The Chief Uncertainty Officer
As Executive Vice President and CHRO of UnitedHealth Group, Patricia L. Lewis uses her personal and professional experience with diversity and inclusion to push her organization forward. In an interview with
People + Strategy, Lewis explains how seeing around corners and making decisions despite ambiguity are crucial CHRO skills.
P+S: You joined UnitedHealth Group from Lockheed Martin in October 2019. That was a big change anyway, but then within months the pandemic hit. How did you react and reset your priorities?
Patricia L. Lewis: When I joined the company, I had my clear and logical 90-day plan of attack. I was going to meet with all the leaders and get to know the business. I had to quickly adjust. Not only did my old playbooks not work, I suddenly found myself at the epicenter of everything.
It was a whirlwind. I had to immediately focus on the near-term needs of making sure people had what they needed to work, keeping our people safe and keeping the business running and serving patients. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
In addition to the pandemic, you overlay what happened with George Floyd here in Minneapolis, where we are headquartered. Candidly, at first I wondered whether I had done the right thing moving here. But then I leapt into the fire.
P+S: What do you draw on from your life experience to help you throw out your game plan and navigate so many new challenges?
Lewis: I come from a scrappy background. I grew up in the Bronx, so I’ve got thick skin from that tough environment. I’ve been through a lot of personal and family challenges. I put myself through school, and I’ve been on my own since I was 17.
It’s about being able to call upon my resilience and strength. I can persevere through anything. It’s about having that steeliness and being able to look at what needs to be done in the moment and gather up the courage to make it happen. That’s just who I am as a person.
In 2020 I called upon everything that I had learned in my previous roles. My background is a bit unusual in that I spent about 15 years in manufacturing and operational roles. I have a natural tendency to order, discipline, understanding operations and hitting objectives, targets and goals. That operational gene kicked in when the pandemic started, and it helped me speak the language that was necessary at the time for the business to mobilize around our workforce and figure out how to serve our patients, our members, as well as our employees.
P+S: You mentioned the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As a Black C-suite executive working in that city, there must have been additional challenges for you personally.
Lewis: There are so many aspects to this, so I’ll take the personal one first. It was a leap of faith for me to come to the Midwest. I didn’t have any experience living here, and I didn’t know anyone here. I’ve never been afraid to do that. In my career, I’ve moved eight or nine times. It was a trust factor between me and the CEO and other leaders here that this was going to be a good place. I had also heard that it was a wonderful place to live, to raise children and to work.
Then George Floyd happened, and it just set me on my heels. As everybody witnessed the tragedy of that day, I wondered, what am I doing here? But the thing that hit me the most was when I was anticipating my 19-year-old son coming out to visit me. I thought, this is scary.
I live in a condominium building that’s very secure and people know each other. But what if I’m at work and he leaves the building and can’t get back in? Will he be in danger because somebody who doesn’t know him calls the police? These are all the things that I wrestled with when that happened.
Professionally, we were kind of struggling with what to do as a primary employer in this area. Our former CEO, David Wichmann, and I spent time talking about what we wanted to say and do, and we didn’t want it to just be a statement with no impact. It was a deep conversation, as much about personal learning and empathy as anything else.
The next day, he sent me an email outlining five incredible things that we could do, including establishing a college and educational fund for Mr. Floyd’s children and supporting the local businesses in the community that were devastated because of the damage that was done during the protests. We also helped rebuild this area. We donated 25,000 volunteer hours for our people to take time off from work to go and help in the community. We exceeded 20,000 volunteer hours before year end and the Lake Street area is bouncing back.
All of these things helped me reaffirm my sense that I can stay here, work here and belong here. My son did come to visit, we were okay and we had a wonderful time together.
P+S: Race remains a tough conversation in corporate America. What is your advice to other CHROs about how to keep that conversation alive in a productive way?
Lewis: You have to lean in but also understand that all companies are in different places around this. You have to meet your company and your leadership where they are, and then push them forward. You have to figure out how to move that dialogue forward while taking into account the history of the organization, its cultural values and norms, and where we are in the country more broadly.
Through the pandemic, our CEO started to conduct a daily broadcast with our employees to keep them informed. Most of the time it was about the pandemic, but when the Floyd incident happened, the CEO and some of our key leaders had an open dialogue about this incident, race, inclusion and diversity.
