Ep. 105: Dave Sparkman on Why You NEED A Values Lens To Align Your Culture
In this episode, we feature an exclusive clip from the 2022 Trusted Leader Summit where David welcomed to the stage Dave Sparkman, Former SVP of Culture at UnitedHealth Group, Founder of Spark Your Culture, and Executive Director for Crossroads Career, to discuss why you NEED a values lens to align your culture.
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Dave Sparkman is the former SVP, Culture at UnitedHealth Group, a Fortune 5 company. Over 9 years, he led efforts to infuse an over 300,000 person organization with a corporate mission and values that would improve corporate results.
Currently Dave serves as the Executive Director for Crossroads Career, a national non-profit career transition ministry. He’s also the founder of SPARK Your Culture, an advisory firm specializing in helping organizations transform and flourish through healthy, high performance cultures.
1. “Core values are the underpinning of everything.”
2. “When you hear things, they don’t always mean what you think they mean.”
3. “Culture is the character of the organization.”
4. “Ultimately, it comes down to results.”
Links Mentioned In The Episode:
2023 Trusted Leader Summit: http://trustedleadersummit.com/
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David Horsager (Intro):
Welcome to the Trusted Leader Show. I’m your host, David Horsager. Join me as I sit down with influential leaders from around the world to discuss why leaders and organizations fail top tactics for high performance, and how you can become an even more trusted leader.
Welcome to The Trusted Leader Show. I’m Kent Svenson, producer of The Trusted Leader Show. And for this week’s episode, we feature an exclusive clip from the 2022 Trusted Leader Summit where David, Welcome to the stage, Dave Sparkman, former SVP of Culture at United Health Group, founder of Spark Your Culture, and Executive Director for Crossroads Career, to discuss why you need a values lens to align your culture. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
We can all agree in this room that trust is very important. Culture’s very important, but how many of you have a boss or a colleague who, in my words, I just say that they don’t get it, they just don’t get it? Anybody work with people like that? None of you? Oh, I worked with a lot of people like that at United Health Group. They would say, Oh, I believe in the core values, but then their actions didn’t line up with their words. Right? And I’m sure all of you have had that situation. So the question is, how do you shift the thinking? How, how, how? See a theme here, I can see the results aren’t what they we want them to be. I can maybe even identify the behaviors that need to change, but unless I get in and help that person change their thinking, And guess what?
Preaching item doesn’t work, folks. They have to arrive at that themselves. They have to have an insight that will enable them to say, You know, that makes a lot of sense for me to want to change. So we’re gonna get into another exercise that I think going into how, how, how, how do you shift thinking? It’s just one illustration that I’m hopeful that you can use in your organization or in your own lives, your own family, to get some different results. So in a moment, I’m gonna show you a collage of images on the screen. I’ll move you over to hear the side so everyone can see. I’m not gonna leave this image on the screen very long, so you need to look as quickly as you can. And I’m gonna ask you what you saw. Are you already, All right, here we go. Okay. What was Steve, What was one thing you saw on the screen? A bird. A, a dove. How many of you saw the dove? Okay. Not, not that many. All right. What was something else? What was something you saw? Sunflower. A sunflower. How many of you saw a sunflower? Okay, a a few more. All right. Or what was something you saw?
Raspberry ice cream.
Specifically raspberry ice cream. How many of you saw raspberry ice cream? How many of you think lori’s lying? Never know with these, these games we play. All right, So if we took the time to go to every single person, what are the odds that at least one of you saw every single image on the screen and could tell me what all those images were? Zero. Virtually none. All right. Why?
Because there’s a lot of images on there, and you all have a variety of perspectives. Some of you started on the left, some of you started on the right, y’all started in different places. Nothing wrong or right, Not being judgemental, there’s just probably no way. But what if we did this? If we had the time and we started with Steve and, and we started with the dove, we went to raspberry ice cream, we put the sun, we started listing what each table saw. Do you think we could probably accumulate to all of the images on the screen? The probability goes way up. When we tap into the wisdom of the team, when we can really gather all of the perspectives that are out there and start to look at it logically and emotionally, Jerry, right? We wanna get those together. We may be able to see something and have an insight that we didn’t see. Now we’re gonna do the exact same exercise for about the same amount of time. So be ready this time. I want you to look for something yellow right now. What did you see? How many you saw the sunflower? You already had a hint that the sunflower was coming. Okay, what’s another? Same with a
Lemon. A lemon. How many of you saw the lemon again, if we took the time we could, The probability goes way up that somebody may have seen all of the yellow items on the screen. Is that fair? How much time if would it take if we went around the room before we could accumulate all those images from the team?
