Premera Blue Cross CEO: Jeff Roe


In this episode, we sit down with Jeff Roe, CEO of Premera Blue Cross.  Employing over 3,200 people, Premera Blue Cross is the largest health plan insurance provider in the Pacific Northwest, serving more than 2 million people.  

Jeff grew up in Bellevue, WA and had an early interest in politics growing up.  His curiosity and enjoyment of politics led him down a route of working in politics after graduating from the University of Washington.  He worked for a U.S. Senator based in Washington named Slade Gorton; his first job being his driver.  After working his way up and gaining more responsibility in Washington DC, he pivoted to the private sector when he got an offer to return to the Pacific Northwest and help run a public affairs consulting company.  One of their clients was Blue Cross and he eventually jumped into the insurance industry. For the past 24 years of his career, Jeff has been a key leader in the insurance industry.

Listen in to hear about how and why Jeff made career shifts from politics to public affairs to insurance.  Also gain insight to why role models can be so critical to your career development, and what advice Jeff has for those who aspire to climb the corporate ladder.

Podcast Transcript

Note:  There may be errors to this transcript (some funny, some confusing - we used an automated transcription software!)

Jeff Roe  00:01

One day, he just called me out of the blue and I thought, well, this is odd Slade's calling me. And he said, I just want you to know that I just heard a former Secretary of Defense talk about leadership,

Ash Faraj  00:11

inspiring career stories from today's top CEOs, executives, and leaders. I'm your host ash and you're tuning in to the ExecuTalks podcast. This podcast is sponsored by wisdom app. Wisdom gives people expert help when they need it most. Listen in real time and ask questions to experts in areas from business to finance to fitness. It's a social audio app where you can listen in or host live conversations. I'll be doing the wisdom talk on getting your career kick started and what I think is important for you to be successful in either starting a business or working your way up the corporate ladder. Join me tonight, Monday, January 17, at 8pm Pacific Standard Time on the wisdom app. In this episode, we sit down with Jeff Roe, CEO of Premera Blue Cross employing over 3200 people. Premera Blue Cross is the largest health plan insurance provider in the Pacific Northwest, serving more than 2 million people. Jeff grew up in Bellevue Washington and had an early interest in politics growing up, his curiosity and enjoyment of politics led him down a route of working in politics after graduating from the University of Washington. He worked for US Senator based in Washington named Slade Gorton, his first job being a driver after working his way up and gaining more responsibility in Washington DC. He pivoted to the private sector when he got an offer to return to the Pacific Northwest and help run a public affairs consulting company. One of their clients was Blue Cross, and he eventually jumped into the insurance industry and has been a key leader in the insurance industry for the last 24 years of his career. stick around until the end to hear about how and why Jeff made career shifts from politics, to public affairs, to insurance, why role models can be so critical to your career development, and what advice he has for those who aspire to climb the corporate ladder. We are joined today by Premera Blue Cross CEO Jeff Roe. Jeff, thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

Jeff Roe  02:02

Thank you, Ash, good to be with you.

Ash Faraj  02:04

The first question we all start off with is I'm going to senior high school classroom with you Jeff, who is Jeff relative to other kids?

Jeff Roe  02:10

Well, that's a great question. I was a pretty regular kid in high school, a solid student, I was an athlete, but not the superstar by any stretch. I was pretty active in tennis and cross country played basketball. I was a bit shy, but still social pretty friendly. My father was a Boeing engineer and executive. And he was an extremely hard worker, very intense guy who taught me a lot about just work ethic and giving it your best. My mom is Canadian, and has always had this amazing, Sunny outlook on life. And I learned a lot from her. So I think if you were sitting next to me, you'd say, oh, yeah, he's a nice guy. But I wouldn't say there was anything special or remarkable about me.

Ash Faraj  02:56

Nice. Yeah, I saw that your dad was awesome. As an engineer, I was like, my dad works, you know, works for Boeing as well. He's an engineer, been there for 30 years. So it's a coincidence. You double majored at the U DUB and went into politics, what made you decide to go down that route.

