Claire Verity, CEO of UnitedHealthcare, Pacific Northwest States, values the importance of servant leadership. In May, at our first Daring Women event, Verity took part in a panel discussion on “Owning Your Leadership Style,” where she spoke about her career journey and shared leadership tips.
Read about her proudest moments, mentors and challenges she’s faced in this week’s installment of our Daring Women Q&A series.
1. Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.
My career has taken some great turns. One I am particularly proud of is my leadership for the largest pharmacy integration effort undertaken at my company. It was a unique opportunity to create a go-to-market program where I was able to work with some of the best individuals one could ask for. I developed a high-performing team because of a unified clear vision and purpose. We came together with diverse backgrounds, work experience and levels within the organization, and, most important, a relentless focus on ensuring the experiences of our members would be nothing short of excellent. That was a turning point in my evolution as a servant leader. It all came down to trust and integrity; helping a team journey through difficult times and celebrate successes.
My work enables me to help people live healthier lives. That is both a privilege and a significant responsibility. The role of a health plan CEO comes with the practicality of breaking down barriers so people can more simply navigate our complex health system. My work gives me so many different challenges from helping resolve a simple question or setting strategy to forging through some of the most complex corners of the health care industry. In this exciting role, I can make a difference and that is what keeps me energized each day.
2. What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?
My industry has been led predominantly by male executives. Besides my mother, whom I credit for creating the person I am today, I was fortunate to have a good mentor early in my career. He coached me in ways I probably didn’t fully understand or appreciate at the time, but I often think back at some of the advice he gave me that I practice today. He told me to always stay true to who I am and that my ability to navigate complex situations, think critically and problem solve would prove to be valuable in my career. He’d say, “Keep after it, Claire. You are on the right track.” He also helped me develop what I call my “navigation skills.” These include not taking an easy road simply to say you accomplished something; rather, take on the more difficult challenges, use positive and constructive persuasion, and walk alongside other business contacts and colleagues as you can often discover areas of similarity, not differences, that bring you together to achieve common goals.
I started my own medical practice management company when I was 27. It was difficult at first. It took months to get my first clients signed. I realized that age and gender were probably two strikes against me. I actually had some potential clients tell me that. So, I decided to seek out “allies” who would support my business, help create momentum and demonstrate that, while young, I knew my business as well as, even better than, many of my competitors. Within a year, I had several clients and was speaking at different venues and providing valuable insight into a growing industry. I just had to stay true to who I was (authenticity is key), focus on what mattered and be resilient. It was my tenacity that carried me through.
3. Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?
I have been lucky to have had several great mentors throughout my career. My second job out of college was in northern California. The CEO was someone I learned a great deal from and who made me the leader I am today. He helped me understand how to navigate complex issues and find solutions through understanding (listening to understand). He celebrated and appreciated his team, he led by being his authentic self and created a vision where we all felt we were contributors to success. It was definitely not top-down leadership style.
4. What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?
Throughout my 25-year-plus career, I have had the benefit of finding roles that are good matches for who I am and my capabilities. Some of those roles involved luck and timing and some were the result of an investment of time to study/asses companies where I had shared values. I would recommend women starting in their careers take the time needed to assess a variety of different companies, pay particular attention to the culture (present and past) each company promotes, seek to understand how they value different views and backgrounds, as acquaintances and friends to share their knowledge of or experience with the companies you might be evaluating. Bottom line: Invest in yourself! Check a company’s Net Promoter System (NPS). It is a good way to see how the company’s culture and employee satisfaction level rank. Many companies will ask their employees if they would recommend the company as a place to work. Be sure to ask in your interviews what that NPS number is (usually a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being highest satisfaction).
5. What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?
Be your own advocate and don’t apologize about it. Your voice, opinion and experience are important and can often lead to breakthrough moments and ideas. Make sure the culture of the company you work with reflects the promotion of gender diversity, not just a check-the-box exercise but something that truly demonstrates how its culture, policy and behaviors reflect an inclusive environment. If it doesn’t, drive the change that is needed. Complacency is our biggest challenge.
What can men do? Women represent half of the world’s population. How can we fully prosper if only half of our voices are heard? Men can become allies inside and outside the workplace. There is a phrase I really like: “What we permit, we promote.” If men permit voices to go unheard, it is not only silencing one person, it is also sending a message that their gender’s opinion doesn’t matter. When we open our lens to other ideas, we find so many possibilities to address our challenges. We can learn from the example of executives of any gender when they take action, are purposeful and seek input from all.
6. Tell us about a favorite book/show/podcast and why/how it inspires you.
I am a huge fan of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist. She has an outstanding Ted Talk about the power of presence. Her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, is as inspiring as the Ted Talk. She makes sense out of the power of our own physical presence and what we often do to sabotage our self-confidence through verbal and nonverbal communication. She focuses on being your authentic self (you’ll hear the phrase “fake it until you make it”). Her approach is simple, effective and relevant, and anyone can relate to her personal experiences about self-confidence and what we can do to increase the power of our presence. I use her book to increase my own awareness of my presence and also to understand other colleagues.
7. Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
I love to read and am inspired by those who have worked through difficult challenges. I am sometimes surprised at how some people take on challenges and the creativity they use to think differently. Sometimes, the most obvious answer is sitting right in front of us and it takes an open aperture to see it.
I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of networking early in my career. I always had a wide circle of diverse friends and acquaintances, but I didn’t really know the power of that backing. I always heard my mom and dad say, “So-and-so got that because of who he/she knew.” It was around my third career change that I realized just how important my network of colleagues was to shaping who I am and where I could go. They were not an echo chamber of friends/colleagues who just told be me all good things; these were people who could honestly explain my blind spots, what to anticipate, where I should improve.
I realized the power of networking and I made it a focus to be sure to seek out a diverse set of colleagues that could help expand my knowledge, challenge me and help me build bridges to my next career move. This meant moving a bit out of my comfort zone and being vulnerable.
8. What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?
I consider myself a servant leader. A good leader is one who creates an inspirational vision and a path forward where people aspire to achieve that vision. A good leader creates the opening by which others can move toward that vision. They are confident but humble; give credit, not take it; raise up the team, not degrade it; give autonomy but remove barriers; set clear achievable goals; celebrate successes; and are present. Not absent. Being loud and brash are traits that are not effective. Leaders who are micro-managers need to get out of management. That is the one characteristic that deflates a team and sends the message that your leader doesn’t trust you.
9. What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over?
I am not sure I would have done anything differently. I am fortunate to have had a variety of experiences that led me down a path to a fulfilling career. However, I would have liked to share my own experiences in the workplace with other young women earlier than I have. The power of our experiences in our careers cannot be underestimated and has great value in the development of the next generation of leaders.
10. What would be the title of your autobiography?
Running on Empty: How I Recharge to Reach the Next Challenge
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.