Some people know from a young age that they want a career in healthcare. For others, the path isn’t so direct. That was the case for Kristin Meadows, Premera’s Vice President and General Manager of Individual Markets and President and CEO of LifeWise Health Plan of Washington.
“Healthcare found me,” says Meadows, explaining that the first part of her career was at AT&T Wireless. “I joined AT&T in the early days of wireless. It was exciting! The industry was growing fast and there were a lot of opportunities to take on management roles, which I loved. Plus, I had access to a free cell phone!”
After her second child was born, however, Meadows found that her job at AT&T didn’t fit as well for her as a working mom. “My job involved travel,” she explains, “and I wasn’t at a place in my life where I wanted to do that.”
That’s when healthcare entered the picture. Meadows was recruited for a customer service manager role at Premera. “Premera was a better fit for me and my family at that time,” she says. “I was in that stage of life where I was trying to do everything at work but still take care of my baby daughter. Premera’s flexibility allowed me to prioritize my family while still being committed to my work.”
In many ways, Premera was a perfect fit. Yet Meadows’ first year was still difficult. “AT&T was all I had ever known,” she says. “Premera was a different culture. I had trouble finding myself and my voice in a new organization. It generated a lot of self-doubt.”
It wasn’t until Premera began applying lean thinking and practice to its work that Meadows began to rediscover her confidence in a new workplace.
“When Premera introduced lean, it reignited my comfort level with asking questions and solving problems in a way where you’re not the expert. It’s about continuous improvement, adapting and pursuing things with curiosity,” she explains.
Those qualities—curiosity, adaptability and capacity for continuous improvement—have played a major role in helping Meadows overcome challenges throughout her career and led her to become the leader she is today.
We sat down with Meadows to talk about her career path and her role at Premera, to learn more the individual market, and explore the ins and outs of being a woman in leadership. Here’s what she shared with us:
Q: Please tell us about your role at Premera.
A: I have been at Premera for 16 years. For the first seven years I worked in operations, then made a switch to sales and marketing, where I have been for the last nine years. I am 100 percent focused on the individual market—health insurance for people who can’t get it through Medicaid, Medicare or their employer.
The first part of my time working on the individual market was about understanding the Affordable Care Act and ensuring Premera was ready for entry into the individual market in Washington and Alaska at a time when the market rules had totally changed. It was a big learning curve for Premera and for me. I eventually became responsible for profit and loss for the individual market, culminating last May in my promotion to General Manager and VP for Individual Markets in Washington and Alaska. I’m also CEO and President of LifeWise Health Plan of Washington, which is where most of our individual business is.
Q: Moving into sales and marketing was clearly a good choice for you. Did you know from the beginning that it was the right move?
A: Not at first. When I took on a leadership role in sales and marketing, I found that for the first time in my career, I was often the only woman in the room. I found myself masking and quieting my voice. It was uncomfortable. There was no ill intent on the part of others in the meeting, but sort of by default I became the note taker. Being in sales and marketing was supposed to be an opportunity to be more creative, but I felt stuck and wasn’t sure how to find my voice or to change the perception that I could add value beyond taking notes.
But then this funny thing happened. I was going on vacation with my family, and I was looking for something to read at the airport newsstand. I came across a book called How Women Rise. The premise is that there are behaviors that can be self-defeating for women in the workplace. It was completely eye-opening. Reading it helped me identify when I exhibited those behaviors in my own work, and in the end led to me being more comfortable declaring “this is what I want” and feel confident in my acumen and leadership skills.
Q: The challenge you faced as the only woman in the room isn’t uncommon. What do you think is preventing more women from taking on roles in healthcare leadership, and what can be done about it?
A: It’s the lack of flexibility. There are chapters in a woman’s life that can be rather unique to their relationship with the workplace. We tend to be in the caregiving role whether we have children or not—it could be other family members or our parents. And we are purposeful about how we spend our time.
I do think there was something uniquely difficult, too, about the chapter of time when I had just come back from maternity leave. It’s almost like you’re onboarding all over again and you’re doing it on no sleep. Who knows how many women have left their careers because navigating that and also wanting something more out of your career doesn’t feel possible?
I think getting more women in leadership starts with creating more flexibility and reinforcing that. It’s all about making space for different scenarios and all of us working hard to adopt a frame of reference that’s broader than our individual point of view. And when we do that it’s more likely that women and people of color will find themselves in positions to take advantage of more opportunities. Because the space has been made.
I think that Premera in particular is getting better at this. I see examples of that every day in the inclusivity of a meeting and how people talk about and demonstrate the importance of having more voices at the table.
Q: When you’ve experienced self-doubt in your professional life, what has kept you moving forward?
Self-doubt is tricky, because when you don’t believe in yourself, it’s easy to only see things that reinforce that. When I wasn’t sure I could do a job, I was promoted into, a sponsor reminded me that getting promoted doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for help. In fact, you should always be asking for help. It was kind of a defining moment because I thought I was getting more responsibility because of what I knew, but I realized that what the job required was more than what I knew. I knew how to learn, and my boss had confidence in me. I definitely wasn’t the expert in the room, I just knew how to ask questions and be curious, and that was the job.
Q: That was great advice. What advice would you give someone trying to navigate their own career path?
A: Being in the role that I am now, I recognize the importance of all of those people who have helped me navigate my life and career. Those people exist everywhere and I’m just so excited to pay it forward. We just have to keep helping each other.
My advice would be to stay grounded in your path and trust your instincts. It’s OK if your path looks different than others. As long as you ground yourself in what’s important to you, it doesn’t have to make sense to other people.
Q: Your daughter, Ava, was part of the motivation for you to make the move to Premera. Ava is 17 now. Does she still have an influence on how you navigate your professional life?
Yes, definitely. When she asks me how my day was, I try to be descriptive in problems I am trying to solve and ask for her perspective. I also share points of view from my co-workers and team members. I really appreciate when she shares about her day—the ups and downs—it’s a way to connect and relate to each other as human beings. Often our stories are similar in terms of the challenges like a failure to communicate or a missed expectation, and finding those connections are important as a mom and as a leader at Premera. I want Ava to know that there is always room to learn, to listen, and to speak up!
Q: Finally, Premera has been serving the individual market for 10 years. That’s a great milestone! Can you tell us some of the lessons you have learned?
A: I have learned that having access to healthcare, affordable healthcare, is a right. I have learned that customers really want to understand their options, they are engaged, they are often put in position where they don’t know how to navigate or understand the complexities of insurance. It’s our job, my job, and the passion of my team, to help every customer but especially those that cannot get insurance through their employer, make the best choices for themselves and their families.