Eight things I learned from women leaders at UnitedHealth Group and Optum

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Careers | Culture | Diversity

Eight things I learned from women leaders at UnitedHealth Group and Optum

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Abbey – Former Director at Optum

Guest Blog series by Abbey Smalley (Former User Experience & Interaction Design Director, Optum) 

As I explored my own career path at Optum, I wanted to know more about what makes our women leaders successful and what advice they had to share with others. I had the pleasure to sit down and talk with talented women in leadership roles within UnitedHealth Group.

These eight learnings are a combination of their advice to me and my observations from the examples they set for all of us.

 1) They are focused on delivering value: Delivering positive results, business growth and success for these women is not about checking off a box. They share a strong focus on results and are determined to drive positive changes.


What can we do to stay focused on delivering value?

    • Ask your leadership team what results they are hoping to achieve and how you can best support those efforts.
    • Re-evaluate how your daily activities and team goals align with our overall business growth and results.
    • Change course if your current efforts aren’t yielding the expected return and/or bring up the topic with your leadership team to decide as a group how   best to shift your efforts toward positive results.

 2) They exude confidence: Each of these leaders radiate confident energy. In the first few minutes of our conversations, it was very clear to me that every leader I met with knew how to command a room and was an expert in their field.

 Being confident doesn’t mean these leaders claim to have all the answers, but they know how to get their points across with clarity and collaborate with others to find a solution when they need more input.

  How can we become more confident?

    • Know your material well: rehearse and fact check.
    • Practice public speaking: check out programs like Toastmasters that help you fine tune your abilities.
    • Focus on the message: Deliver it with end goals in mind instead of focusing on how you are doing.

3) They are humble and authentic: If you’re curious about how I was able to seek counsel so easily from these very busy, talented women, the answer is simple: I introduced myself and asked for their help nicely by email and received a “Yes!” from every leader I reached out to.  It was very refreshing and inspiring to me to see how down-to-earth they are and how giving of their time and insights they are when I showed true interest. They were willing to admit moments that they felt they had failed and what they learned from it. They genuinely wanted to share that knowledge so that others will succeed.

4) They make connections and believe in the power of mentorship:
Even though these women have achieved high positions that many dream of for themselves, they believe that their learning and growth is never done. They stressed the importance of mentors in their own lives and provide that for others.

They also go out of their way to connect like-minded people they meet along the way, in hopes of helping others collaborate and solve similar problems. Not only does this engage our larger ecosystem, but it builds strong relationships and trust between brands.

5) They work extremely hard:
As their roles expanded and responsibilities grew, they learned how to lean on their team members and delegate. This doesn’t mean that there was less to do.

Each of the women I met with are extremely hard-working and very focused on how they can provide more value for their respective groups. One leader stressed to me her belief that there is no such thing as being over-prepared when the stakes are high and that working hard and preparing  boosts confidence in selling ideas.

6) They take ownership in finding work-life balance and note how important it is to their success: This is by far one of the most fascinating learnings for me, as I find myself searching for the balance that’s right for my career.  In short, what I learned from their experience is that no one is going to offer you the perfect work-life balance because it means different things to different people and changes for each person over time. It’s important to have an open conversation with your manager about what this means for you. Work together to help make that possible and figure out what you need to do to stay true to what works best for you.

One size does not fit all. I spoke with leaders that keep rigid work hours and leaders that mix work with home hours because it works best for them.

What can you do to achieve this? There is no right or wrong answer. The key is to find what style works best for you, communicate it to your leadership team and find ways to make it possible.

7) They stay organized and prioritize: Let’s be honest: If you’re not careful, each one of us could easily get caught up in the “email pile monster” or feel overwhelmed with meetings that are often double or triple-booked on our schedules. I even spoke to a leader who told me that she came back from a vacation to find 4,500 emails waiting for her. Seriously!

These leaders stressed how crucial it is to figure out how to stay focused in that kind of environment.

What can we do to stay focused?

    • When setting your priorities, focus on adding value and contributing to the end goals of your group.
    • When setting up meetings, think deeply on who needs to attend and what key actions need to be decided during that meeting.
    • When emailing, only copy who needs to help answer and inform the decision. Make actions required and timelines clear.
    • When feeling like there’s too much on your plate, connect with your manager and discuss what can be put off, dropped or delegated.
    • Keep a running to-do list and place important “musts” at the very top.

8) They acknowledge that the STEM world has been historically male-dominated but are noticing a shift to more diversified teams. They also have never felt blocked in their own career paths.
These leaders stressed to me that being different in a room is an asset. Women bring different perspectives to the table, which aids in better decision-making, better products and new solutions.

Consider how your perspective adds insight and value to our business. Don’t be afraid to share it with your teams.

A special thanks to the leaders who helped contribute to the conversation: Lynne Stockstad, Judy Vankirksmith, Deb Grafton, Carrie Maurer and Julie Durham.

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