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Finding the Unicorn

Season 1 Episode 5

Finding the Unicorn with Sharon Alford

Season 1 Episode 5


Intro/Outro: Welcome to the insurance leadership podcast, the podcast designed to bring you perspectives and principles from leaders in the life and health insurance industry. We trust you will enjoy today's episode.

[00:00:25] Ryan: Welcome to another episode of the insurance leadership podcast. I'm Ryan Eaton, your host, and I'm excited to have a wonderful guest on our show. Today, we're going to dig into a leader's thought process when it comes to technology and staying innovative in our industries. We wanted to spend some time on this because technology is not only changing the way we do business, but how we operate in our day to day activities.

[00:00:46] Uber has changed the way we catch a cab, airbnb has changed how we rent a vacation home, shipt has changed the way we get our groceries, and zoom has changed the way we handle our meetings. So whether we like it, we hate it, or we have stubbornly come to the realization that we have to embrace it, we must be proactive when it comes to innovation. As leaders, we should strive to stay ahead of the curve, but at a minimum, we must stay up with the market demands in our industry.

[00:01:10] As we have said before, if we aren't moving forward, we are falling behind. So let's go ahead and get it kicked off for today. And let me welcome Sharon Alford to the podcast. Sharon, thank you so much for being here today. How are you doing?

[00:01:23] Sharon: Oh, hi Ryan. I am doing well and I'm really thrilled that you've invited me to do this. It's an exciting time and a really great topic. So thank you for having me.

[00:01:32] Ryan: Well, we are so honored to have you here today. And I have a resume that I could probably read that's a mile long, but instead of doing that, I wanted to kind of speak a little bit more from my experience with Sharon, and knowing and working with her over the years. I can tell you the first time I met her, we were in California at the word and brown and quoted office.

[00:01:51] And Sharon was leading a technology build out that was probably one of the first, if not the first, online quoting and enrollment platforms available for brokers. So several years later, I spoke with her again. And she was in the middle of another technology build out. And I think she was spearheading the carrier relations side at that time.

[00:02:08] And, and then I talked with her another two or three years later in a call that, started with VSPs executive team and they said, Ryan, we'd like to introduce you to our new vice president of individual sales. Her name is Sharon Alford. And all I could think of at that point is VSP is about to take over the insurance market.

[00:02:25] And I can tell you this, Sharon is still serving as the vice president of direct to consumer and individual plans at VSP, which is the world's largest insurance company in the vision market. She's worked at quota. She's worked at American specialty health, Ayaan, she's led sales teams, development teams.

[00:02:43] She's built platforms when it comes to technology and innovation, Sharon is one of the first people that come to my mind. So before we get started, though, she is also passionate about riding horses and spending time with her daughter. So, Sharon, I am hoping you were able to capitalize a little bit on COVID with a few more rides in the saddle.

[00:03:03] Tell us about that before we get started

[00:03:06] Sharon: Oh my goodness. Thanks, Ryan. Well, I have to say that one of the good things that has come out of COVID is more time with my 13 year old daughter and a lot more time with our horses. Because as you know, I travel a lot, so gosh, it's allowed us to be outside and be with them a lot.

[00:03:23] Sarah and I ride on trails right now at Folsom lake several times a week. And we both are working on our English and our jumping skills.

[00:03:33] Ryan: Well, that is awesome. How long have you been riding Sharon?

[00:03:36] Sharon: Oh, my father used to tell me he would put me in front of him before I could walk on a horse.

[00:03:42] Ryan: Wow. That is awesome.

[00:03:44] Well, I'm so glad you were able to do that and spend that quality time with your daughters. Well, that's that's awesome. Look, before we get into the main part of our show, why don't you tell everyone what brought you into the insurance industry?

[00:03:55] Sharon: Yeah, I wish there was a more exciting story that I will tell it.

[00:03:58]Well, I used to babysit. That was how I had, I got money before I could drive and do all those other things that we did. And I babysat for a gentleman who was a neighbor and a friend of our parents. And we also went to the same church. I was 18 years old and he walked up to me. This gentleman walked up to me one day at church and said, you need to come work for me.

