Creating a Culture of Courage: Julie Bank Of Brighton Health Plan Solutions On How Authenticity Benefits People and Profits in the Workplace

An Interview With Vanessa Ogle

Vanessa Ogle
Authority Magazine

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Lead with authenticity. As a leader, you need to exemplify authenticity yourself to effectively foster it in your team members. Be vulnerable and show who you really are, and you’ll find yourself better able to truly connect with others. For me, that means bringing my experience as a mother and caretaker, as well as my vulnerability, into how I engage and lead.

In today’s social media filled, fast-paced world, authenticity in the workplace and in our personal lives has become more difficult to come by. Business leaders must focus on the bottom line of profits and corporate success, but does that have to be at the expense of the authenticity of their employees? I believe it is quite the opposite. I know from my own experience that a culture of authenticity allows the hiring of a team that will bring their all to the workplace. That fosters innovation, creativity and a level of success that few companies dream of. Yet, fostering an environment where individuals feel secure enough to express their true selves remains a challenge. The importance of authenticity cannot be overstated — it is the foundation of trust, innovation, and strong relationships. However, creating such a culture requires intention, understanding, and actionable strategies. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Bank.

Julie Bank, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, chief people officer at Brighton Health Plan Solutions, has more than 20 years of experience managing HR for growing businesses and is a 2021 and 2022 recipient of the OnCon Icon Award, presented to the top 50 human resources professionals worldwide. Since joining Brighton, Julie has developed and implemented strategic approaches to recruiting, hiring, and retaining career-oriented, talented people. She is a valued strategic advisor to the executive leadership and operational leadership teams.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

In college, I studied HR and marketing and always leaned more toward the HR side because I recognized even back then that people are the foundation of any organization.

Before I came here, I worked at a very large organization with thousands of employees in multiple cities. My role was leading people for a region of that company. I much prefer a smaller, more nimble organization like Brighton, where we have about 500 team members.

I have been with the Company since 2004, so professionally, I have grown up here. I’ve also grown personally, having become a mother to three children during my time here. I feel like this organization is a part of who I am because we have both experienced such tremendous change together.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I think my experiences throughout the pandemic and the massive social changes that followed have had a significant impact on my approach to leadership. I’ve come to appreciate even more how important it is to empower employees to bring their authentic selves to work.

As an HR professional, I have the opportunity to make a difference in employees’ lives through our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Because I have seen the impact firsthand, our DEI program has become a personal passion and gets to the heart of promoting authenticity.

We took a pivotal step about four years ago to leverage the momentum following high-profile acts of racial injustice, such as the deaths of Black Americans in police custody or acts of violence against Asian Americans, to set the expectation that Brighton is a trusting and welcome place to have complex and difficult conversations about what’s going on in the world and workplace. Being in a role where I can influence that change is profound and I feel a lot of responsibility in being granted the privilege of moving our organization forward.

You are a successful individual. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Courage. Courage has enabled me to challenge the status quo, engage in difficult conversations, take calculated risks, advocate for employees, and lead by example. In particular, it has empowered me to challenge senior leaders and advocate for what I believe in, regardless of the challenges I am up against. It takes courage just to begin the conversations that lead to real change, but once people sense your sincerity and share your goals, there are no limits to what you can achieve.
  2. Empathy: Empathy has helped me to connect with employees on a deeper level, understand their perspectives, and effectively address their needs. Empathy informs how I manage complex issues, such as the aftermath of 9/11 or the COVID pandemic, and is a cornerstone of my approach to leadership.
  3. Passion. Passion has fueled my dedication to create a positive work environment, support employee growth and drive organizational success. For example, the work my team and I have done to build an inclusive workplace is driven by our passion and understanding of the unique opportunity we have to create change.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you share a pivotal moment in your career or personal life when being authentic made a significant impact on your success or well-being?

