09:34 AM

Confessions of a CEO: Avoid Paving the Cow Path


Cows walk the same path over and over, following the well-worn route, confident it will take them where they want to go, mostly staying in line and moving forward with their heads down. In the spirit of efficiency and higher performance, as leaders, we tend to want to pave cow paths to make things better. After all, continuing to do what has worked reliably seems a reasonable course of action. 

Covid upended our well-worn cow paths. As we planned our new “post-Covid” workforce strategy, I found myself repaving the cow path—making slight modifications to our pre-Covid approach to work. Basically, it flopped. One of my colleagues said, “We need to step back. We have a once-in-a-career opportunity to do something completely different—not just change on the fringe. We should not squander this opportunity.” She was right. 

Fast forward to now. We are decidedly not on the worn cow path, nor should we be. According to Arizona State University, 66% of employers intend to offer more flexible or expanded work-from-home policies.(1) We need to catch up and get ahead. Here are three lessons I have learned. 

1. It’s time to leave a good amount of what we thought we knew at the virtual door. 

There is no better time to have a beginner’s mind than now. As a result of profound change over the last two years, employees are embracing what they want and need to do life, to do their jobs, and to be more present with their loved ones. We are in a national competition for talent, and the talent has a lot to say about how they want to work and where they want to live. Work and life have been redefined at every level. 

Accenture reports that post-Covid, half of consumers are rethinking their personal purpose.(2) With so many of us reprioritizing, employee turnover has dramatically increased, and we are amid the great resignation. As people renew their personal purpose, connecting to a company’s purpose becomes even more important to attracting and retaining talent. More than ever, employees want to work for a company that serves a greater good. 

2. New meeting protocols and codes of conduct are needed in a virtual world. 

In recent discussions at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, we decided to strike RTO (return to office) from our lexicon. It’s no longer about returning, because we continue to function virtually every day at a high level. Our decision about how work gets done is centered around our customer and our employee needs, not a physical space. 

Knowing that attendees can zone out during in-person meetings, virtual meetings require an even higher standard of creativity, content, structure, and expectations. A recent survey reported 6 in 10 workers shop online during virtual meetings.(3) Ouch. 

Trying to not only figure out how to make things work, but learn how to make things great, we are staying keenly aware and are looking at our future with fresh eyes. Like most companies, we have done quite a bit of experimenting … Some of it worked and some didn’t. For what it’s worth, here are some of our learnings: 

  • Change the scheduling default meeting times to 25 and 50 minutes (instead of 30 and 60) and watch work life get better. 
  • If you are the meeting lead, welcome attendees as they “arrive” and make it a point to engage everyone with checkpoint questions throughout the meeting. If someone has not contributed, it may mean they don’t need to be there … or they are getting some great online deals! 
  • It’s OK to leave people off the invite list and either message them with a quick question … or loop them into the virtual session for a few needed moments.
  • Set an expectation about camera usage during virtual meetings, because being on camera is the new together!  
  • Make sure everyone has the right equipment to engage in a productive, visual meeting. We found many of our employees did not have camera access and were participating in meetings with audio only. 
  • And lastly, it’s OK to have fun during virtual meetings! The virtual meeting chat is a great place for color commentary and sharing gifs. 

3. Without water coolers, communication and listening are more important than ever. 

The loss of culture was my biggest worry related to shifting to more virtual interactions. In virtual meetings, when someone throws out a question, within seconds, answers, links, and perspectives appear in the chat. Because we are so connected to our keyboards, the virtual space is truly a communication channel to be nurtured. 

With this in mind, our creative, communications, and human resource teams are setting out to enhance the culture so employees can thrive, whether they are in-person, remote, or some version of hybrid. We have multiplied our employee communications tenfold … more information-sharing meetings, more videos, more all-employee newsletters. Maintaining connections with one another, our work, and our purpose in a virtual world requires a highly structured approach to communications. 

And, most importantly, we are learning to listen continuously and at scale. Earlier this year, we initiated a monthly “check-in” survey. We keep it anonymous, ask six questions (including two that remain the same), and publish the results in real-time—all of the results. With each survey we know how many respondents “feel great about work” and how many are “proud to work here.” In a recent survey, 75% and 89% respectively. 

With each survey we also receive about 1,000 honest comments to the questions: “What is going well?” and “What’s not going so well?” The candid answers range from uplifting to concerning. We categorize the questions and work on solutions and answers, so we are continually improving. When we don’t know the answer yet, we share that too. And with a survey response rate of about 40%, the authenticity of this real-time feedback loop not only engenders trust, but we’ve also found ways to have a little fun too.  

We've learned that 29% of our employees said they would take a free ride into space, 22% admit to watching True Crime, and apparently 20% are such big Phoenix Suns fans, they have Suns underwear.  

Maybe it’s all that online shopping during virtual meetings.