Long. Not long speed goes way up. We may have had to exhaust the audience before, but in this, there’s only six or seven on the screen. Wouldn’t take that long, right? So speed goes way up. Now the question is, why did you see something different? Oh, here’s the question. Why? How many of you did see something different the second time than the first time? Okay. And why do you think that is?
Clarity, thank you. The first C, clarity, I gave you a hint. I gave you specific instructions on what to look for in your brain. We learned a little bit about the brain yesterday. I I don’t even know all those words about reticular or this and that, but it snaps into gear. And you saw yellow. So what would happen if we took this very simple example and we start getting it to be practical in real time? So within United Health Group, over 300,000 people, billions in revenue, , 325,000 employees, how do you get them aligned? It’s not as simple as what David did yesterday with the ass, or this morning with the, the flip chart. That’s very difficult because every one of those business, those teams, those departments, every one of those business units, every one of the states, even though they’re all serving a Medicaid, they can still get very fractured very quickly. So how do you get them aligned? Well, you give them a common filter. You ask them to look at the world in the common way, much like Bobby talked about the three values. And we did that for United Health Group. So we applied a values lens, and I understand the, a lot of this writing is very, very small in the screen, but this is the actual result of what one large team put together to be the values lens, the filter by which they wanted to look at their project.
This project had failed twice before hundreds of millions of dollars. wasted when, when United Health Group makes a mistake. It’s not a small number, it’s a big number. And this was the third time we had just started our culture journey. And our CEO said, I want to make sure that we embed culture, our values everywhere. And so that particular team came up with this as their values lens. They said, We wanna ask the questions. So as we go forward with a deliverable, does doesn’t meet this? Does it pass through the filters? Have we walked in the shoes of the people that we’re trying to serve? And a couple times they came to, as they were developing their solutions, they had to come to the answer of, No, we’re not. Go back to the drawing board. Keep coming after it. This was their yellow, right?
Every one of your organizations has the opportunity to put filters on around your core values, around your principles, around your mission. This gets into how you can do things. When you think about those big hairy problems, potentially of societal trust, well, how do we shift people’s thinking? Well, it’s very difficult. We can’t go do an arm wrestle exercise with a bunch of people to try to snap them into thinking in a different way. We have to, but we can offer suggestions and filters and ask questions in a kind non-judgmental way. So this, we call it our values lens exercise. Well, how, how could that potentially, and how does it apply to trust? Well, what would happen if on everything we did, we used the filter of the eight pillars. When we look at where something is going forward, Well, is it clear or is it ambiguous?
Will they put faith in us when they care beyond ourselves? The gentleman who gave the, who accepted the award, I think right over here on the City of Republic I, I would bet that as you started talking through these things, it wasn’t like everybody said, Oh yeah, that’s, that’s the way it goes, , or they would’ve thought of that before. But like many things in life, it’s simple. It’s not easy. This is not rocket science. And I believe that’s why many leaders fail at trust and at culture looks simple. Just live the values, but then pressure starts. Results have to be achieved. When you’re a Fortune five company, quarterly earnings have to be met. And all of a sudden that pressure starts and people start ex, you know, demonstrating behaviors that aren’t what they would be proud to tell their mom at home.
And, but they don’t have to report to their mom at home. And so they do it anyway because they don’t have a lens to start to look at this in the mirror. So if all of us who are grounded in the eight pillars, we can start using this as filters. And again, I would suggest you do it in the form of questions. You don’t come up and, you know, we could all go back to the trust Edge Leadership Institute booth, and we get a little poster and we shove it in people’s face saying, Oh, you need to live the no. But if you can ask the questions, if you engage with people and you start to get after this, things start to work. We heard this morning with Cassandra on competency people who stay fresh. And she had in one of her elements thought that was very clever, by the way, how she did that. How are we staying fresh? How do you still get rejuvenated? What fuel is coming in to make sure that you’re getting fresh output? So the values lens, the eight pillar lens, I would suggest is a very practical way for us to start to go after problems with trust in my marriage, my kids, my community, even the big hairy ones that we talked about at the start.
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So how does trust line up with core values? I would suggest that they’re synonymous with core values. Some organizations have trust as a core value. If I went through and took the time to tell you more about each one of the United Health Group core values, the five of them trust is in every single one of ’em. And when you look at the overview of all of the core Vari values, an integrated look at core values, they’re the underpinning of everything. Otherwise, why would you say them? Right? So when I look at life outside of United Health Group, which is now for me, and I look at any organizational set of values, I look at the trust edge tools as being a key element to helping unlock people to live those out. Now, within Spark, your culture, the s stands for specifically, specifically define throughout my time at United Health Group, even though we had thought we had defined culture, we still got the question all the time. What do you, what exactly do you mean? What, what, what does this word mean or that word mean? And so I of course, referred to popular culture to get my answer. This year, as I understand it, is the 30th anniversary of the Epic film, The Princess Bride. How many of you have seen the Princess Bride?
