Karen Kocher: KISS and Tell at Cigna

Sometimes the best thing you can have in business is a big, fat KISS, as in, keep it simple, stupid. A popular phrase coined from a 1960 U.S. Navy project, […]

Sometimes the best thing you can have in business is a big, fat KISS, as in, keep it simple, stupid. A popular phrase coined from a 1960 U.S. Navy project, the acronym has multiple iterations, but its meaning — don’t overcomplicate that which does not need complexity — could be a motto by which learning leaders operate.

Karen Kocher, chief learning officer for global health services company Cigna Corp., has made it her mission to tone down learning jargon when making her case to executive stakeholders. Her method of keeping things simple has helped others not only appreciate learning, but also ensured that it has an effect on business.

“Some people can make all this seem very complex, and it’s really not,” she said. “It’s part motivation, part energy and enthusiasm, but the other side of it is just realizing that even simple things are part of the learning and development equation every day. Learning theories have a valuable place within the learning function, not as part of what is discussed and worked on with business and functional groups.”

That said, keeping things simple doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on behind the proverbial wizard’s curtain. Cigna’s overall learning mission has two prongs: a focus on capability building and that employees should learn with and from each other.

To help fulfill that mission, a few years back the company built a capability maturity model. The model states that for Cigna to be successful with its future-facing business strategy, there are 10 critical capabilities — including customer focus, change leadership, innovation, coaching and data-based decision-making — that need to be demonstrated by many if not all employees.

Building a capability takes quite a while. You don’t simply invest in a single learning program and expect immediate results, Kocher said. “But it is what’s necessary, and when you get it all laid out — day to day what does the employee need to do to be optimally proficient in their role — it is something that leaders can understand, absolutely embrace, and see the way that will add differentiated value to the organization.”

With capabilities as the engine driving learning and business strategy rather than annual programs, the development conversation changes. This is important because Kocher said the likelihood of Cigna, or any company, serving up exactly what employees want and need at the exact time they want and need it isn’t likely.

By emphasizing learning with and from each other, she said on any given day there is someone in the company who has a resource that would benefit an employee’s efforts to develop some knowledge and skill. “We said not only do you need to take the responsibility for getting ever better, you need to take the responsibility by doing some things yourself and doing other things through an ever-broadening network of peers.”

About a year and a half ago the company launched a social platform called Cigna Life that employees can use to find and better leverage the expertise within the company. Kocher said at last count a little more than half of Cigna’s 35,000 global employees were actively using it.

Conversation Is a Two-Way Street

Kocher has been Cigna’s CLO for six years, but her career has touched multiple business areas. This breadth of experience may account for her belief in the power of simplicity to generate big impact.

Fresh from Michigan State University, she joined health care company Aetna as a medical cost containment specialist. She later became part of the IT organization, then moved into national accounts risk management and sales before she left the company as a manager in HR and part of the learning and development function. Post-Aetna, Kocher joined document management company IKON, followed by IBM, before landing at Cigna.

“My career path took me through most of the business and functional areas that major corporations have, and I think it’s one of the reasons why I have been so successful, because I really do understand everything that goes on around me in the areas that are the internal partners that I support.”

When Kocher joined Cigna roughly a decade ago from IBM, the company had a vision for a centralized learning function and university. When it was ready to execute on that vision two years later, she was asked to be CLO. But making things bigger and more complex doesn’t always lead to more support. Kocher said there’s nothing wrong with talking about learning to others in a basic, even elemental way because “behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz when we’re doing it, it takes a lot of expertise and a lot of science.

“But people don’t have to be a part of that. We tend to want to talk in our language because we think it makes it all sound a little bit more impressive or important, but I think it actually would behoove us to do the exact opposite. Make things as simple as possible so that everybody can understand it and jump on the bandwagon. Then we’ll be more effective.”

Kocher said Cigna University has played a significant part in generating a focus on continuous improvement and development, which has, in part, driven growth. From 2009 to 2013, Cigna’s compound annual growth rate increased significantly along with its revenue and earnings.

In 2013 the university offered an awareness, knowledge and skill-building program for everyone in the company to develop its customer focus capability. Kocher said the four-part learning series began with a game that elicited “absolutely terrific” feedback. Launched in two parts — one for managers and the other for front-line employees — at press time about 30,000 people had participated in the game, with a goal to ensure everyone went through it before the end of 2013.

The second part of the program was a webinar series to help managers understand their role in achieving a more customer-centric environment. Third, a face-to-face workshop focused on the four facets managers need to succeed in a customer-centric environment, such as be an empowerment coach and be a recognition champion. Module four taught managers how to have and use a teachable point of view through storytelling. Face-to-face participants broke into teams to create a storyboard about a future iteration of Cigna as a customer-centered company.

