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Live From Cigna, It’s Improvisation

Imagine all of the company executives standing arm in arm pretending to be a six-headed beast — while improvising a conversation with an invisible employee one word at a time. It’s not the leadership training program most companies envision. For Cigna, the global health insurance services company, it is a key component of a change management strategy to help leaders become more customer-centric.

“This process is all about storytelling,” said Karen Kocher, Cigna’s chief learning officer. “We realized that if we wanted to develop a more customer-focused culture, we needed leaders to be able to connect with employees and external stakeholders in more engaging and flexible ways.”

The business transformation process began in 2013. The company recognized a need to adapt its culture to shifting trends in the insurance marketplace caused by the Affordable Care Act, the rising cost of health care, aging populations and global economic issues.

“The next 10 years are going to be the most disruptive this industry [has] ever experienced,” said Amie Benedict, Cigna’s general manager of payer solutions. “We’ve got to be sure we focus on the needs of internal and external stakeholders so we can react to these changes in meaningful ways.”

Leadership development has been a big part of this transformation because the executives and managers are charged with driving change through the organization; they let employees know how important being customer-focused is to the company’s future success. “They need to become emotionally engaged with employees,” Kocher said. “Learning a lesson through a story told by a leader is so much more powerful than learning it on your own.”

Amie Benedict, Cigna’s general manager of payer solutions
Amie Benedict, Cigna’s general manager of payer solutions

Culture in a State of Flux
Cigna’s culture always has been heavily committed to leadership training and mentoring. High performers are placed on a formal leadership track and participate in many weeks of off-site development courses through Cigna University, many months of stretch assignments and mentored by senior staff to ensure they get the support and encouragement they need. “The culture of leadership development at Cigna has always been continuous and varied,” said Benedict, who has been with the company for 14 years, and participated in many of these programs.

To ensure programming is fresh and relevant, the learning and development team is always looking for new ways to improve to meet the current needs of the company and the business strategy, Kocher said.

From ‘SNL’ to the Boardroom
When Cigna embarked on this strategic change initiative, she wanted to be sure the learning programs supported the effort, so she looked for strategies that would help leaders be more engaging. “It’s not the kind of thing you can practice in a formal setting,” she said. “It’s about learning to be more creative in conversations, to be able to improv based on the setting and needs of your audience.”

Who better to teach improv skills than the team at The Second City? Anyone who has ever seen “Saturday Night Live” is familiar with the group’s comedic genius. This Chicago-based comedy theater and improv school has turned out some of “SNL’s” most famous alumni, including John Belushi, Mike Myers and Chris Farley. Many people don’t realize that Second City also helps some of the world’s top business executives learn how to be better leaders and communicators.

“We help executives deal with volatility and uncertainty by teaching them how to be more adaptable in real time,” said Steve Kakos, vice president of Second City Works, the organization’s corporate training arm. “There is no binder of material that can teach you how to be flexible as a leader. It requires less conventional methods.”

Kocher first participated in a Second City Works communication training course in 2013, where 130 leaders from top organizations came together to learn how to influence people through storytelling. “They taught us how to leverage the right kind of story, at the right time, in the right setting, so that it will resonate with the audience,” she said.

That first course began like a typical improv class. Participants were invited to shout out business-focused suggestions to a team on stage that created skits around the scenarios. In a skit on “What would the world’s worst leader do?” the actors improvised performance review conversations going disastrously wrong. “It’s a way to exaggerate the things we do wrong to unlock what works,” Kakos said.

Afterward, the actors worked with the audience to turn the skits into learning content. It was then storyboarded and converted into short video lessons called Real Business Shorts, which participants can use as part of their in-house leadership development programs.

The video courses are used as support material for broader learning programs to onboard new leaders, teaching them how to work in teams and cover compliance issues, said Leah Alibozek, director of general studies at Cigna University; she also attended the initial Second City Works course. “They are light-hearted tools, but they have an impact because they are so memorable,” she said. “It shows leaders that we can take a subject seriously and still have fun.”

Both messages are equally important to create the engaging leadership model Cigna is striving for.

What Did We Learn Today?
After the first course, Kocher and Alibozek incorporated the Second City programming into Cigna’s broader leadership development content in 2014. Along with the Real Business Shorts videos, and providing leaders with one-on-one coaching with Second City Works staff, they invited the improv team to the company’s annual customer summit. It is one of its largest leadership events at Cigna. The 2015 event primarily focused on the shifting trends in the marketplace, and why Cigna’s leadership needs to be more agile to help the company become more customer-centric.

To relieve some of the intensity of the daily meetings while simultaneously reinforcing broader business messages, the Second City team held daily debrief sessions with all attendees. “That part of the event was very entertaining and memorable,” Benedict said.

She recalls a skit from the first day when the stage was littered with notes that had key phrases written on them from the day’s presentations. The actors had to randomly pick up the papers and insert the phrases into improv conversations. “It was hysterical, and it made you remember what we had learned earlier in the day,” she said.

In a session on day two, leaders broke into groups of 40 in circles, where they had to throw invisible balls to each other while shouting the name of the person they were throwing it to and the color of the ball. Then each group was asked to throw specific objects, like a dead rat, a dirty tissue and a sleeping baby.

It was an aha moment for a lot of the participants. “It taught us that no matter what story you are telling, you need to be sure the person is ready to receive it. It was very memorable,” Benedict said.

In another session that hit home with Benedict, participants were asked to close their eyes and pose as statues based on leadership cues. The first statue was of a leader telling someone they should do something. “When we opened our eyes we were all in the same pose with our fingers pointed out,” she said. Then they posed as coaches suggesting an employee could do something, and when they opened their eyes they were all in more relaxed positions with their hands to the side and shoulders up.

“It was mind-blowing that every single person was in the exact same pose again,” she said. Looking back, she said the experience changed the way she thinks about her communication style. “It taught me that I have to be more thoughtful about the way I give feedback, and that it is better to provide guidance than to dictate.”

Back on the Job
Benedict wasn’t the only participant moved by the event. Afterward, Kocher said she received many emails about how much people enjoyed the program; weeks later, they were still talking about it. It is a testament to the power of humor as a learning tool, Kocher said. “It was the best outcome I could have asked for. It made the entire event more impactful and created a higher level of retention.” She also has seen the effect of the one-on-one coaching with executives employing more storytelling tools in business meetings and in one-on-one conversations.

Though this is just one aspect of leadership development at Cigna, it has been a successful component of the company’s change management effort, prompting leaders to think differently about the way they communicate. “It all boils down to being open to doing something different in order to get better outcomes,” Kocher said. “Our executives have absolutely noticed a difference in the way they are communicating, and that was the goal.”