And I heard this illustration made, and I thought, Boy, this is, this is it. There’s a character named Vizzini early on in the, in the, in the movie. And Vizzini keeps using the word inconceivable act actually at the stupidest places. So someone trips and falls and he goes, inconceivable that that person fell. And Indigo Montoya, who’s another character, goes, That’s word you keep using. I do not think it means what you think it means, . Well, that’s what happens with words like culture or words like trust. It will happen with all of your core value words. And until you take the time to get in and specifically define it, you’re just gonna be talking around themselves. We did an exercise, We, we don’t have the time to go through it now. If you want to have a little fun with your team, ask them what the word bear means.
And you’ll talk about animals, you’ll talk about the cupboards, you’ll talk bear naked, you’ll talk about all sorts of things. What they never really get is the word bear aspirin or bear paint, still the word bear. So when you hear things, they don’t always mean what you think they mean. So we wanna specifically define it. So we, we developed at United Health Group, this taxonomy, and our ceo, his fingerprints are all over it. He said, Culture to me, it’s the character of the organization. It’s not for Now, some people like to think that as the spirit of the organization, the ethos, the personality, none of those are bad definitions, but he chose that definition. I love the definition of culture that Ramon brought out yesterday. We didn’t choose that definition. Choose whatever you want, but define it. And we said, we’re gonna define character by our mission and values, and we’re gonna define that even further to get into what we be, what we believe, what we value, and how we will behave.
So if you saw our original document, it’s not just the word integrity with a little tagline and okay, let’s go home. Our, our CEO said, If our founding fathers had had PowerPoint, the Constitution would still not be a pithy PowerPoint. You have to write out what you mean. And yet, for as strong as that document is, think how many documents have actually lived over 200 years. It’s still, we still all have different opinions of the constitution. So we’ve got discern that principles, We had principles introduced to us like being here now, being fully president. We talked about accountability. We talk about energy, we talk about recognition and appreciation. All of those things help us live out our values. And then we talked about, of course, being a healthcare company, protocols, all clinicians understand protocols. And so we used our language to talk about, if I want better energy when I’m on a phone call, I’m going to stand up.
Physiologically speaking, I have better energy when I’m standing up than when I’m sitting down. And we didn’t develop this library of terms or ideas. It, it certainly didn’t come from memos from Dave sitting at corporate. It developed over time and we took a lot of people’s input along the way and we kept changing it along the way. But we developed this taxonomy, I call it, well, you could very easily, assuming you subscribed to my assertion that trust and culture are pretty much one and the same. Embedded, integrated together. You put in trust, you put in the pillars. You could have a taxonomy leaving here today to start with, and then you could tailor it however you want, right? To get it going.
So ultimately it comes down to results. United Health Group is not a patient company. United Health Group being a public company, expected results. And we had the public scrutiny up for those results. So when we first started this journey back in late 2009, someone asked the question of our ceo, Steve Hemsley, Well, what do you expect the key performance indicators, the KPIs to be for culture? And he said, I don’t want any specific KPI for just culture. I expect, you know, all those targets I gave you last year goose some up 25%. Those are the targets you have to hit. I just expect better results. I, I expect in earnings per share, I expect it in revenue. I inspect it, I expect it in our net promoter score. I expect it in employee engagement. And if those don’t go up, that’s how we’re gonna know.
And the litmus test of how we’ll really know whether culture is working is when I start to hear it from our customers. And it’s unsolicited. Within two years, he was hearing that and he came back and said, I want to go farther faster. And that’s when it became my full-time job. Up to that point, he was on the side of my desk and Steve, he goes, Dave, what are we gonna do to go far farther faster? And I said, You know, I have no idea. And he said, Well, you’re the full-time guy now. Figure it out. Thanks Steve. Fun conversation the way he goes. But the results are what tells the tale and those results, much like this gentleman mentioned earlier, Take some courage. And this story is about a woman named Vivian, and she is in our Medicare space. Medicare serves the older population within our country.