Jeff Roe  03:10

So I went to Samammish High School, then I went to the U DUB, and I got degrees in economics and political science and politics kind of throughout my youth, for some strange reason was always a huge interest. To this day, I love elections, like that's almost like a Super Bowl day for me. So national election in particular, I'm like, I'm just fascinated with the, with the map, with the polling with the candidates. I just find them really exciting. So I guess politics appealed to me, because there were leaders involved. And I've always really look to and learn from a lot of leaders, huge impact that policy has on people in the ability really, for leaders, through the political process, and through public policy, just generally, you know, can have such a massive impact on the quality of life for people and the prosperity in a region. I can remember when I was a kid, and I was maybe five or six years old, hearing about this initiative in Seattle, where I grew up, I grew up in the Puget Sound area. And it was for this initiative called forward thrust, which was to really move the whole region forward. It cleaned up Lake Washington, it ultimately created Metro, which is, you know, the transit system as well as form of government, frankly. And it also built the king dome, you know, so all these things at scale I was seeing happen when I was a relatively young guy. And I was just kind of blown away by that, for some reason that just left a real mark on me. And I just continued to pursue that I held some elected offices when I was in college and then interned in DC in 1987. And that clinched it for me. Oh, my God, man. I loved it. I wasn't working on Capitol Hill at that time. I was downtown working for a trade association, but I just loved the environment. So I said, I'm going back there. And then I graduated from college and got hooked up with a US Senate campaign for Slade Gorton, who was a Republican who represented the state of Washington for 18 years. And my first job with him was as his driver. So it was just me and him on the road together, day after day. I started this in about May of 1988. And the election, of course, is in November. And for about three or four of those months, it was just me and Slade on the road. Oftentimes, I'd sit in the meetings with him, he was very inclusive. He was a cerebral guy, but I learned so much just being around him. And then he became a really good friend in the process. So he offered me a job back in DC when he won the election in November, I went back as part of his staff. And it was just a phenomenal experience that changed my life. That's where I met my wife, she worked for a senator in the office next door. It's where I made lifelong friends.

Ash Faraj  06:01

That's beautiful. Yeah, one thing I you know, as an intern, you know, these days, I've talked to a lot of, you know, college students, and they say, well, they expect a lot out of a job. Like they want a lot of responsibility, and seems like, yeah, your job as a driver, like, you know, nobody like dreams to be a driver. What I mean, was that, did you go into that with the attention of like, okay, I know, I'm gonna be driver, but it's a good relationship building opportunity, or like, did you go in there with it with that mindset? Or was it just

Jeff Roe  06:23

well, a driver is on a campaign, probably one of the best jobs, actually. Because the alternative, when you're that low on the kind of a scale inside the organization, you might be doing things that are much more mundane, like stuffing envelopes, or something like that, at least back in 1988. You know, when it was still paper based? That's what we did. So I got to be on the front lines with this candidate. But to your, you know, kind of the theme of your question, it's like, I took a really long perspective on this, I was just happy to be a part of a campaign and I figured, alright, I have now taken the first step of my career. And I'm going to learn a lot. And I'm going to also get to do something that really interests me. So I didn't see it as just like this grunt job. In fact, when I went back to DC, you know, you'd like to think I'm going to do all this important policy work, I'm going to be writing speeches or drafting laws or something like that, for the first three, four months that I got back to DC. I worked in the mailroom, literally opening letters from constituents, and sort of triaging those to the staff. Very soon after that I got promoted into roles related to legislation, and did some really cool things. So it was just a great start for me. And Capitol Hill tends to be a pretty young place to a lot of younger people in significant roles. And there I was advising Slade, I worked on the Senate Intelligence Committee for a year I had top secret clearance. It was during the first Gulf War, I'm exposed to all this amazing intel from around the world. We wrote the 1990 farm bill when I worked for Slade and I was just staffer on the Agriculture Committee. There's some irony in that because I'm a kid from Bellevue. There isn't a lot of farming done in Bellevue, especially today, but there wasn't then either. And here I am representing a constituency of Slades, the farming community, that helped bring him back to office in 1988. So I just got to do some really significant things at an early point in my career, that gave me not only some exposure to new issues, new ways of thinking, it just elevated my perspective, and maybe in the process my confidence too

Ash Faraj  08:39

that's beautiful. Do you um, so I imagine that at this time in your career, at this point, you want to get into politics, right? Like maybe your goal is I want to be in the Senate or you know, but then you go back and get your MBA, what was the transition point or like, when did you realize that you maybe you didn't want to go into into politics?