We did some things that were very much out of our comfort zone. We engaged our key leaders and we have continued that dialogue. We established an Equity Advancement Board, sponsored by our CEO, Andrew Witty. He participates in the meetings, and I chair it, and it’s made up of our business leaders. It’s really the first time we have come together across the corporation to discuss the most important things we need to address to advance equity.
For us, we had to start from where we were and accelerate very quickly to get this in front of people on a frequent basis, and we’re continuing to reinforce that through messages from our CEO and our inclusion councils.
P+S: With so many challenges and priorities, how do you decide where and how to put your resources, energy and attention?
Lewis: As a CHRO, we have to trust our instincts on a lot of things. For me, it was about assessing the most pressing issues and being very clear about the desired outcomes. In some cases, they were very specific. With the Floyd incident, we had to communicate with our people, but what does that look like?
In those moments when you don’t have the time to think strategically, you still have to consider the most important factors, the impacts, the target audience and the catalyst for taking action.
P+S: If you look at 2021 and beyond, has the role of HR changed? If so, how?
Lewis: The expectations of HR have grown tremendously through this time, and the notion of the CHRO being the “chief of everything else” is very apropos. The line between an employee’s personal life and what goes on in your company are blurring.
One of the things that is super critical for us is to have the ability to see around corners. There are a lot of challenges that will continue to unfold, and for us in our roles, the ability to see around corners is going to be critical, particularly for the broader issues that are emerging in society.
P+S: How do you think about enterprise risk in this environment?
Lewis: One of the implications of all this is the toll that this pandemic has taken on emotional and mental health in every organization.
As a healthcare company, our people have been on the front lines battling this pandemic for more than a year now. The impact of this crisis will manifest for years to come, and that’s going to impact our business if we don’t work on solutions to help our teams get through this.
Everything we’ve been through provides us with a great opportunity to step back and not only think about what we’ve learned through this year, but to really think about the future implications of what we’re living with right now and how that will play out five, 10 years from now in terms of the workforce or our businesses.
P+S: How do you think about planning in this environment of uncertainty?
Lewis: In terms of talent, we’re talking a lot about our business models. What have we learned from this past year in terms of our ability to work remotely? What are the implications for our facilities? What kind of things would we do differently as a company?
The talent implications are big. Coming through the Floyd incident, one of the things that became apparent for us, being headquartered here in the Midwest, is that we’re going to have to do some things differently from a talent perspective around recruitment and diversity initiatives, in order to continue to attract the talent we need.
We’re starting to look at talent in other parts of the country in order to be able to meet the objectives that we have for a strong, diverse talent pipeline for our senior leadership. We’re dialing that thinking into our planning now, and we’re having some of those discussions with our board.
We used to do five- to 10-year planning. The cycles are getting shorter for strategic planning. This year certainly has been a catalyst for us to accelerate how we think about those things.
P+S: What do you think are the X factors that will separate the best CHROs in coming years? If you were a CEO who was hiring a CHRO, what questions would you ask?
Lewis: I would like to understand how candidates have dealt with ambiguity. I would ask about when they’ve been put in situations where they’ve dealt with ambiguous circumstances. How have they reacted? I’m always interested in problem solving, so what are some of the problems they’ve had to deal with in their career? What have been the most painful lessons?
Can they act quickly without all the facts? Can they rally a team to do something they’ve never done before? We’re used to focusing on proactive skills, but because the environment’s going to continue to change rapidly, there’s an element of agility that is going to be important.
It’s that seeing-around-corners gene. Something may pique your interest that seems so far away, but that can lead to what-if scenario planning. We have to be much more willing to think in real time about those things that seem so far off in the distance.
P+S: You talked at the beginning of the interview about the scrappy early years of your life. Is there a story you can share when you had to show that resilience?
Lewis: As I mentioned, I went to college early at 17. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I had to work part time to pay for my full load of classes. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to finish because of the financial support that I needed.
I managed to figure out a way to get some additional support through one of the local agencies in Connecticut that would help kids who were in need. Sometimes those things are not publicized, but I found out about it and applied, and I was able to complete my studies. They also picked up all my past expenses, and I was able to leave college without any debt.
That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of—that I didn’t give up, and when faced with that adversity, I just kept going and kept trying to figure out a way. That’s just my nature. I’ll get it done.