[00:04:18] And he said when we would come home from our evening out, After you were babysitting the house, the house was clean. The kids were happy and their PJ's, you played games with them and they were fed. So he, he says, I guess, I think he'd make a good employee. He happened to own an insurance agency.

[00:04:35] So I went to work with them and I worked with him for 12 years. I got my insurance license when I was 19 years old. I learned a lot working at his agency and I virtually started opening mail and answering the phones and just worked my way up. And I actually went to college as I was working at his agency and he is now 85 years old. And he still sends me emails and checks in with me all the time. Wow.

[00:05:02] Ryan: That is awesome. Look, you said one thing there that I realized I need to get you to train our babysitters because the houses are not clean, dishes are not done when we get back. And then Sharon, that's phenomenal.

[00:05:15] So he's, he's 85 and still in the industry, right?

[00:05:18] Sharon: He still just, he amazes me.

[00:05:20] Ryan: That is awesome. For the rest of our audience, as I mentioned earlier, every time I talked to Sharon, she is in the middle of a new development and new product build out, new technology rollout. Sharon, will you spend a few minutes explaining the value you put on innovation and staying on the cutting edge from a technology stand.

[00:05:39] Sharon: Absolutely. Honestly, I can't express it enough, how important it is in our industry and for the distribution of the product, you can have the best product, the best organization and the strongest distribution team, but if you do not have the capability to deliver it with the requirements of today's needs, you will not be able to sell that person.

[00:05:59] Ryan: Mm, that's so true. So true. Well, you've said before as well, that kind of with technology that we're in a constant endurance race, when it comes to innovation and technology. In your words, you've actually, I've heard you call it, building the unicorn. Tell us what you mean by that.

[00:06:16] Sharon: Well, you really did listen to me when we were talking. I know that those, those words are kind of interesting, but they really hold true. And even when I'm in meetings today, internally, I do say it a lot. Our industry is catching up very fast with regards to technology and it has taken us awhile. Other industries, obviously we always point to the banking industry, has done a lot more, a lot faster.

[00:06:42]And there's a lot of reasons for that. There still is a lot that needs to be done in our industry. What I have seen over and over again are companies with great ideas who actually develop an execute them and then sit back expecting the technology that they have built to work. And I have just seen over and over.

[00:07:02] You cannot sit back. You have to be in development mode all of the time to stay ahead of the ongoing demand and competition. It is a race. And there, frankly, to me, I don't see an end to it. Technology just does not stand still. So with regard to my unicorn scenario, I know, that sounds silly. It probably is related back to my horses, but you know, when I was little, I always, you know, you always want a unicorn and it didn't exist.

[00:07:30] But when I put my wishlist together and go out to the industry to find it, which is what I consider a unicorn, frankly, it doesn't exist. You can find many varieties of it and pieces of it, but I haven't found one organization or one company that has everything that I need. If you'd like Ryan, I, you know, I can elaborate on kind of one of the, what those, what that list looks like.

[00:07:54] Ryan: Hit that for us real quick, because there's so many different things in our industry, depending on the life and outside from the admin systems to quote and enrollment systems to the ADF feeds. Why don't you hit that kind of from your side of it, looking at it, what you see is kind of that unicorn model.

[00:08:09] Sharon: Absolutely. And I am coming from, you know, working currently in an health plan and wanting to distribute and sell. So, you know, on this, and I'm not in fact, your organization, I would say after meeting with you, I've seen some of this myself.

[00:08:25] I was really very impressed, but my list kind of, so, you know, first and foremost, and this is when you first met me, probably was you need enrollment application and especially in today's day and age, and that's just kind of a, that's an initial start now with the broker is to have that enrollment application, but now we need a shopping cart.

[00:08:46] Along with that shopping cart, we want a consolidated application. No one wants to fill out five applications for five products. They want one application and that's due to just speed to market for speed and, and not speed to market speed in filling out that application.

[00:09:00] So along with that consolidated application, we need a consolidated bill with multiple products, which again is very, very difficult from a technology perspective. But I am seeing it. How about along with that is the ability to take multiple types of payment and those multiple types keep evolving. It used to be a credit card.

