Kate Quinn, SVP & CMO, WellPoint
Tomorrow is A Healthier Day
By Cynthia Good
When you talk to WellPoint Inc. SVP and CMO Kate Quinn, you get the sense that anything is possible. She is actually optimistic about daunting task of overhauling the nation’s healthcare insurance industry. Following the recent election and now ensuing healthcare reform, the nations largest health benefits company which already serves 69 million individuals, must refocus marketing efforts as millions of previously uninsured begin flooding the market.
“We will probably never see a change of this magnitude in our industry again in our lifetime,” says Quinn in our exclusive interview. The woman at the center of this sea change, as the business evolves from B2B to an equally consumer focused company, is ready for it.
An industry veteran, Quinn joined the $70 billion insurance giant in 2005, after holding leadership jobs at The Hartford Financial Services Group, CIGNA and PacifiCare Health Systems. Today she oversees all marketing, brand strategy, customer communications and market research. But she’s used to a challenge.
The happily married mother of three, learned early on about obstacles and thriving despite them. “I had a hard childhood and did not have anything easy – emotionally or financially.”
Here, she tells Little PINK Book what drives her to succeed, it it’s worth the personal sacrifice and what the boss really thought when she had her babies.
Little PINK Book: It’s rare to see a woman in the C-Suite at a top 50 public company. How did you get the job?
Kate Quinn: It was not easy. But the turning point was standing up and really saying, very directly declaring, this is what I want. I want this job. I want this title. This is the organizational structure I want. Not being emotional, but being very clear about what I wanted and showing how the company would benefit. When I put it that way, a light bulb went off for my boss.
LPB: What was your hardest career lesson?
KQ: At first I misread company culture [at WellPoint]. I thought performance was everything. But it’s not. You have to pay attention to politics.
Shortly after winning a top leader award, I lost my job and was offered a demotion. I sucked it up and stayed; fighting every instinct to curse everyone and walk away. It was the darkest moment of my career. I learned a lot about myself through that process and “grew up.” I definitely put on my “big girl pants.”
LPB: Sounds painful.
KQ: I undervalued myself. I let myself feel like I didn’t deserve more – unlike a man would have done. I had always quickly advanced and was a “star.” So this time my ego got the best of me. I lost my mojo. Then I broke thru and got around that. You need to do the internal work so you don’t lose yourself and your confidence.
LPB: What makes you so passionate about work?
KQ: The chance to make healthcare accessible and affordable. We recently created a wellness bus and offered free preventative care like a moving clinic. People showed up to have tests. One woman who came was in the process of having a heart attack. She got the help she needed. We saved her life.
LPB: Can women have it all?
KQ: I don’t think you can. The women before my generation dressed and acted like men. My generation of women leaders is exhausted. We were told we could have everything. It doesn’t feel like it. You are forced to make choices that men do not have to make.
LPB: Did you pay a price for your career success?
KQ: I missed a lot of important moments with my children; ages 14, nine and three, cause I felt like I had to. My oldest son is autistic. I’ve never volunteered once at my kids’ school. I missed birthdays due to travel. I missed seeing my son in the Christmas play. He asked me, “Why weren’t you there mommy?” I said I had to work. He said, “You always have to work.” Meantime my male colleague went to that same play. If I left early because I had to do something for my kids, I would get a different reaction.
LPB: Is it worth it?
KQ: I’ve asked myself this a thousand times over my career. And I think only an individual can answer that for themselves. For me it was worth it. I give to my kids in other ways. I model something important. My work is an important part of my identity.
LPB: Is it acceptable for a woman in a C-level job to get pregnant?
KQ: I sacrificed my health after all pregnancies by coming back to work way too early. With my first child, I took a call from my boss on the delivery table. My [female] mentor suggested I leave the company after my baby was born because the leadership shouldn’t see me pregnant.
LPB: What about your other two pregnancies?
KQ: I’ve been pregnant three times, each time at a different company. The second time my boss resented me for being out for four weeks. He called and asked if I was sitting home eating bonbons.
My last pregnancy was here [at WellPoint] and I got promoted to a C-level position after that. It made me feel better about the company. I shocked everyone when I got pregnant. I was 45 and it was a surprise. I made jokes. I never let it affect my work. I pushed myself to the limit.
LPB: Why push yourself so hard?
KQ: We do what we feel we have to do. The pendulum will shift the other way. And the millennials will make different choices. As women become more confident there will be less judgment in the future. But without us driving hard and proving we could get into these positions, that couldn’t happen.
LPB: Who takes care of your kids?
KQ: I’m lucky. After my first child, my husband and I made the decision that he would stay home. He was in social work. From an income perspective it was practical. It took him years to adjust. I still think his family has a hard time with it. And the school still calls me. Even when I say, “Call him. He stays home,” they still call me.
LPB: How did your early life influence you?
KQ: I had a hard childhood. There was alcohol and drug addiction, a lot of craziness and ultimately violence when my mother and father separated. I was eight. We had hard times, and we made it through. It motivated me to seek external activities to find validation.
LPB: What was your first job?
KQ: I forged my birth certificate when I was 13 so I could get a job and get paid. My first real job was at Baskin Robbins. I started my own jewelry making business at age 10.
LPB: What’s your success secret?
KQ: Perseverance and networking. A career is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s a hard lesson to learn for overachievers. And men are still much better at networking and self-promotion. More women believe their work will stand on its own. People still need reminding.
LPB: What’s your leadership style?
KQ: I have been told that I have a transformational and visionary leadership style. I try to motivate a team towards goals that are aspirational, yet achievable. And always towards a greater good. For example, if my team can create a better consumer experience for our members, we can literally transform healthcare in America. Very motivating!
LPB: What’s your biggest weakness as a leader?
KQ: I’m not a great manager. I have to force myself to do administrative duties that every good manager needs to do. I like to develop people. But I’m a better leader for people who are self-starters.
LPB: What’s your best advice for ambitious women?
KQ: It might sound clichéd – but be true to yourself. Make choices based on what’s really in your heart not what you think you should do. Whether it’s going for big a job and being promoted or something else. You’ll feel successful if you’re honest about what’s important to you.
LPB: What sustains you?
KQ: I have so much optimism. Every time you get knocked down, you lick your paws and get up again. Every day you reenergize and try again. If I feel I should have done better as a mom or a leader, then you know what? I have an opportunity to do it better tomorrow. My mom always says, “Up again old heart.”
LPB: What about Life/Work balance?
KQ: I am not a poster child for balance. I don’t spend time with girlfriends because every free moment I have I want to spend with my kids. You have any tips? I will take a spa day. Love that. I lose myself in the junkiest TV I can find. Any Real Housewives show. The Amazing Race. Celebrity Rehab. The junkier better. I will go to the trash bin. I don’t have brain cells left for high-brow activities. I love staycations. Please don’t make me travel on my time off.
LPB: What’s a goal you have yet to achieve?
KQ: Writing a best seller. I write fiction. My stories have been published under a pen name that I won’t reveal!
LPB: What do you like to read?
KQ: I read trashy books. I did like the mystery book Gone Girl. My favorite book of all time is Gone With the Wind. Best heroine ever. And we can all use a “tomorrow” philosophy sometimes.
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