Aflac’s Rich Gilbert on the 7 Cs of top IT leaders

Rich Gilbert, who joined Aflac in 2019 as chief digital and information officer, now serves as its chief transformation officer and head of individual benefits. The promotion and title are well deserved. Aflac is the leading provider of supplemental health insurance in the United States, and Gilbert has been recognized for his commitment to accelerating the company’s digital transformation strategy. He was named the 2021 CIO of the Year by GeorgiaCIO, receiving the ORBIE Award in the Global category for helping reinvent Aflac as a digital-first company.

On a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Gilbert shared his career journey and the leadership philosophies that have guided him to his current role, where he’s not only responsible for the digital services department, but also Aflac’s largest P&L, Individual Voluntary Benefits, and the Shared Services and Communicorp organization. We centered our conversation around the seven Cs of top leaders — courage, customer centricity, change, cultivate, communication, collaboration, culture — traits that enable the best leaders to thrive in times of crisis while staying focused on the future and driving significant business value. We spent some more time after the show drilling down further into a few of those areas. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: As an executive with both digital services and P&L responsibilities, what would you say has been key to your ability to navigate and bridge the technical and business sides of the role?

Rich Gilbert: My superpower is the ability to speak multiple languages. Now, I can’t speak French. I can’t speak German. I can’t speak any other language besides English. However, I must speak various languages to be able to communicate and connect effectively. I speak technology so I can communicate with our technology team. I also speak strategy, so I can communicate with our board. I speak financials, so I can communicate with our CFO. I speak value, so I can communicate with our chairman and CEO about what we’re able to deliver.

This multilingual model is my superpower because I can talk about something extremely technical with the technology team, but then I can communicate that in business terms to our business leaders in a way that has nothing to do with technology. And then to the board about the vision and value that you’re delivering with that technology. Being able to speak multiple languages helps drive connections and results.

In fact, I’d add that to the seven Cs of top leaders: connections. You’ve got to be connected to your people. You’ve got to be connected to your peers. You’ve got to be connected to your customers. You’ve got to be connected to your CEO, your CFO, and your board. Connection is key, and that’s all about two things: building relationships and being multilingual.

What does customer-centricity look like when you have 50 million people you’re protecting? That’s a staggering number.

Insurance is an interesting business, because you’re not building something; you’re in business to fulfill a promise. If something happens to an individual, you’re going to be there. If they get cancer, if they have a hospital stay, if they have an accident or they break their leg, our part of fulfilling that promise is to be able to make that as simple as possible. The whole point around building our solutions is really to say, how do you drive customer ease?

Our answer: We built new websites and new mobile apps where you simply answer some questions. It captures that material and routes into our claims processing. It’s making that process as simple as possible. What we’re trying to do is automate all the simple things, so if you have trouble and have to contact the call center, our customer care and claims agents can focus on understanding your situation instead of administrative things like address changes. We want them to be able to think about your case, how to help you with it and how to get money in your pocket as soon as we can.

We built all these front-end systems to make the input easier. But we’re also building this whole new machine learning/artificial intelligence engine to be able to take the inputs and auto-adjudicate the claims — because we’ve paid millions of them, so we’ve seen all this documentation. There are medical codes, diagnostic codes, treatment codes. We can take those and apply them to the benefits you have in your policy, and we know the probability of what we should pay from a benefits perspective. It’s a model that’s designed to increase quality and the speed to pay.

There’s an employee impact, too, right? Because this frees them up to do work that’s more meaningful.

Right. It’s not a full automation. What we do is present it to the claims adjuster and customer care agent and reveal the probability of benefits. We’ve given you 95% of the answers. Just make sure that there isn’t a situation that the computer can’t understand from an empathy perspective to be able to finish the claim. You can see how we’re doing this with inputs in our digital channels and even back-office functions, because now you elevate people from doing mundane things to focusing on the real needs and how we solve them.

Many times, people get confused about what you’re really doing as a technologist. It’s simple: Serve your customer.

This is part of your rebranding of digital services, which has really been multiple levels of change on change. Can you talk a bit about that?

The first phase of the rebranding journey was moving from IT to digital services, figuring out what it means to be customer-obsessed as a technologist and how you change the processes that you operate under. We had to go from a waterfall model to an agile model. Now we’re moving into DevOps, and we’re heading into a whole new methodology using different types of technology, especially becoming cloud integrators. The whole point of becoming cloud integrators is to be able to build solutions faster.

I’ll give you an example from our journey through the pandemic. First off, insurance is sold through independent agents, and if they don’t sell, they don’t make a living. Add to that the fact that insurance is a product that is sold and not bought, and it’s done at the worksite. With COVID-19, the whole business model is disrupted because there’s no personal interaction, there’s no worksite and you’ve got a product that requires it to be sold, not bought. How do you deal with that?

We launched a new vision around virtual enrollment. We pulled our leaders together from all different parts of the business and said, okay, how do we solve this? We decided that we needed to give the agents the ability to continue operating, but we’ve got to do it in a way that’s all virtual. We built a series of microsites that can be personalized and sent them out via a QR code, explaining all the product offerings. We have videos featuring how Aflac helps close the gap in your insurance coverage and why you should consider buying cancer insurance, a hospital plan, and things like that. We created a decision support tool that, with a little bit of information, shows you the best product for you. Then it allows you to have a digital calendar to be able to schedule time with an agent.

And this is the best part — we linked it to videoconferencing technology with co-browsing capability, so the policyholder and agent can meet virtually and have the ability to share information. We built a new enrollment application with shopping cart functionality to see what the combination of products would cost and estimate your monthly payment. The policyholder can now take over the screen and fill out all the information, sign by digital signature and the interaction is complete. Then we route the enrollment electronically and send a copy via email. All of those things that were handled face-to-face became virtual. That was a big change for us, and it’s an example of being disruptive while figuring out how to solve that problem and drive change.

That takes a lot of courage! Courage is a choice, especially since it goes hand in hand with fear. How do you make the choice and get past the fear?

Fear can be healthy. I always say, if you’re taking a new job and it doesn’t scare you, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. Fear is a natural response to being out of your comfort zone and taking on a new challenge because you care about the outcome. It’s healthy because it sharpens you and makes you double-check what you’re doing.

Where people fall short is in taking action to overcome fear. Often, people will come up with a great idea or a great model, something they think will change the company, and then they don’t even take the initial step. The biggest overcomer of fear is action. That’s why, when somebody’s ready to jump off a high board, people count down: three, two, one, jump. The reason is because it instills action. You hear that and you’re like, okay, I’ve got to do it, so you overcome the fear.

It’s the same in corporate America. People have to overcome fear to be able to accomplish things, so fear can be a motivator, but it also can be an inhibitor and keep people from moving. Courage is not necessarily not feeling fear, because I feel fear all the time. Is this going to work right? Am I going to be able to hit all the objectives that we set out? Am I going to make sure that my people feel like they’ve accomplished things and are connected? But what I do with that fear is translate it into, okay, what is the step I’m going to take? And then I take actions to be able to solve that.

There are a lot of things that are outside of your control. There are a lot of challenging situations in which you’ll have to be able to respond and react. When I’ve seen leaders that are faced with a major issue, I’ll say, okay, what’s the next step? Take that step because it will help to overcome fear and initiate action.

For more digital leadership and business insights from Rich Gilbert, tune into the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership