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"Sports teach you the value of hard work"
Gail Boudreaux confesses to Deepti Singh how Sports has taught her the value of hard work, perseverance and the importance of working together to achieve a common goal
Deepti Singh | Issue Date - 01/08/2011

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Three decades back, the best chance you had of catching a glimpse of the six-feet, two-inch tall Gail Boudreaux in action, with a serious intent to win for glory, would have been on the basketball court. She was a standout player for the Dartmouth College’s Women’s basketball team (between 1978 and 1982; she still holds 12 individual court-records from Dartmouth, where she was the all-time top scorer and rebounder), was named Ivy League Player of the Year for three consecutive seasons, and was a three-time All-American basketball player. All she knew then in the name of management was in-game formations that would result in error-free coordination with her teammates. Then, Columbia Business School happened and her life changed forever. Her ambitions did too. Today, she is all of 52 years and the best chance you have of sighting her is in her corner office on the 19th floor of the $94.16 billion-a-year topline earning and the #21-ranked Fortune 500 and the #1 health insurer in US – UnitedHealth Group’s 9900 Bren Road East headquarters in Minnetonka (Minnesota). And the word “management” for her, implies keeping a house full of 42,000 employees in order. Thus, from being an all-American Basketball pro to leading the biggest division of UnitedHealth Group, Gail Boudreaux has grabbed every opportunity in life. And she’s fared well; very well. In an exclusive conversation with DTDIY, Gail reveals the secret of her success.

Q. Your company caters to the healthcare needs of 37 million Americans. What is that you need to keep in mind to not only serve such a huge base well, but also to grow your customer count?
Very few companies have the resources to impact lives, but I believe UnitedHealth Group does. Because of the nature of the business we’re in, we can change how healthcare is delivered and modernise the system. Through our various products, programmes and services, we are able to meet the health care needs of consumers across all stages of life, from birth to retirement. It’s an incredible opportunity being at a company that touches the lives of more than 70 million people globally, including nearly a million Indians served through our health services businesses and Mumbai-based TPA operations. Since joining UnitedHealthcare in 2008, I have put emphasis on a regional delivery model that has helped improve service and create closer relationships with consumers, customers, care providers, brokers and consultants. In my expanded role managing a single benefits organisation, which I assumed in January 2011, was ensuring UnitedHealthcare is well-positioned to grow and serve employers, individuals and government entities in an evolving healthcare landscape.

Q. To what factors do you attribute your success? Further, what role does sports play in it?
I like to engage directly with people throughout my organisation. I value direct and open communication, and I am focused and results oriented. Teamwork and collaboration are important to me and I feel that being an effective coach and mentor in developing other leaders is one of the most important aspects of my job. Throughout my life – whether in business, academic or athletic pursuits – I have applied with passion the tenets of leadership, teamwork, accountability and a focus on fundamentals that I believe are common to all high-performing organisations. I first honed these skills as an All-American college athlete at Dartmouth in basketball and track & field in the early-1980s. At that time, I was among the first female athletes to benefit from the landmark Title IX, “equal access” legislation, which I credit with helping to create the strong cadre of women now taking leadership roles in the US economy. I really think that sports play a big role in defining who you are.
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Q. Leadership is a process by which people influence other people. But people's attitudes toward influence and how to go about influencing others differ substantially. What, according to you, are the values which influence the leadership process?
Open and direct communication is one of the most important values that can shape good leaders and in turn motivate employees. Building a foundation of trusted relationships is critical in our business because of the work we do. At UnitedHealthcare employees are more engaged now than ever before, including consecutive annual increases in employee engagement scores over the last three years, according to internal employee surveys. We all learned that it's good to win. In sports, as in business, you never play to lose. You learn that there will always be someone looking to beat you, no matter how good you are, so you continually have to raise the bar and improve what you're doing. And when you have a defeat, it's not the end of the world. Instead of giving up, you look at what you could have done better and how not to repeat the same mistakes. It teaches you to compete, adapt to different rules depending on different circumstances and how to overcome the odds.

Q. How challenging is to lead effectively in a highly competitive market like healthcare?
The key is to remain focused on our mission and making sure the customer and our health plan participants are always our number one priority. UnitedHealthcare manages health benefits for individuals, employers and public sector groups, state Medicaid programmes and Medicare beneficiaries. To successfully serve the diverse health care needs and benefit plans of more than 37 million Americans, it is critical that we continue to innovate new and improved ways of doing things. From plan designs that pay cash rewards for better health to new primary care models for Medicaid members and high touch care coordination for seniors, UnitedHealthcare is able to differentiate itself in a highly competitive healthcare industry, thanks to its long-term commitment to innovation. In fact, at the end of 2010, we recorded the highest customer satisfaction levels we have seen in years. For example, we have the opportunity to survey individual consumers through our call centers. When a UnitedHealthcare member calls our toll-free service line, we give them an opportunity at the end of their call to complete a brief survey about their experience with UnitedHealthcare. To date, tens of thousands of post-call surveys have been completed, and our member satisfaction is currently at 93.2% and continues to climb. As validation of our own surveys, several external organisations have ranked UnitedHealthcare among the best healthcare companies in the country. Business Insurance magazine, a key trade magazine for corporate benefit managers, has awarded UnitedHealthcare for the last two years in a row its Reader's Choice Award for Best Health Plan in the United States, and Fortune has ranked UnitedHealthcare #1 in innovation within the healthcare industry.
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