Martha Heller

How Kaiser Permanente IT shifted from order taker to influencer

Apr 27, 2022
IT Leadership

With the pandemic as a burning platform, CITO Diane Comer identified and developed a set of competencies that would enable her team to “lean in” and act quickly for future success.

Diane Comer, CITO, Kaiser Permanente
Credit: Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente is one of the country’s largest not-for-profit, integrated health plans, serving 12.5 million members, and employing more than 300,000 people.  As a provider of healthcare services, and an employer at scale, the company sits at the epicenter of the workforce and healthcare delivery changes wrought by the pandemic.

When Greg Adams became CEO in 2019, prior to the pandemic, he set a transformation strategy to use digital technologies to improve the member experience and quality of care. That vision had already created an increased demand on Kaiser Permanente’s IT organization. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, the digital roadmap accelerated rapidly.

This meant that Diane Comer, who served as interim CIO since June 2020 and was promoted to EVP & Chief Information and Technology Officer in March 2021, needed to ensure she had a leadership team who could deliver on that roadmap.

Clear IT priorities

First, Comer set priorities for the IT organization: strengthen program delivery and deliver on our commitments, shift to a product model, develop new digital platforms while driving greater adoption of the platforms already in place, drive costs down, develop our people, and of course, continue increasing security. “In the past, we would look at a new technology’s capabilities, costs, and benefits, and then we’d ask about security,” she says. “Today, ‘is it secure?’ comes first.”

With the team’s priorities in place, her next step was to define the target competencies of the team.

“We needed to get out of the order taking mindset,” says Comer. “The traditional SDLC of requirements gathering and approval is polite and professional, but it’s slow. The pandemic created the need for a different approach. When suddenly people who need care could not leave their homes, we needed to exponentially expand our video visit platform and at a rapid pace. There was no time for back and forth.”

New leadership competencies

With the pandemic as a burning platform, Comer saw her team shift from order taker into problem solver. “I saw my team move into an ‘influencer mode’ using minimal viable products and a new level of leadership to deliver a video visit platform in record time,” she says. So, Comer decided to identify and develop a set of competencies that would enable her team, to “lean in” and act quickly, even without the pandemic as a driver. 

The target competences that Comer identified were influence, innovation, courage, advocacy, and bringing new ideas forward. “We needed to stop asking, ‘What do you need? This is what’s on the market. Which one do you like best?’” she says. “You wouldn’t expect your CFO to say, ‘How would you like us to book that in the general ledger?’”

She also targeted a competency around driving the enterprise solution, which is particularly important for a company with over 12.5 million members, multiple markets, lines of business, and customer segments. “We need to take advantage of our scale and deliver enterprise platforms,” says Comer. “That requires IT to say, ‘I appreciate your need for a new tool, but how does that help with what we are doing in other parts of the company? How can we solve your problem by taking advantage of what we currently have?”

Leadership skills development program

Recognizing that all of these competencies are nuanced and take practice, Comer developed a nine-month virtual leadership program that involved 135 SVPs, VPs, executive directors, and herself. There were four primary sessions that ran three hours each, and were focused on building blocks: the first was Productive Interactions, followed by Influencing and Partnering, Empowering Innovation, and Leading Change. During the weeks between sessions, small groups of five or six people met to practice what they had learned.

“Those small groups were very effective in helping people turn the lessons into habits,” Comer says. “People would talk about a situation they had run into that day, and get immediate feedback on how they handled it, rather than going to a single two-day offsite and then forgetting all about it.”

The three-hour sessions themselves were interactive, interspersed with presentations for learning and breakout sessions for practice and discussion. The sessions also involved Kaiser Permanente business partners as well. “We involved both external experts and business partners,” says Comer. “Our business partners spent a lot of time highlighting what IT does well, which helped to build the confidence of the IT leadership team.”

One of the key learnings that Comer gained during the program was that IT’s business partners were hungry for IT to change its culture and bring more ideas to the table. “Some of us assumed that our business partners would want us to stay in our box; we anticipated conflict in our leaning in to do more,” she says. “My takeaway was that we could challenge that assumption, but that at the same time, we all had to get comfortable with conflict and learn to work through it.”

IT recruitment and retention dividends

With the program complete, Comer sees the IT team bringing more ideas to the business and delivering new solutions much more quickly. Not only is this important to achieving Kaiser Permanente’s digital agenda, it is key to talent development and retention, which Comer believes has moved to the forefront of the CITO’s long list of responsibilities.

“We are going to see an increase in retirements, and the new generation’s perspective that they don’t need to work for one company for 10 years, or that if the stock market is strong, they can take some time off. All of these components makes talent development and retention much more important,” she says. “Our leadership program not only drives a strong connection between individuals and Kaiser Permanente’s mission, by allowing our teams to learn together, they also understand that they are a part of something larger. Creating that culture is as important as any technology strategy.”

Martha Heller

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.

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