In the world of general counsel, there seems to be two main types of counsel. The first and more conservative counsel limits herself to simply saying “yea” or “nay,” and otherwise remains uninvolved. The second sort, far more progressive, not only fulfills basic counsel responsibilities, but also functions as a strategic business partner, bringing her own business acumen and specialized knowledge to the table. This describes Nicole Jones, executive vice president and general counsel for Cigna—a global health-services company with $18.5 billion in revenue and approximately 35,000 employees. I recently sat down with her to learn more about how this dynamic plays out in the context of big health-care management.
A Life in Years
Nicole Jones’s Path to Cigna
Fresh out of law school, Jones lands a spot at the New York-based firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, where she joins the corporate rotation. Eventually she moves into an associate position working with mergers and acquisitions, honing her legal and business skills.
Jones joins MCI in the wake of the WorldCom transition and meets Carol Petren, who is the then deputy general counsel for MCI, and later, general counsel for Cigna. Jones stays with MCI until Verizon buys it out in 2006.
Jones is invited by Petren to join Cigna. Jones starts as chief counsel in the corporate and securities department and ends up as the deputy general counsel.
Ready to make the move to lead counsel, Jones leaves Cigna in 2010 to serve as general counsel for Lincoln Financial.
Nine months after joining Lincoln Financial, Jones is invited back by Cigna, as Petren hopes to return to private business. So, under the leadership of David Cordani, Cigna’s new CEO, Jones returns to assume the position.
You started working for Cigna in 2006 as a chief counsel, and then you left in 2010. These days, that’s a pretty average-length window of time for someone to fill at a company, but then you came back to Cigna in 2011. That’s maybe not-so-average. What’s the story here?
Nicole Jones: I started at Cigna in 2006 because I was recruited by Carol Petren, the GC who I had worked with in my past in-house position at MCI. When I started at Cigna, I went through a range of different roles: I came in as the chief counsel in the corporate and securities department, and throughout my early tenure there, I also became the corporate secretary, the deputy GC, and the chief counsel for the US businesses. I was chief compliance officer at one point. By 2010, after four years, I felt like I had tackled so much and was ready for a GC role. In a previous review, I knew from Carol that she was planning to stay at Cigna until the end of 2013. That seemed like a long time for me; plus, it wasn’t a sure thing that I’d actually get the position, so I started taking calls for GC positions, and I ended up going to Lincoln Financial, which is near the Cigna office in Philadelphia. Things were going great, but after about nine months, I got a call from Carol. She said that she was leaving the public-company arena and had an opportunity to go to a private company. She asked if I would consider the GC role at Cigna. At first I was hesitant, because I had just started at Lincoln, but that sparked a whole host of conversations that lead up to a conversation with David Cordani, the CEO at Cigna, and I made the decision to go back.
It wasn’t just that you were being offered a GC position—you already had one. What was the thing that ultimately convinced you to make that shift? I’m guessing it wasn’t an easy one to make.
Jones: First, I had a lot of great relationships at Cigna, I hadn’t been gone very long, so those relationships were very much in tact. Second, it’s very exciting being in the health-care space at a time when health care is one of the central issues in our national dialog. Third, my experience with Cigna prior to then was that it was always a company that absolutely strives to do the right thing. David, who had just become the CEO before I went to Lincoln Financial, brought a lot of focus and clarity to the company’s mission and strategic direction. Instead of the tedium you might associate with the insurance industry, people at Cigna felt like we had a purpose. We were in a growth mode, and it had a very different feeling than it did before I left.
I think it’s interesting you’re using the past tense here. Of course, you’re talking about the past, but at the same time, isn’t this kind of renewed purpose and growth a constant thing? Especially with health-care reform and the changes trickling down from that.
Jones: Of course, everything that applied in 2011 applies now—we’re a growth company and it is an exciting time for us. But I would add that our growth is not contingent on what happening with health-care reform—most of our business is sold directly to employers, so as reform happens, it primarily presents us new opportunities. A lot of our growth and success has to do with having a focused strategy, which I attribute to David’s leadership. He has brought his senior team—including me—to the table to help shape and understand the strategic direction of the company, and has also delivered on a willingness to help the company move into different areas, so that we’re still fulfilling our mission while also growing and expanding. When I first started in 2011, for example, I was involved with our discussions about acquiring HealthSpring. A Medicare plan on this scale and with such an innovative physician partnership model was new for us, but has helped us grow and evolve.
GCs often speak of being involved in strategy, but most often it seems that their involvement is relegated to the role of a type of consigliore. That is, counsel is there to do just that: counsel. What you’re describing sounds far more organic.
Jones: For the first eight years of my legal career, I worked at a law firm. It was through working at this law firm that I realized my interest in the corporate space, and law firms are generally great training grounds. But to be honest, when I was at a law firm, I thought coming in-house was second-class lawyering. I was close to being considered for a partnership at the firm, but I thought, I don’t want to be pulling all-nighters when I’m 60. That’s the point I decided to go in-house, and I fell in love with it. At a firm, you’re dealing with issues at companies, but only for particular transactions or issues. In-house—especially at Cigna—you need to be fully invested and need to understand the company, and form relationships with the company.
So your involvement with corporate strategy is just an extension of this.
Jones: We have a formal strategy function that is headed by the CFO, but our CEO and CFO bring that strategy to discussion at the senior leadership table. It’s very front and center, and as a GC, I’m not only brought in for discussing the technical aspects, but David insists that all leaders at the table be businesspeople first. If you bring a certain specialty—legal or IT or finance or whatever else—you’re expected to look at things through that lens. From the GC perspective, it doesn’t get much better than this, but it also demands a lot of me, because I need to keep up with things that are outside of my legal specialty.
Like health-care reform, and the way it unfolds?
Jones: Like I said, Cigna is a growth company. The environment is changing, and health-care reform is one of the things changing that environment. There are a lot of pressures and trends, and there is always a need for solutions in the health-care space. I believe Cigna is well poised to deliver these.