A Focus on Family Atmosphere

Karen Ward puts employee growth and engagement front and center at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

Karen Ward, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

All companies say they want to be like families, but many fall short of the mark. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, however, is making that metaphor a reality, thanks in large part to Karen Ward and her team.

Ward is the senior vice president and chief human resources officer at the organization, the oldest and largest nonprofit managed care provider in the state. She has been with the company for her entire thirty-four-year career since the days when human resources was still called “personnel,” she says. Ward has been in her current position for about six years, and one of her main areas of focus is maintaining a family-like culture in the face of significant growth and change at the company, which now serves about 3.4 million people through group, individual, Medicare, and Medicaid plans.

She has seen that family focus ebb and flow throughout her tenure at the company. Now, with leadership from a mission-driven CEO, culture is a top priority. Employee surveys show high buy-in, but they also reveal areas for improvement, which Ward is quick to address. “I always read the details in the surveys,” she says. “It helps me see where we need to do things a little differently, and it’s important to make sure our people know we’re listening.”

After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, she was hired at BlueCross BlueShield of Memphis. “It was a generalist role, and I got to do pretty much everything, including payroll at one time,” she says. When the Memphis plan merged with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee about twenty years ago, she had the opportunity to work with members of management at the headquarters in Chattanooga. “I was the point of contact in Memphis, and I drove back and forth for a number of years,” she says. When she was appointed senior vice president and chief human resources officer, she moved to Chattanooga.

HR has always intrigued Ward because she enjoys being a part of an employee’s entire journey with the company. “You are with them every step of the way,” she says. At BlueCross that can last a long time. The average tenure for the company’s six thousand employees is about ten years. In fact, nearly one thousand employees have acquired more than twenty years of service at the organization.

A major reason for that long tenure is the My Blue Path employee development program her team spearheads. Creating a world-class development program is one of the company’s top seven operational goals, along with building its customer base and enhancing its corporate voice to members and the community. When she started as CHRO, the developmental opportunities for employees were few and far between, she says. “We started putting a comprehensive program together, starting with our top leadership,” Ward says. “They all had done their own leadership development, but we wanted everyone educated in the same competencies.”

The program focuses not only on employees’ results, but also on how they are achieved. “That is just as important,” she says. “You may have wonderful results, but if you left a lot of injured parties in your wake,  then you really didn’t succeed.” After senior executives participated, it was rolled out to middle management. The organization offers components of that program, along with a wide variety of skill-development opportunities, to everyone because employees expressed their desire for career and leadership development in company surveys. BlueCross also has three mentoring programs that are aimed at different types of employees. Additionally, tuition reimbursement is available to help those who want to further their education.

BlueCross is also working to take the My Blue Path program to the next level. “We are taking a marketer’s mind-set to let employees know what is available,” she says. Ward is also looking to develop better technologies to help report employee results to senior leadership and to grow the company’s job rotation program, which recently won an award from the Institute for Corporate Productivity. In a typical year, about 30 percent of employees experience positive job movement through either promotions or lateral moves that often provide valuable exposure to different areas of the business.

Another reason BlueCross enjoys such high employee tenure is that family atmosphere she is helping to reinvigorate. A 92 percent engagement rate in the most recent employee survey attests to the company’s success. That is partly driven by the plan’s mission, she says. “We are a not-for-profit plan, and we take to heart what our members are going through,” Ward says. “We like to say we provide peace of mind. When you are using health insurance, especially in a crisis, the last thing you want to do is deal with an insurance company that is not helpful.”

But high engagement is also driven by good pay and benefits, a community relations focus that helps thousands of employees volunteer on a regular basis, a strong focus on open communication from senior executives, a wealth of activities that usually have a wellness theme, and a beautiful campus complete with amenities such as a gym, pharmacy, and a health clinic. “We have a farmers market, we have walking competitions, and we have spin classes in our courtyard,” Ward says.

The company also extends that mission focus to its own people through the BlueCross Family Fund, which was championed by the CEO to provide relief funds for employees and families in need.

Until recently, her free time was devoted to helping plan her daughter’s wedding last May. Now, she relaxes with reading, classic movies, caring for her dog, and “shamefully watching a lot of HGTV.” But she always maintains her focus to help employees reach their full potential. “I am always amazed at the amount of work our employees do and how it makes a difference for our fellow Tennesseans,” Ward says. “If we want them to achieve it, then all we have to do is make it a goal and somehow they get it done. It is an incredible thing.”