More than 20 years ago, I was working in HR in a consulting firm near the World Trade Center. I was there on the morning of 9/11/2001 when the two planes hit the twin towers. The windows of our building were black with ash, and outside the dust cloud made the air impossible to breathe. We had to evacuate our entire team and ensure that everyone in the office made it down all 46 flights of stairs.

This harrowing experience made me think about what it means to be a leader and a human. I was of course very scared, but I needed to make sure that my team members were okay. Did everyone get out of the building safely? Which employees were still in transit at the time of the attack? It was important for me to do my job and make sure everyone was accounted for, but I also couldn’t ignore my feelings as a New Yorker that day.

My experience on 9/11 stands out as a moment that showed the importance of leading with authenticity. A leader needs to recognize they can’t always compartmentalize their emotions and pretend like nothing has happened. To me, being an effective leader is about accepting that you’re human too, while still staying accountable to your team and doing your best work. It took some time for me to show my entire self to employees, but this certainly was a pivotal moment for me where I learned that showing vulnerability was not just OK, but needed.

What strategies have you found most effective in fostering an environment where employees or team members feel safe to express their true selves, including their ideas, concerns, and aspirations?

Brighton has worked diligently in recent years to become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization. The company acknowledges that DEI is constantly evolving and is committed to continuous learning and a flexible “adjust as you go” approach. This strategy fosters accountability while creating an open door for employee feedback.

In particular, the Brighton Ambassador Program brings together a diverse group of employees to strengthen the company’s culture, with a strong focus on inclusion. We regularly host informal meetings that provide a safe space for staff to learn from one another about racism, ableism and sexism to name a few, but also well beyond that to topics such as pregnancy loss and raising children experiencing autism. The Brighton Ambassador program works on programming that offers employees the opportunity to feel seen, supported and heard while learning from each other.

Brighton also hosts events through the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion’s Days of Understanding program to encourage companywide conversation and learning. Guest speakers and DEI experts share personal anecdotes about their experiences and group breakout sessions offer the opportunity for enriching, candid discussions. The event is an ongoing success, with 100% participation each year and 90% of Brighton employees rating Days of Understanding with 4 or 5 stars.

As another part of our DEI focus, Brighton launched a “Belong at Brighton” internal DEI resource website. This employee-facing website aims to foster a sense of belonging through the centralized promotion of news, inclusive events, health and wellness resources, and DEI programming.

Brighton’s DEI efforts are also integrated into candidate recruitment and hiring. To ensure the company attracts diverse candidates, the talent acquisition team employs strategies such as posting jobs in a broad range of channels and collaborating with inclusive job fairs. All hiring managers are trained in unbiased and inclusive hiring practices, and we implement structured interviews and diverse interview panels to foster fairness.

Brighton’s onboarding process ensures new employees immediately experience an inclusive culture. The company hosts a “Getting to Know Our CEO and Chief People Officer” meeting for new hires, emphasizing the importance of authenticity at work. All employees are encouraged to attend Fireside Chats, virtual sessions that facilitate candid conversations about various topics from race to gender identity. These sessions foster deeper connections among employees beyond their roles. Building an inclusive culture is key, and imperative to retaining talent.

We’re proud that in 2023, 91% of promotions consisted of women candidates and 59% represented minorities. Additionally, 44% of Brighton executives are women, up from just 11% in 2017. Approximately 42% of vice presidents are women and 46% are minorities.

What, if any, awards and recognitions has this organization received in the last two years that designate it as a “best place to work”?

  • 2022 BenefitsPRO LUMINARY AWARD for its proactive leadership in team member development
  • 2022 Best in Business Best Place to Work, Bronze
  • 2022–2023 Schneps Media Top Long Island Workplace
  • 2022–2023 Inclusive Workplace Honoree by Best Companies Group and COLOR Magazine
  • 2023 Stevie Award for Best Customer Service Department of the Year — Healthcare, Pharmaceuticals, and Related industries, bronze
  • TIARA Talent Acquisition Awards’ 2023 DEI Award, finalist
  • 2023–2024 Inclusive Workplace Honoree by Best Companies Group and COLOR Magazine
  • 2023 and 2024 Top Workplace USA designation by USA Today and Energage

How do you navigate the challenges that come with encouraging authenticity in a diverse workplace, where different backgrounds and perspectives may sometimes lead to conflict?