Jeff Roe  08:55

Yeah. So sort of out of the blue, I got a call from a consulting firm back in Seattle. And I had no intentions of leaving Capitol Hill. At that point. I loved working for Slade, I loved living back there. I was engaged to be married. My wife's from Connecticut, not from the northwest. So she was more than convinced to stay on the East Coast. And I get this opportunity to move west and join this consulting firm that had been started by some very senior political policy types including Slade's former chief of staff, his legislative director, and etc. It was this regional firm, really impressive people small and here, they asked me this young guy to join I was 27. At the time, I took the job though, with every intention of going back to DC. I'm like, I've just taken a little detour here to get some experience off Capitol Hill, in the private sector, and then I'm going to transit transition back to the public sector. Well, when I got off the hill, I realized that my mindset was maybe better aligned with what I saw happening in the private sector than it was in the public sector. And by that, I mean, I'm a very results oriented person, like, I need a goal. And once I have a goal, I'm just like dog. And in pursuit of it, what I found was DC was actually much more a process oriented place didn't always get a lot done. I mean, look at the number of bills that come out of Congress today. It's not exceptional. It was higher back then than it is today. And I actually found that in many cases, the objective of being in DC was to stay in DC, for members of Congress to return to DC. So the outcome they saw it was actually reelection, less so than it was policy and progress. Yeah. So I said, Okay, I'm more about results than I am process. I like the private sector. So I decided, in spite of getting two opportunities to go back to DC, I decided I'm going to stay where I am. And then my decision to go to grad school was that I wanted to transition from more staff function, which communications can be within an organization to one that is much more central to the business, as my father in law said, he's he was a CEO of fortune 200 company. He said, I think you're gonna want to make the news not report the news. And so I said, Okay, well, what do I need in order to do that, and an MBA, just greater understanding of business and organizations, especially key functions, like finance, or marketing, or even strategy, to some extent, I thought was necessary for me to participate in discussions that were central to a business. So that then led me to go to business school.

Ash Faraj  11:42

Okay. And just a quick side question. So, obviously, today's day and age is different than when you would when you went and got an MBA, but how should somebody make a decision to decide whether or not to go get an MBA or not today, do you think?

Jeff Roe  11:53

Well, I think they need to consider how ready they are to contribute in a business setting. And to the extent they want to advance in their careers, they need to have perspective. And I found that an MBA just gave me tools to at least engage in the discussions to ask the right questions by having a basic understanding of what might be discussed, for instance, financial statements, they're obviously central to any business income statement, cash flow balance sheet. Well, I didn't have any understanding of that, having come from government, but once I got my MBA, I had a working knowledge of it. And I've utilized that even today. So the lesson, or at least the decision criteria, I would offer people considering whether to go to grad school or not is do you believe you have the knowledge, the basic tools to actually lead a business or to contribute to a business in a really meaningful way? And if you don't, then I would say that grad schools are a great way to gain some of that perspective.

Ash Faraj  12:56

So how did you get into the insurance industry? Well, how do you pivot from, you know, pos PR firm to insurance?

Jeff Roe  13:02

Yeah, it was public affairs consulting. And one of the clients, the firm had was company named Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska, the predecessor of what is now Premera, Blue Cross. And it was needing some counsel on challenging public policy related issues it was facing in the mid 90s. And so it hired the firm for some support, and some expertise. And I was alongside a partner at the firm, one of the key people who worked on that, after about four months of working with the CEO of Premera. She offered me a job. I'll never forget, when we had that meeting, she actually posed the question in front of the partner like we like Jeff, can we have Jeff, Jeff, would you like to come to Premera and her name is Betty woods, and she was the CEO two ago, from me and remains to this day, a great friend of mine. And I said, Yeah, I would love to do that. And the reasons I wanted to do that, go back to the reasons I went to graduate school, I was transitioning from this staff function to a core business function or wanting to make that transition. And I needed an organization that was small enough, yet large enough, small enough to see me yet large enough to offer a lot of opportunity for me to make that transition. And Premera was perfect. In that sense. I came in in a communications capacity. I was the Vice President of Communications. This was 1996 over time, kind of moved into larger roles that were a part of running parts of the business. And so it enabled me to fulfill that transition from communications to General Management, frankly. And that's how I got into insurance. It was not a specific I want to be in that industry, it was more about the place I was in my career.

Ash Faraj  15:11

So a lot of our listeners are, you know, like in their mid 20s. And the common question we get is what's important for those kind of like seeking to climb the corporate ladder, or like, you know, get more responsibility? what's some advice that you would give to people that are looking to do that?

