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Keep Talent Healthy With Learning and Leadership

UnitedHealth Group implemented a local recruiting approach and a strong learning and development component.

February 8, 2009
Related Topics: Strategy and Management

The human body relies on the optimal, systemic functioning of many unique components in order to survive. Health care service company UnitedHealth Group meets its goals in much the same way. With 74,000 employees, it is involved in almost every aspect of the health care systems in its family of businesses. This extensive enterprise requires unusual skill sets that can make it tough to find the right talent.

At the heart of UnitedHealth Group’s talent organization is its learning and development team. Rich Hughes, corporate vice president of learning and development, and Phyllis Dozier, vice president of corporate development and process management, discussed how UnitedHealth Group’s systems approach facilitates talent management.

TM: Describe your company’s approach to talent management.

HUGHES: We take a two-level approach. For mid-management and higher in our organization, everyone goes through an assessment process that includes performance and potential trend. And from there, everyone in that population ends up getting more focused development planning. We call that Level 2.
Level 1 is really looking at our senior leadership population, which is turning out to be the top 300 people and physicians in our organization. There, it’s not just talent management; it’s a little more like talent management and planning. It includes everything from competency-based assessments to, of course, the performance of potentials for assessment, succession planning, risk analysis and litigation strategizing, etc.

TM: What processes or programs have you established to improve the performance of the entire workforce?

HUGHES: Basically, we look at employee development in three levels: We have learning for all employees, we have learning for managers, and then there’s learning for leaders at the director level and above in the organization.

There are specific programs developed for each one of those groupings that focus on improving employee performance. We have a general manager (GM) program that focuses on the highest-potential individuals in our top 1 percent. Making them better industry leaders would of course indirectly improve employee performance. That GM program is not for all employees; it’s literally for our top 300. But then we have programs that cascade down from there that touch larger groups of employees.

DOZIER: Here [in learning and development] we are, hand and glove, one organization that has responsibility for the development of competencies, their measurement, feedback and actually helping [employees and managers] execute that. One way that we help or build those capabilities for those employees is through programs.

TM: How is performance management linked to the strategic objectives of UnitedHealth Group?

HUGHES: UnitedHealthcare is by and large its own organization. It’s still part of UnitedHealth Group, but it operates relatively autonomously, as does Ingenix and OptumHealth and Ovations and AmeriChoice. We’re organized in a manner where the diversity is respected, but we still tie it all together at the enterprise level.
While we’ll set goals at the enterprise level and those goals will cascade throughout each one of those businesses and every function in our organization, there are far more robust strategy-mapping processes that take place in each of those businesses that make it more meaningful to the individual.

TM: What challenges impact talent management at UnitedHealth Group?

HUGHES: I don’t think the challenges that we face are particularly unique for an organization of our size and global scope. We’re a health care services company. And unlike our peer companies in the health care industry, we are a health system. So we’re not just an insurer. We’re not just a data analytics and health care technology company. We are a diverse health care services organization.

So the things that go along with that have to do with our need for extremely rare talents in the marketplace. We have a significant need for clinical talent. We have a significant need for technologists; we have a significant need for business consultants. So unlike a lot of organizations that might have one of those appetites, one of those dependencies, we have many of them.

TM: How does UnitedHealth Group work to change or create leadership and management behaviors that lead to optimal workforce performance?

DOZIER: We have a set of distinct values. There are five of them: integrity, diversity, social responsibility, innovation and quality. We actually take those competencies and develop a set of behaviors, a description of behaviors and embed them into our performance management system, our talent management system and our rewards system.

TM: How does your company develop organizational culture and employee attitudes to optimize workforce performance?

HUGHES: I think, culturally, we are a pragmatic organization. We have that certain pragmatism that focuses on fundamental execution; it’s an enterprise culture attribute, as is the clinical side of our business, frankly. What you hear most about companies like ours tends to be the negative, and it tends to be, very much, a skewed perspective.

Contrary to that, we are really trying to help our members live healthier lives. So there’s a strong component of our culture that I think is shared across the entire enterprise relative to that.

TM: How does your organization use learning and development to manage talent?

HUGHES: It is facilitative. So the learning and development organization, which is a part of the human capital organization, is one of the core functions. It is a center of expertise.

DOZIER: I really like that facilitative description, Rich, because we know from the Corporate Leadership Council and other research that the best development is leader-led development — when your own manager takes a personal interest in you as an employee to help you develop and grow. Our role is really, “Let’s provide the array of resources, tools, services and programs, and the organizational structure and framework, in terms of employee surveys and the performance management systems” — the systems approach.

TM: What processes or programs have you established to attract, recruit and retain top talent?

HUGHES: In very general terms, we take a local approach to recruiting. We do have an employee branding strategy that is employed, but it’s employed differently across the various talent pools. The brand is colored a little bit differently for our clinical recruiting efforts than it is for recruiting software engineers.

DOZIER: What keeps an expert here engaged and retained and motivated is very different than what a rising star would need to stay retained and motivated and engaged. We provide our managers with tools to do that — find out where are your retention risks?

TM: How do you measure workforce performance?

HUGHES: There are countless tools we use to measure individual and workforce performance. Relative to our world, we have a human capital dashboard that we use to monitor workforce performance at the enterprise and business-unit level. Certainly in terms of individual performance management, we have a proprietary system that is PeopleSoft-based, which we call Maximizing Accountability and Performance. There’s an enterprise system in process associated with that, and it’s fairly tactical.

TM: How do you use assessments to measure UnitedHealth Group’s talent?

HUGHES: What the senior management focuses on most when it comes to people is employee engagement: How do we assess employee engagement? We certainly look at a number of different metrics to help us get a sense of how engaged our workforce might or might not be. Those metrics include very, very basic human capital metrics like turnover.

We do some degree of statistical analysis relative to business performance and employee engagement, as well. There’s sort of a broad spectrum there in terms of how we get a sense for how engaged our employees are. But at least twice a year we get a more explicit sense of employee engagement through a survey process that I would say is more robust than I have seen in any other organization.

TM: How do you handle succession planning at UnitedHealth Group?

DOZIER: That planning process includes the assessment of that employee, the identification of successors and then talent review sessions, which are calibration sessions where the heads of the businesses get together and discuss. So there’s that complete formal talent review. We’ve built a succession planning module, so we have that in place in our system. And if somebody needs that job or moves on, that is automatically updated in our system. We have real-time data on succession planning in our organization.

TM: What’s next for UnitedHealth Group in terms of talent management and workforce performance development?

DOZIER: We introduced this concept of talent pools a year ago, and I believe with Rich’s help we’re going to be able to more robustly use those talent pools to import and export talent across the lines of business. Another area that we’re going to focus on is more prescriptive development tied to career pathing. It’s kind of like “Back to the Future” a little bit where, years ago, people talked about career paths, and then people got away from that. We have a menu-driven approach with a broad set of offerings. We’re moving to put more targeted, focused, specific, prescriptive recommendations around it.

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