[00:09:21] It used to be a debit card. Now it's, you know, PayPal, it's Venmo. So when we talk about keeping up with technology, that's part of it. Broker portals, broker portals you can find them. But what does that broker portal offer and what does it do? Broker appointment, management capabilities. And then we need carrier portals for the member.

[00:09:41] Are those tied together? Can the broker tie into some of those? Managing the broker? How about commission payment, not just to the individual agent, but downstream payment to commission. That's another very complicated and tricky area. Electronic marketing support to your, you know, tied into customer support.

[00:10:02] And then we talk into tied into customer support, not just technology, but now we're transferring over to a live person, potentially. Product portfolios, building that product portfolio. I did manage an extensive product portfolio with over 350 carriers. That is not an easy feat. And it's very, it takes a lot of dedication, a lot of time and support and then a very key aspect of staying compliant.

[00:10:30] VSP in particular has very strong compliance requirements and not, you know, you can have the technology, but if it isn't compliant, that won't work. I mean, that's just, that's just a small list of some of the things that I need and I'm looking for.

[00:10:44] Ryan: I'm so glad you brought up all those things, because those are all so important to the whole, the whole big puzzle, right? And then you throw in the things, the curve balls you get, where companies get bought or purchased by someone else. And then they got all new processes and they, and then they use ease. Now they've switched over to employee navigator or whatever the case may be.

[00:11:03] So there's, there's always those constant changes and new files and new tweaks that have to happen. How, you know, with the constant changing, how have you applied the practice of staying consistent in the endurance race, so to say, while being able to pivot with the different market needs that arise?

[00:11:22] Sharon: Wow.

[00:11:23] You, you, you were asking some really good questions. Well, first of all, foremost, I'm very fortunate to work with a company and executive team who trusts me and expects me to make, have a real time knowledge of what's going on in the industry and stay current. So staying current in the industry, So when I came to VSP, you know, they, they thought it was kinda nuts with some of my asks.

[00:11:49] I ask and attend many industry groups. I continually stay and meet with clients. I want to be in front of those clients. And sometimes they're frustrated with me because they see my role sometimes as not being always... and I am adamant because that is where I'm going to hear and learn the most attending conferences and technology symposiums.

[00:12:10] That's another area where I have to stay current and understand and learn what's going on, but also working with partners like yourselves. In our last meeting, I really learned a lot about what you guys are doing in your space. And I was frankly surprised. I had no idea how much you and Morgan white had done in this space in particular.

[00:12:32] So I do ask VSP, I ask our company to make tough decisions with sometimes some fairly significant investment, and I'm not always the most popular person in the room. But I am, I feel very strongly about making the changes that I asked for. And I don't ask for those changes unless it's going to affect our company and the success, which I am very passionate about. Now, prioritizing is also a significant piece.

[00:12:58] So I, you know, there's lots of checks and balances that go along with that. But I think they're finding that by doing all of that, you know, bottom line, there is a tremendous amount of trust in the area area that I'm in. And one last comment in this area, if you ask for it and they build, you have to deliver. Our unit at VSP in the last two years, it's the fastest growing unit with regards to growth at VSP.

[00:13:25] So again, I just have to emphasize, if you ask for these things, you better deliver. And some of these asks, some of them also are not just what it's going to look like for ROI, but they are defensive moves. And I do make sure that they know that that if we don't do some of these things, it's not even a matter of growing, it's a matter of maintaining what we do.

[00:13:47] Ryan: I love that. Defensive move. That's a good way to say it. So let me, let me kind of roll with it. You said some things there that kinda kinda hit home for me. And so when you're asking for different things that, let's just say a project changes along the way, maybe it's a, maybe it's something in the market that changed.

[00:14:05] Maybe it's a new piece of technology that over the six months, nine months of building something out, something just completely changed and you have to adjust, how do you from a leadership side, try to help the programmers, the graphic designers, the IT team that's helping actually build the project, help get them on the same page that, Hey, this really is something that we need, and this is why.

[00:14:27] How do you lead and guide them that way? Because I know salespeople always get the bad rap that they just want every bell and whistle that's out there and, you know, no one's ever going to use this, but they want it. How do you help kind of encourage the team and get everyone there to show that this is a, this really is something good and beneficial to the overall project?

