership profile” or enterprise expectations of leadership was crafted. Highmark Health had the mission but needed the NorthStar to keep on track. Highmark Health established its own “success factors” – results, knowledge, experience, behaviors, personal impact – and what progress looked like for each factor.

Highmark Health’s “leadership profile” has quickly become the connective tissue for a multitude of key processes and programs, and has helped human resources begin to answer common talent questions. How do you systematically develop an ever-changing workforce? How do you provide enterprise direction yet respect local needs and considerations? How can employees feel empowered and engaged to own their own careers?

While the framework couldn’t possibly answer every question facing Highmark Health’s human resources, the success factors have set the stage for how leaders and employees are trained, developed and assessed.  From program curriculum to performance management to talent assessments to leadership development, every part of the talent lifecycle has been touched and rooted back to the “leadership profile”. Whether someone is leading thousands of employees or just themselves, both situations require and deserve the same success factors.

@liek52 via Twenty20

2021 and Beyond

With technology and analytics as one of the key enablers of Highmark Health’s 2025 talent strategy, technology will be leveraged to streamline processes and mine data, leaving leaders to focus solely on the talent conversations and development needed for their critical roles.

Highmark Health is not proclaiming success on developing an “Integrated Talent Approach”, but the organization is ready to move to the second pillar of the talent strategy.  2021 and beyond will focus on developing and expanding its “Talent Development Systems” to serve a diverse workforce. With enterprise standards and supporting programs in tow, Highmark Health will continue to make progress on enterprise mobility and building the workforce needed to transform healthcare in the United States.

2021 should be a year that leverages Highmark Health’s centralized talent data, identifies future roles and key capabilities, then matches and rotates talent accordingly via new or stretch assignments.  With diversity at the forefront, Highmark Health’s “Talent Development Systems” ensures all employees continue to be developed and promoted.

With technology and analytics as one of the key enablers of Highmark Health’s 2025 talent strategy, technology will be leveraged to streamline processes and mine data, leaving leaders to focus solely on the talent conversations and development needed for their critical roles.  Predictive analytics will also be developed and deployed to identify enterprise gaps and risks lending Highmark Health to operate in a proactive vs reactive space.

Conclusion

The journey started with big aspirations and continues with even bigger aspirations. Highmark Health’s mission is “to create a remarkable health experience, freeing people to be their best” and a vision of “A world where everyone embraces health”. As this article goes into publication, Highmark Health now ranks in the highest quartile of Gallup’s global engagement company database. While the journey is far from over, a highly engaged workforce and laser focused future certainly propels the cause forward.

UNLEASH Article