We set the expectation from the first day our employees work here that authenticity is of paramount importance and that we respect all backgrounds and perspectives. We encourage all employees to express their true selves at work — that is part of why we hired them. To mitigate potential conflict, we establish ground rules when we engage in difficult conversations that are founded on respect for one another. We also ask our remote team members to turn their cameras on when we have these conversations because visual connection is invaluable in these moments and helps provide deeper insight into everyone’s unique experiences.

Brighton’s Employee Experience Monitor is a valuable tool for understanding employee engagement and we have found the Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) is one of our most useful employee experience metrics because it allows leaders to quickly gauge and consistently track employees’ feelings about the organization. The metric is based on a single question: “On a scale of one to 10, how likely are you to recommend Brighton as a great place to work?” eNPS can range from -100 to 100. According the Academy to Innovate HR (AIHR), eNPS scores between 10 and 30 are considered “good,” while those between 50 and 70 are considered “excellent.” Brighton’s average score over the past year is 52, earning Brighton the designation of an “excellent” place to work.

An often-overlooked metric when measuring employee experience is the number of referrals employees submit. While it’s closely linked with eNPS, this key performance indicator also shows ambassadorship in practice, not just in theory. Over the past year, Brighton has received nearly 100 employee referrals.

In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen multiple transformations from beginning to end. We’re proud we have a lot of longevity here. Yet on the flip side, we also have brought on incredible new talent. The challenge is to retain such talented employees and we have found the strategies and measurement I just mentioned are a key part of retention. Our employee retention statistics — seven years average longevity across the company — prove we’re doing something right, and that’s really special to me.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe to be Authentic?”

1. Lead with authenticity. As a leader, you need to exemplify authenticity yourself to effectively foster it in your team members. Be vulnerable and show who you really are, and you’ll find yourself better able to truly connect with others. For me, that means bringing my experience as a mother and caretaker, as well as my vulnerability, into how I engage and lead.

2. Ensure your values are representative of your culture. A company’s values should not only be aspirational, but also representative of its culture. And if they’re not, you shouldn’t be afraid to change them. At Brighton, we did an evaluation of our values a few years ago. We realized the way we expressed our values was not fully representative of the work we were doing to build a safe and authentic work environment. So, we decided to adjust them with employee input. We wanted our company’s values to reflect the voice of our employees, and we made sure the initiative was a collaborative effort. While Brighton’s values themselves have not changed, we updated how we act on, talk about, and support these values in order to more accurately represent our culture.

3. Welcome diversity and foster an inclusive work environment. Prioritizing diversity and inclusion is essential to building a culture where people have the opportunity to reveal their true selves. At Brighton, we use our monthly Fireside Chats and our semi-annual Days of Understanding events to cultivate diversity and inclusion. At these company-wide virtual events, we talk about a variety of complex, often difficult topics, including race, religion, social status, age, and a host of other subjects.

4. Ensure open communication between leaders and employees. During the pandemic and in response to national events like the Black Lives Matter movement, we made a big shift in how we talked about our personal lives at work. Now, leaders have become more open to talking about their personal lives and inquiring how their employees are really doing. This leadership style recognizes the fact that people may bring their personal experiences into their work lives and embraces how our different perspectives can enrich a workplace culture. Years ago, you may not have asked an employee about a medical condition for fear of a retaliation claim. Now, if you are not asking how your employee is doing, you are not effectively leading.

5. Take action to support your values. It’s important not only to communicate your values, but also to take action to back them up in meaningful ways. At Brighton, we took the steps to make our DEI goals a reality by implementing employee resource groups like the Pride ERG and the Black Professionals Network ERG. These groups offer employees the opportunity to build connections and share experiences while raising awareness about issues that impact marginalized communities.