Jeff Roe  15:26

Yeah, that's a really good question. And one that I've given a lot of thought to that topic that involves, you know, climbing the corporate ladder is becoming more and more of a leader through the organization at scale at function, something like that. And therefore, I think those that are wanting to climb the corporate ladder, need to think about the kind of leader they are, and what leadership actually means. What I realized is that leadership is not about you. And it's surprising, it might surprise you or others that here that that I would say that. But when you're an individual contributor, for the early part of your career, you're generally in roles where you are a part of a team, and not necessarily the leader of a team. So you're kind of focused on what you do less so focused on what the whole does. And when I became a general manager at Premera, I suddenly went from leading a department where I could do basically every role in that department. It was over marketing, to leading a business, a sales team, where I couldn't do all those jobs. I mean, we had quite a few salespeople, I couldn't be in all the meetings they were having every day. And I realized, Oh, here's a pivot, in my mind, and in my role, whereas I used to do now I enable that switch from thinking about how I moved forward to actually leading which was how I take other people forward, and how I enabled them to get better. One of my favorite quotes comes from Abraham Lincoln, on that very subject. Lincoln was, you know, in the midst of the Civil War, he had walked from the White House back in those days he could to general McClellan's house, and McClellan was running the Union army at the time. And the war wasn't going especially well for the North. And Lincoln went with his two secretaries to speak with McClellan. McClellan wasn't there when he got home. And Lincoln said, All Wait, he was at McClellan was at a wedding, I think, anyways, he comes in sometime later, and is drunk, and basically looks at the president and walks right past him, heads upstairs and goes to bed. I mean, totally disrespects Lincoln, aren't you going to do something about that? I mean, you're the president, he works for you. And Lincoln said, Look, I'd hold his horse, if it would win the war. This is not about me. This is about something far bigger than me. And he's just a part of getting us to the objective we see, which is the whole the union. And that has stuck with me forever. So one of the things I say to those seeking to climb the corporate ladder is, it's not about you, it's about others. It's about a purpose, much bigger than you. And then I'd say, as a leader, you have a few really key functions. And to the extent you can develop these in yourself, you'll be more successful as a leader. And Satya Nadella talks about this, too, from Microsoft and the role of a leader, he kind of crystallized it into three different functions, which I subscribe to as well. And one is you got to create clarity, as a leader, you got to generate energy as a leader, and you got to get results. The way you do that is not just by doing by your work, but by creating the environment, the organization, the structure, the vision for others to fulfill that for you.

Ash Faraj  19:15

Yeah, I love that. By the way, there's another story of my favorite story of Abraham Lincoln. I don't know if you know, I think it was some point during the Civil War as well, where he commanded. I think it was General Meade, I believe he commanded them to attack because it was a great opportunity for them to attack, you know, the South, and he didn't attack and, you know, because I think it was so upset and he like, wrote this letter, like, really, like, just he was so angry, but then he never sent to his phone in his desk late and I was like, wow, how, you know how, you know, to have that kind of discipline. It's just crazy.

Jeff Roe  19:45

I know that story, and I think it was his wife who actually yeah, who said give me the letter. I'll take care of it then never send it.

Ash Faraj  19:53

Yeah. Oh, that's okay. That's it. It was okay. Yeah. Okay, so So what is in what does an average week look like for you? How do you split your time? Because time management is very important, obviously,

Jeff Roe  20:03

yeah, it's so crucial. It's the most precious commodity I have. Maybe you are aware, you know that of the figure 86,400. That's how many seconds there are in a day, and you never get them back. So how you allocate those is just so essential. And kind of the mindset that you have in allocating those is really important to most of my time, is dedicated to two areas of the organization. One of those is strategy, you got to have the right plan, and the other is culture. So I spend most of my day in those two places, how I pursue those two things is extremely varied, not just sitting at my desk thinking about those things. For instance, if I'm working on culture, I'm thinking about the macro culture at Premera. Are we being transparent? Are we being inclusive? Are we empowering people? And what are the systems or processes or structure that are actually enabling people to be successful in their roles, on working on culture to it might be working with the leadership team, in terms of how we're leading how we're showing, as leaders, we just this morning had an all employee meeting, we do that once a month, and all employees participate in that. And the reason we do that is I want to bring them into this conversation, I want to hear from them. And I want to be sure that they're understanding what we're trying to do. So I'm generally around others. I don't get a lot of free time to myself. But I do try to carve out time to think as well, and to just study and reflect. But a lot of that is done with others. And in meetings. I do spend time with customers. They're important part of what we do the most important part of what we do obviously is serving them, I will engage with customers that's less of a typical daily part of my work, but it does happen frequently.

