Culture Change Through Empowerment: Q&A with UnitedHealth Group

October 9, 2018 Sarah Mulcahy

UnitedHealth Group

Who owns company culture? Is HR the culture keeper or is it a company’s CEO? And how do the most successful companies go about culture change?

UnitedHealth Group’s cultural ambassador program – which started with just three people in 2009 – has grown to more than 18,000 employees. It’s the perfect example of how empowerment can drive true culture change. This is no small feat for the largest healthcare company in the world, with 285,000 employees.

Last month we invited four members of UHG’s team – Dave Sparkman, Adam Cohen, Anne Marie Gavel, and Adam Hjerpe – to present a webinar on how the program has evolved and how they’ve kept employees passionate and engaged these past nine years.

To view the full webinar, click here.

Below the UHG team answers questions from the audience on how to fund such a program and how a company of any size can get started.


How do you keep people inspired throughout the organization? What advice can you share for creating a communications strategy around a cultural ambassador program?

Dave Sparkman: It all started with a phone call and a meeting of 10 people and it just continues to evolve. We still have monthly calls, and we also have a weekly communication from the culture office that highlights happenings in our business or an article that can bring us back to one of our five values. A recent example is we won some work in our community and state business and the team attributed the win to living out our values and principles. In fact, the closing question from the state representative to our sales team was, “How will you make a difference with us as a customer?” Their response was anchored around the five values. We feel like we’re getting that inspiration out when we share what other ambassadors are doing. It comes back to simply sharing what is happening to help other people see empowered people taking action.

Adam Cohen: This is a completely voluntary effort. There are perhaps 5 or 6 people out of 285,000 employees who would say culture is their day job. Everyone else, we make it part of our day job, but it is really something that we do in addition to our jobs. One of the things that we recognized early on when it came to communications was that there were certain things we could operationalize and implement, but when we let forth all the creative resources that are out there – someone created a blog; other people put together an editorial team to release a newsletter; people created materials to take their own team through it and then they shared those on SharePoint. It is amazing the amount of content that has been created that we would not have been able to do even with a team of 100 people. We have a team of more than 18,000 people who are doing this and we are giving them the permission and support they need to make it happen.

What advice do you have for other companies looking to fund a program like UHG’s ambassador program?

Adam Hjerpe: Get started. Start small, think big, move fast. We got started just by getting people together and then it was an open invitation. If you want to come, please come. From a funding perspective, we’ve kept it pretty straightforward. It actually comes from the CEO and we carve out a little bit of a budget. We have a small team – Dave Sparkman and his team – that is funded as a budget. Imagine having half a dozen people in an organization of more than 285,000 – that’s a very small percentage. But it is a core nucleus that really keeps us going. They create enough of the basic infrastructure and then they let everyone else volunteer and contribute. We fund an annual ambassador summit and we have a culture budget that is tied in with our finance team. But in comparison to percentage of revenue, it is very small.

Dave Sparkman: If I were at another company – say 1,000 people – and we were trying to get something started around culture, I would anchor off three things. One is, there has to be a belief system around something. In our case, we said it was our mission and our values. There’s a book called, “Winning teams, Winning Cultures” that might be useful in helping establish that belief system. Number two is I would establish a common language. We achieved that through our ambassadors. Number three is I would try to get some type of learning and development opportunity available around your values so people can be on the same playing field. Try to find those 10 likeminded people in your company. I did this on the side of my desk for two years before I did it full-time.

How do you measure engagement and culture? What goal do you have for culture this year?

Dave Sparkman: We prefer to measure culture through our normal business objectives. It’s nearly impossible to prove the ROI on change management. But I can show you train wreck after train wreck of a change that did not work well. All organizations have cultures and we get to choose every day whether we are going to try to change it one person and one day at a time. Our net promoter score (NPS) represents the essence of whether we are going to accomplish that or not. If our external partners – the patients, the providers that we work with, other health plans – if they don’t feel this, then to me it’s not going to be the payoff that we were looking for.

Anne Marie Gavel: We have a cadence of employee surveys and there are questions in there about the cultural transformation. And even more importantly, employees’ performance is measured on our values. So when a manager is doing an annual review or even a daily review, it is centered around our values. How are you showing up with integrity, compassion, relationships, innovation, and performance? It’s not all about your performance, it’s about how you show up at work. We’ve shifted how we hire, retain, and measure performance.


For more information on UHG’s cultural ambassador program, click here.

About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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