[00:14:45] Sharon: Now, again, this is a really good question. And I think in so many organizations, you're very siloed from that and particularly the sales side with operations and with development. And I will tell you the key here is to be involved in all aspects of development. I used to sit with developers and their managers to explain what I needed.

[00:15:07] I mean, you have to provide real life real examples to the programmers at that level to keep them engaged. There is a pride of ownership when you do that with them and not all companies allow you to do that. I've been very fortunate to be able to dig in. I mean, I actually managed our planned maintenance team as well as sales, which is a very unique dynamic and you don't see it often.

[00:15:32] But again, I'm very adamant about being involved at that level. We used to have meetings when we were there in person, we'd have 40 people in the room and the managers and the developers and the salespeople and the downline folks were all in that room. And now we're doing it through zoom.

[00:15:48] To help explain some of the needs and actually show them from the industry why we needed them and why it was being requested. I think the more the communication and the more that we're all working together as a team on this, the better it is. And most, again, most companies aren't structured that way.

[00:16:09] I'll give a tiny small example, but, when I was at quota and doing this, we actually had a movie day. We actually, I asked my boss to be able to take them offline, which is significant to get two hours to bring in pizza. And we did guardians of the galaxy

[00:16:30] Oh, I know it was. And they thought I was crazy, but that one small effort probably carried me for a year with those folks because they just kept us as a team versus separating us. And, and we're all geeks. I mean, all of us are pretty geeky internally inside and I think it just showed a human side of it, but that's just one example.

[00:16:54] Ryan: Well, I love that. And before this podcast airs and my team hears it, I'm going to make sure I have a movie day at the office and try to take full credit for it, Sharon. That is a great idea. Well look, you said something there as well, that kind of has made kind of changing the direction of kind of some of the questions I want to ask you.

[00:17:11] And I hope I'm not kind of throwing you too much on the spot here, but I heard you mentioned that you kind of all get in a room and discuss kind of different things on different levels and try to walk through the processes. I was listening to a podcast the other day and they were reviewing Amazon's mentality on customer engagement.

[00:17:28] Every executive meeting, they have someone there who's represented as an advocate for the customer to make sure that they are doing something that is beneficial, not only to the bottom line, but to the member. It almost sounds like VSP has a similar process for trying to keep the member on the frontline and really thinking about the end user or end user or consumer, I guess their mindset on the daily.

[00:17:52] Am I correct on that? And can you, would you mind sharing a little bit more.

[00:17:56] Sharon: You do. And boy, I could talk about this one for, for a very long time for hours. Cause it really is the Genesis of... it's just at the heart of VSP. As you know, we are a not-for-profit. So we are fortunate in that we are able to, you know, we're structured a little bit differently.

[00:18:14] Our members, our 90 million members are... we consider our structure a circle with a member being in the middle of it. And around that circle is our, you know, included as our network of doctors, our employers, the agents, the supply chain, the retail. It means we're driven to a purpose to allow to we, we are allowed to re-invest business gains to support human potential.

[00:18:37] And I'm not sure if this was really discussed before Ryan with you and I, if we've ever really talked about it, but in 2009, we really did establish a corporate division whose sole purpose was for innovation. We have a 16,000 square foot space in downtown Sacramento that allows us to literally reinvest in and look at greater overall health and wellness by developing new products and services.

[00:19:01] As employees we're allowed to go down to that facility and do tours of it and walk through it and actually were pulled in to, to be a part of potential builds that they're looking at. So we keep our members as a stakeholder in this whole process and our mindset is very much, it's a team related...

[00:19:21] Our own team, my own sales team, we're given from VSP, a tremendous amount of latitude to build solutions in our space that enables greater agility for speed to market. And, again, you hit it, our model, you know, unlike others is really that circle. We do put people first. The company has been around for 60 years.

[00:19:44] So you would think after all that time, in some of our, some of our, the companies, you and I work with have been around much longer, but 60 years is a long time. And you think we're too old, we're too slow, where's our mentality? But the member focus is woven into everything that VSP does. Everything is AB tested with focus groups running throughout the business.