And she had 3000 consumer advocates, customer service representatives on the phones every day. And Vivian applied exactly what I’ve talked about today. Now, she didn’t come to me and say, Dave, help me figure this out. That actually rarely happened at United. But she was clear. She, she believed in what she had learned about the fil about the results cone, she believed about the values lens. And she said, I’m gonna try to apply the values lens, and specifically I’m gonna apply the values lens of compassion to all of my consumer advocates for the month of February. Compassion Valentine’s Day. Okay, Yeah, she said that in the month of February, I want you to do five things, consumer advocates. And one of those five things was, I want you to hand write thank you cards to five members that you speak to sometime during the month of February.
We’re not going to give you a script, we’re not gonna tell you what to say. We will give you pens and paper and stamps. I will clear out all of the obstacles of legal, hr, communications, marketing, who are all worried about what you might say and how you might say it wrong to some member. Cleared out all those obstacles in a way they went. Now I found out about this a couple months after it had happened. So I said, Well, Vivian, this is, this is amazing. We gotta have lunch. We talked about it and I said, Well, how did it go? She said, And this was like July. She said, Dave, you’ll you’ll never believe what happened. I thought it would be like twisting arms. And we’d have to really beat up on the consumer advocates to get ’em to do this new task. Cuz any of you that are associated with call centers recognize that is not good for your KPIs within a call center.
You’ve gotta pay all those people to be off the phones, not talking to a member while they write a thank you note. And some of them agonize, you know, like, it’s like when you interview, you remember when you’re young, you have to write a note to your grandmother for a gift. You know, you agonize. And how do I say thanks for the five bucks and keep it coming? You know, I mean, , I, I bought a book with the five, whatever it was. So we, this took some risk, took some courage on, on Vivian’s part, but she, she said, Dave, you, he won’t believe it. The results are, here we are in July. So through June we have six, we’ve written 60,000 thank you notes to members all across the United States. I’m like, Wow, that’s incredible. What else happened? She goes, Well, it’s been so successful that we’ve incorporated this.
And other departments now with their call centers are starting to do the same thing. Wow. She said, And Dave, what’s even more amazing, these members, they’re writing thank you notes back for our thank you notes. In fact, some of these members are sending fruit baskets to the call centers, and she gave me one of the thank you notes. So here’s one of the thank you notes. Dear Jerry, Thank you so much for the thoughtful card you sent me after our recent conversation about my health incident. I’ve never received a thank you note from someone at a company before, let alone a handwritten one. You were so helpful to me when we spoke. I felt so much better and confident about next steps after we finished. I hope you have a great day today. Love Marge . Wow. So you think about how do we measure results?
Not only do the KPIs still get met, there was clear demonstration through the values lens of compassion. The process got changed and all of United Health Group c call centers started doing different things. And if you think about a call center, the calls coming in are not someone calling to tell you, you’re doing a great job. And when you’re in the position of these consumer advocates, the people calling are confused, hurt, scared, Ill, maybe they just had a loss of a loved one and they’re trying to figure out stuff. And insurance companies aren’t exactly known for their clarity on some of these things. It’s, those are difficult conversations. And now the member is writing a thank you note back. Okay, take some courage. As the gentleman mentioned earlier, it takes hard work. So we have the opportunity as trusted leaders to incorporate a lot of the things that we’ve heard over the last couple days or not many conferences.
I’ve been to a lot of conferences in my career. I’ve heard a lot of great speakers in my career. I take notes, I try to follow up. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. And the question here for all of us is what are we gonna do with it? It may be somebody, something that you were inspired from when you heard the award presentation. It could be what you heard from Jerry and talking about because what’s your, because could be Cassandra, it could be any of the speakers, could be any of the discussions, but ultimately it’s gonna come down to what are we willing to do.
I’m no longer with a company that has 325,000 people. I’m kind of on my own. And I, I got some advice as I was running this nonprofit and starting to do a little bit of work on my own from a consultant’s friend. And he said, Dave, you really need to figure out just, you gotta figure out two things, just two things. What do you want and what are you willing to do to get it? Just two things. And I think that’s true for all of us today as trusted leaders, those big hairy issues we talked about, they’re gonna be there tomorrow and the next day unless somebody starts to take a step to do something with ’em. And we won’t solve it all once. But if we can make progress every day with our families, our teams, our departments, our organizations, our starting with ourselves, we do have a chance.
That’s it for this week’s episode. Be sure to check out trustedleadershow.com for the show notes and links and information from anything mentioned in today’s episode. And we are so excited to have the Trusted Leaders Summit coming back next year, November 7-9, 2023 at the JW Marriott Mall of America here in Minnesota. To find out more information and to register head to trusted leaders summit.com. And if you haven’t already, we would greatly appreciate if you would subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcast so that you never miss an episode. But in the meantime, that’s it for this week’s episode. Thank you so much for listening. And until next time, stay trusted.