In your opinion, how does authenticity within an organization influence its relationship with customers, clients, or the broader community?

Brighton serves as a trusted partner for self-funded plan sponsors and provider health systems across the country that are looking for better quality, more affordable healthcare solutions. At the same time, we have built a culture of innovation, inclusion, and continuous improvement that has made the company an exceptional environment for employees to grow their careers. Brighton’s achievements are driven by the incredible dedication and professionalism of its employees at every level of the organization.

Brighton focuses on creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace where employees can be their most authentic selves. The company ensures employees’ voices are heard and their values are integrated into its culture.

One small step I try to model is frequently checking in with my team members. Knock on the door (or set up a zoom) and ask your fellow employees, especially those you manage directly, how they’re doing. In the world today, there’s an increase in Asian hate, antisemitic crimes, gender violence and racism and everyone’s impacted in different ways. So, we must check in with our people in ways we haven’t before.

Whenever we have conversations, our opinions might differ, and we recognize everyone has different values and opinions, but we want to make sure we allow everyone the freedom to share with leaders and fellow employees in a safe space. These conversations can get tense whether you’re talking about gun control or Roe v. Wade — people are passionate about how they feel and it’s naïve to think that doesn’t come into play in the workplace. As a leader, you are not going to save the day, and you can’t make it go away, but you do have the power to be an empathetic leader. You can make it clear that employees can come to work with their own perspectives, and they’ll be respected. And when employees feel seen and their feelings are validated, they are more likely to be fully engaged and present in their work.

Every day, Brighton employees have the chance to positively impact the lives of our customers’ health plan members while also working to bring broader change to the healthcare industry. By listening to employees’ experiences and providing flexible work and healthcare options, Brighton has created a positive environment that motivates employees and positions itself as both an employer — and solution — of choice in its market.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If I could start a movement, I would work to remove the stigma around mental health. The pandemic helped bring to light the mental health crisis that is happening in this country, and how it is impacting people’s health and well-being. We all know this is going on, but many people don’t want to talk about it.

I think the reluctance to openly discuss mental health challenges is due to people’s fear of being judged, or even the negative ideas someone with mental illness may have about themselves. They might fear the consequences of sharing their struggles with their colleagues or be concerned that seeking out help makes them look weak.

Removing this stigma could mean helping more people with their mental health challenges. But until we reach that goal, I think it’s important to do what we can now to support one another. At work, that means leaders being open with their team members and asking them how they’re really doing. It means having difficult conversations in the workplace that empower all employees to be their authentic selves. It also means reaching out to employees when they lose a loved one or experience hardship and pointing them toward resources that might help.

How can our readers further follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/julie-bank-shrm-scp-b8b52132/

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About The Interviewer: Vanessa Ogle is a mom, entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. Vanessa’s talent in building world-class leadership teams focused on diversity, a culture of service, and innovation through inclusion allowed her to be one of the most acclaimed Latina CEO’s in the last 30 years. She collaborated with the world’s leading technology and content companies such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Broadcom to bring innovative solutions to travelers and hotels around the world. Vanessa is the lead inventor on 120+ U.S. Patents. Accolades include: FAST 100, Entrepreneur 360 Best Companies, Inc. 500 and then another six times on the Inc. 5000. Vanessa was personally honored with Inc. 100 Female Founder’s Award, Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and Enterprising Women of the Year among others. Vanessa now spends her time sharing stories to inspire and give hope through articles, speaking engagements and music. In her spare time she writes and plays music in the Amazon best selling new band HigherHill, teaches surfing clinics, trains dogs, and cheers on her children.

Please connect with Vanessa here on linkedin and subscribe to her newsletter Unplugged as well as follow her on Substack, Instagram, Facebook, and X and of course on her website VanessaOgle.

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Vanessa Ogle
Authority Magazine

Vanessa Ogle is an entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. She is best known as the founder of Enseo