Ash Faraj  22:03

You're spending time with me, I'm a customer.

Jeff Roe  22:05

Well, thank you. I have a happy one.

Ash Faraj  22:07

One thing that I I'm really curious to hear is obviously you know, Slade had a big impact on you. Can you maybe tell us what you took from them or like what you learned from them in short,

Jeff Roe  22:17

role models are really important in life. When I think of role models, and those who've taught me things I first go to my father in law. I mentioned him earlier, he was the CEO of a big fortune 200 company operated in 48 states or 48 countries 25,000 employees, he was the most humble man I ever knew. In spite of the role he held the boards on which he served major boards, Delta Airlines, Sunoco, Bank of America, etc. And my father in law had come from Panama City, Florida, he treated everybody exactly the same, and was humble in his engagement. And he left such an imprint on me he still does to this day. He's 92. Slade, of course, impacted me in so many ways his integrity and service, Mike McGavock, who was Slade's Chief of Staff and then the Safeco CEO and other things. So those are the folks that I look to

Ash Faraj  23:18

must have been I know Slade passed away a year ago. That must have been a hard moment for you.

Jeff Roe  23:22

It was a very difficult time. I stayed connected to Slade right up until his death. He ran a center near the University of Washington that mostly dealt with international affairs, but also was a place for developing new leaders in public policy, generally, graduate students at the U DUB or other schools around that region. And every year I would go back and I would talk about leadership. And that was it Slade's invitation. It was years later, and even with lots of growth on my part, still an intimidating audience because he's such a was such a remarkable man. So yeah, it hit me hard when he passed away.

Ash Faraj  24:18

Something I look for when I decide to partner with someone or hire someone is

Jeff Roe  24:22

will they do as they say,

Ash Faraj  24:23

the most important quality in a leader is

Jeff Roe  24:26


Ash Faraj  24:26

Something that has helped me get past my fears and insecurities have been

Jeff Roe  24:30

awareness. I meditate daily. So I get a good sense of who I am, what drives me what my mental model might be, and just allows me to be present with where I am as opposed to chasing things in the past or the future.

Ash Faraj  24:46

Something that I've personally struggled with as a leader has been

Jeff Roe  24:49

intensity. I mentioned earlier that my dad was a very intense person. I inherited that and sometimes I need to just allow myself to get into that. zone and go with the flow as opposed to just be so kind of bound up about things.

Ash Faraj  25:04

Something I do to make sure I feel positive and stay productive is

Jeff Roe  25:08

exercise every day.

Ash Faraj  25:10

If I were to go back and talk to my younger self in my mid 20s, I would tell myself

Jeff Roe  25:14

have perspective, life will, will have lots of ups and downs that are never as great as they are perceived in the moment.

Ash Faraj  25:22

One setback or failure in my early 20s, that I will never forget is

Jeff Roe  25:26

failing to be as forthcoming about something as I should have been. It was an immaterial issue. It wasn't even related to work, but it left the wrong impression. And still, 30 years later, I regret it.

Ash Faraj  25:40

The sweetest moment I've felt in my entire career was when

Jeff Roe  25:44

Well, there are two that I would say one being named the CEO of Premera was pretty remarkable, just a huge privilege. I can still remember where I was when I got the news and how I reacted when I was finally find myself. The other is around Slade Gorton on leadership. As I said, I spoke at his center every year prior to his death. And one day, he just called me out of the blue and I thought, well, this is odd Slade's calling me and he said, I just want you to know that I just heard a former Secretary of Defense talk about leadership, and your presentation was better than his. And I thought, Wow, that's pretty high praise.

Ash Faraj  26:24

Wow, that was a sweet moment. If I could be remembered for just one thing, it would be

Jeff Roe  26:29


Ash Faraj  26:30

If I were stranded on an island had access to one meal, it would be

Jeff Roe  26:33

a cheeseburger with a hot fudge sundae.

Ash Faraj  26:36

Thank you for tuning in to this episode. Tune in next time to get another dose of inspiring career stories from today's top CEOs, executives and leaders. See you soon.

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