[00:20:04] We're looking at our, you know, you can imagine with 90 million members, we have a tremendous amount of data that we pull off of. So we've got a wealth of information too, to really look at what trends are looking at utilization, adjust products, improve the member life cycle. We're able to customize and meet individual needs.

[00:20:24] And we do that. And I, health and wellness is significant, I actually, throughout the industry, give a presentations on just the health and wellness of an... what an eye exam means to a member. And we focus on that tremendously. We can determine hypertension and, and pre-diabetic by just an eye exam and most people don't know that.

[00:20:45] So part of what the member is getting is the use of the benefit, but we also found that through regular eye care, it's also helps with their health. So we want them to use the benefit. We want them to use the benefit because that's where we really can guest can focus on the member.

[00:21:03] Ryan: Great. VSP has always done a great job on focusing on the customer and I think y'all have always done a great job of keeping them centered. I remember we were in a meeting several years back and I believe it was you, it may have been someone else, but brought up a point about member engagement.

[00:21:18] And I remember we walked out of the meeting a few hours later. We didn't want to say it at the time, but we'd never even thought of what you had suggested. And it was like, oh my gosh, how are we not doing that? That is just it's, it's brilliant just to kind of, to be able to look at it from future sales and member engagement and the value you're actually bringing.

[00:21:36] But that kind of makes me wonder as well. One of the things we struggle with with a lot of different products, a lot from the TPA and the brokerage side, and then the, the insurance company side is keeping up with kind of the demands. And I think VSP has done a great job of being able to allow someone to be able to try on frames from their iPad in their La-Z-Boy.

[00:21:58] Right? You all have kind of pivoted completely on that front where 20 years ago it might've been, Hey, we'll tell you where the closest provider is. How have you kind of selected which things cause like that one, being able to try on frames from your iPad on your La-Z-Boy, is a, is very much of a plush extra.

[00:22:18] It's not a need. It's very nice though. And it also, from the user standpoint, it's like, Hey, I think I like these Nike's or, Hey, I think I like these Ray bands. I think I'm gonna go with these, but it helps them to be able to make that decision easy and comfortable. How do you pick which ones you kind of move forward with and which ones are just the bells and whistles?

[00:22:37] Sharon: Well, I mean, what you hit right there, that is innovation. I mean,, being able, we, that is our partner company is iconic and it's all technology driven that to your point, all online, you can go buy, you can buy your frames, you can buy your sunglasses, you can buy your contacts right there to your points, sitting down and you're La-Z-Boy chair.

[00:22:57] And golly, can you imagine how, how well that did over COVID? Where we couldn't go. I mean, was that dumb luck that we actually had that technology last year? Yes. But they had thought about it several years before that and having iconic.. So I would say VSP just looks forward constantly in all areas, that's actual product distribution.

[00:23:21] And where was that? I mean, a year ago, we bought Visionworks. I mean, that was another one where we were, we're having to meet up with competition and we were finding out that people, not everybody does want to go to the doctor. They want to be at the mall and be able to go walk into a facility and buy their glasses and have their exam right there.

[00:23:39] So that is continually staying in front of the individual, of the member and what their needs are. And I don't know if you want to hear about it now, but I can talk about some of the other innovative things we've done. Frankly for speed to market.

[00:23:52] Ryan: No, I'd love to hear that.

[00:23:54] Sharon: Okay, so this one's really fun, it's a good story. And it's a real immediate example, but you know, it isn't just about predicting trends, but equally important it's reacting to what our needs are. Right? So our primary concern, especially with the pandemic was safety. Safety for members, safety for doctors and the support team.

[00:24:13] So last year, in about a month timeline, we manufactured and distributed, protective face shields and masks for free to all of our VSP, all the doctors. So they could quickly get back up and running. And so our downtime for the doctors and for folks to be able to come and see the doctors was significant.

[00:24:34] And where was the focus? It was access to care because 41% of adults had to delay their medical care. So what else that provided for us to be able to offer to the member and this, you know, selfless, this had nothing to do with vision care. But we were able to immediately engage our telemedicine, our Teladocs for models to where we could circumvent folks going to urgent care for their eye needs. Members that had urgent eye care needs, like sudden vision changes, vision loss, eye trauma, pink eye, conjunctivitis, and other symptoms that affected their day-to-day activity could now adjust and go to our doctor's offices to get those items taken care of circumventing so much of what was going on a year ago.