Participants then acted out storyboards on video and uploaded the videos onto the social platform. Employees then voted to select a winner, who was promoted on the website. “It was also a great way for people to learn because people learn by watching all of the examples as they reviewed and rated.”

Numbers Don’t Lie

Cigna uses three primary forms of measurement to gauge learning’s business impact: analytical and statistical measures via KnowledgeAdvisors’ Metrics That Matter — which measures program quality as assessed by participants and value when applied on the job; anecdotal feedback on a business and functional level; and the same measure the company uses for performance with customers, Net Promoter Score, based on a single question: Would you recommend this program or activity to a friend or family member?

If score cards from each of the business and functional groups show they’re underperforming, Kocher said the next move is root-cause analysis and action planning. For example, employees want and need a certain level of manager support to understand why they’re being educated and the value of that new knowledge and skill to their day-to-day job performance.

Last year Cigna had very low manager support scores in some areas, including finance. The client business manager for the university who is aligned with finance took that information, went to the HR generalist and others in finance and kicked off a root-cause analysis to find out why. An action plan to improve scores followed. Kocher said this happens quarterly as client business managers revisit the business or the functional group to gauge the amount of improvement they see and whether more work is needed.

“The Net Promoter Scores that we get typically are good, but throughout 2013 we’ve seen a 20 point increase in the transactional Net Promoter Score received by service operations,” Kocher said. “Nobody’s going to tell you that it’s all about learning and development. But there is definite recognition that at least in part learning and development has had a contribution in that improvement.”

Cigna’s push related to customer focus and capability development began three years ago in response to the rapidly increasing speed of business. Kocher said to remain in front of development needs so that employees are ready for work challenges and opportunities, it isn’t enough to have a base understanding of customer focus. Talent must be ahead of the curve when compared to the competition.

“The biggest challenge that I’m faced with, and that learning and development in general is faced with, is being able to get people situated with the right knowledge and skill in advance of the business need. Some of what really highlights that we haven’t done as good a job as we need and want to is that high percentages of people, in senior-type positions especially, are still brought in from outside of most companies,” she said.

“One of the big players has to be learning and development to better understand what the company needs as the future unfolds and make sure that we can identify the people who can build those skills and acquire that knowledge as rapidly and effectively as possible. If we can do that, the company will be more successful, L&D will be more successful and the individuals will be more successful in their roles and careers.”

Be Agile to Meet, Exceed Expectations

To deliver, Kocher said the learning and development function needs to be flexible in how it engages stakeholders, interprets industry signals and trends and develops program offerings.
Cigna used to have a stable of programs it evaluated annually, but it has since moved away from program-based, portfolio type management and planning to capability maturity planning. By analyzing the business and talking to senior business leaders to determine what is needed for success three to five years out, Cigna can identify what capabilities and associated development are required on an enterprise level.

“Karen strives to be externally focused … and then bring best-in-class solutions to our businesses that are aligned with our growth strategy,” said Charlene Parsons, vice president of talent optimization at Cigna. “For me that translates into a lot of fun, fun and energy. Her contribution is being aligned with the business, understanding it and then developing learning programs that make a real difference.

“For example, last year we really drove a customer-centric mindset in the health services space. Not customer service, customer-centric — all decisions are centered on the customer. It was a really important piece of work for Karen, making sure that every single employee around the globe understood the difference between a customer service orientation and customer-centric orientation, and how they needed to shift the delivery of their work to honor that commitment. She created a learning strategy for each stakeholder group and spent a lot of time with leadership around customer insights, how we make decisions and how we have to shift our leadership style and the performance expectations of our team.”

Parsons said this meant introducing a new vocabulary and mindset and cascading it throughout the company to center the organization around the change.

Michael Hebda, marketing manager for MEGA North America, a business software company, said a common language can mean the difference between companies that are successful at transformative change and those that aren’t. It can be difficult for leaders to support something they don’t truly understand.

“Then you have to be united around a common language,” he said. “While each department has their own vernacular, the central language should be that executive language that is around the business strategy and goals.”

Kocher’s efforts seem to be paying off. Parsons said Cigna is a much larger organization than it was nine years ago with a total stakeholder return above the 75th percentile in its industry. “We routinely say Karen can make a dollar feel like a million. Financial performance speaks. You only have that kind of financial performance with the right talent strategy.

“Karen demonstrated that we can optimize by not having customized solutions in every single business but have enterprise solutions. When you share resources like that, you actually get more capability vs. less.”