Blue Shield’s ‘Women Lead to Excellence’ innovates change.
When Blue Shield of California began planning a summit in Oakland to inspire women at all levels to lead, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was the immediate and ideal choice to be a keynote at the event. Her leadership as the chief executive of the City of Oakland captured the essence of the event: “Women Lead to Excellence (WL2X)” – the name of the Employee Resource Group.
“As we prepare to make Oakland the home of our new headquarters, we were inspired by how Mayor Schaaf spoke of its inclusive diversity, progressive values, authenticity, local artists and innovation,” said Shayna Schulz, Blue Shield’s vice president of enterprise process transformation, and the executive sponsor for WL2X.
The event was the second in a month to reinforce Blue Shield’s commitment to fair career advancement for women. On Mar. 1, Kimberley Goode, senior vice president of external affairs, was the keynote speaker at the East Bay Women in Business Roundtable Luncheon. Goode raised a laugh from the attendees when she said, “I decided to first share that in addition to my husband, Andre, our household has four generations of women living under one roof.”
After noting that Blue Shield’s upcoming move is part of the ongoing “new energy” in Oakland, Goode went on to note that the company wants to be sure that it is bringing positive change to its new neighbors. That commitment includes the #80forOakland program, where Blue Shield employees will engage in 80 activities including self-exploration and community service “opportunities [to] get to know, love and support Oakland.”
Addressing the issue of how Blue Shield is supporting its women employees in their career progress, Goode noted that it starts at the top. California’s recent legislation mandating more female representation on corporate boards wasn’t needed by Blue Shield, as its board already includes five “exceptional women leaders,” including two women of color. Three senior women report directly to CEO Paul Markovich, including Goode, and she emphasized, “We have achieved real pay equity for women in our company; there is no gap.”
WL2X is yet another example of Blue Shield’s emphasis on advancement for women. The company defines the program as “devoted to transforming the organization into one that values diversity and inclusiveness by exploring ways to better develop women for leadership.”
Schulz explained that her role as executive sponsor involves working with the program’s co-chairs to “inculcate gender equity” in Blue Shield’s workplace. Both men and women participate in the program, she said, which includes multiple activities, including mentoring sessions, a book club, and much more. At the Mar. 14 event, more than 240 employees heard not only Mayor Schaaf, but also CEO Paul Markovich, and TaskRabbit founder Leah Basque, among others. They also participated in break-out sessions such as “Organize, Plan & Own Your Future,” “Owning Your Career Path,” and “Tackling Life’s Challenges with Resilience and Grit.”
The goal, said Schulz, is to “give women not only a seat at the table, but a voice at the table.”
Blue Shield’s director of strategic planning and performance, Ronda Bell, is a co-chair of WL2X and has been involved since the group’s formation in 2014. She noted the title of the event, “Leadership at All Levels,” reflected the group’s mission of reaching women across the Blue Shield organization, as well as their male allies.
“I was delighted that the event successfully targeted our message of empowerment of women, and also celebrated the upcoming move to Oakland,” she said, pointing to the venue, catering, and entertainment from the Oakland School of the Arts as an inviting means of introducing employees to Oakland.
Bell elaborated on WL2X activities, citing the book given out at the event as the next bookclub choice: New York Times’ bestseller Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power. Another effective tool has been “manning up” sessions, in which male Blue Shield allies discuss how they can support women in their careers. A new initiative for the group will focus on “amplification,” meaning how women’s voices can be heard more often and taken more seriously in meetings and at the conference table.
“We also do videoconferencing conversations that reach across all our Blue Shield sites,” Bell said, listing the subject of the next one as “Me Too/Now What?”
Employees Mandy Bryant and Nikki Oshel are examples of how women are benefitting from membership in WL2X, she said. Both women are now in senior management roles, and WL2X has allowed them to have experience across all the levels of the organization. “They’ve told me it has been both a professional and a personal aid to them,” said Bell. Most importantly, she emphasized, WL2X gives participants a chance “to show up as a leader, giving them the courage to go on to the next level.”
That courage, said Schulz, “is so much in line with Oakland, its grit, its renewal from the ground up.” Blue Shield, she concluded, is “thrilled we can leverage that culture in Oakland.”