[00:25:25] And that, that was just something else that we were able to do to really meet demand of members that we had never done before. We really hadn't adjusted to that. So partnering with iconic and doing some of the other things that we've done really helped last year and in a significant time for our country.

[00:25:43]Ryan: I couldn't agree more. I had a buddy who he moved down to there's a little spot down on the panhandle of Florida called Grayton beach. It's kind of off 38, kind of in between Destin and Panama city. And he moved down there probably about a year before COVID hit, about six months, somewhere along those lines.

[00:26:00] And we all laughed and said, man, he nailed this COVID thing before ever everybody else saw it coming. And I looked at kinda you guys. I look at the glass, I look at all these different things and y'all really jumped either you were very, very proactive and didn't even realize it at the time with the glasses trying on.

[00:26:15] But then even when stuff did pop up, you are quick to be able to make a decision of, Hey, let's get these face shields out to all the optometrists out there. And I think that's, I think it says a lot for the organization. I think it says a lot for your members, trying to get them to be able to get access and care.

[00:26:30] I think that just says a lot for the company. But speaking of companies, what would you say from a leadership standpoint, kind of switch it over, kind of that thought process.. You've been with a lot of companies, you've seen a lot of companies, you've worked with a lot of companies. What are some of the core values that you've seen in organizations that continue to not just make it to the top, but once they're on the top, continue to strive and continue to push for, and just have core values that you see promoting longterm growth for those organizations.

[00:27:01] Sharon: Well, you know, it's interesting cause VSP, I've been there two and a half years now and I've seen folks that have been there now for 30 years and they stay for a reason. There's a tremendous amount of Well, I'll just say it, along with one of my mentors and boss, he asked me a question about... he said, Sharon, you have the ability to write and talk to executives, presidents, and peers, but you can jump on an elevator and talk to the janitor and have a substantial conversation with them.

[00:27:26] So I think the ability to relate to people at all levels and our president is probably one of the best examples of that. And the folks that I've worked for and with, that I have seen that type of leadership just to stay there.. Highly, these are very smart people, highly educated people, but to stay in touch and stay with the humility.

[00:27:49] And to be able to have that ability to talk at all different levels of the organization is what I really think makes a difference. The way I stay, for me, staying in the trenches with my team, supporting my team and sharing my vulnerabilities is truly something that I live by and share by example.

[00:28:08] And the folks that I have followed and seen as leaders have done things very similar. I think it's just, it's an ethic. I just think it's an ethic that I see throughout the industry. And when I see substantial leaders in the industry, keeping that ethic of just being, being very strong leaders, but being humble, it just resonates.

[00:28:30] And I've been really fortunate to have some good mentors throughout my career that I have seen and are still presidents of companies acting in this way.

[00:28:40] Ryan: You nailed that answer the the ability to relate to people at all levels. That might be the best answer I've ever heard of that question, Sharon, I've asked a lot of people that question over the years, that's a, that's a good one.

[00:28:53] And I think your boss and mentor was, was a hundred percent accurate with you. Cause you do, you can speak to the, the janitor or the CEO and it's pretty awesome. I love that about you. So look, we're getting close on time here. I want to ask, this is one of my favorite questions to be able to ask people.

[00:29:07] And it is what is the biggest leadership lesson that has impacted your life and why?

[00:29:15] Sharon: God dang. You asked some hard questions. Well, and I'm going to probably reiterate a little bit of what I said before, but being a leader and having humility is a rare quality. But when I've seen it by example, or I've been that to the other person that has never failed.

[00:29:31] Hard work, friendships and relationships in the industry have been more than a blessing to me. And I do believe it's the reason for my success.

[00:29:40] Ryan: So true. So good. And so true. Well, Sharon, I can't thank you enough for being on the show today. You said that I asked a lot of hard questions about, I tell you what you gave a lot of phenomenal answers.

[00:29:50] So thank you so much for being on the show. And that wraps up this episode of the insurance leadership podcast. Thank you for joining us and remember that a good plan today is better than a great plan months from now. Thank you.

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