Her colleagues have described her as the Queen of Culture—and as a leader, sponsor, mentor, role model, trailblazer, and staunch advocate for women. She’s famous for settling a heated negotiation early in her career with a bushel of tomatoes (more on that later). Meet Jeannine Rivet, Executive Vice President at UnitedHealth Group (UHG) and this year’s Executive Impact Award winner. Jeanine will be joining us at our Women in Leadership Institute taking place November 8-11, 2016 to receive her award.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jeannine recently to get a behind-the-scenes look at her journey to becoming a highly regarded figure in her organization, community, and industry. By the end of our conversation, it was obvious to me that Jeannine’s passion for giving back and helping others create their own leadership story has helped her create a truly remarkable legacy—and one which has already impacted future generations.
Humble Beginnings: “Some is luck, some is the right place at the right time, and some is just plain risk”
Jeannine has held positions in various hospitals, clinics, and managed health care systems across the country. But her start—more than 40 years ago at Rhode Island Hospital—was far from glamorous.
As a 20-something pediatric nurse, she vividly remembers being referred to as an “intruder” while attending a meeting with a group of all-male senior physicians. Rather than choosing invisibility as her super-power, Jeannine found her voice. Trying to diffuse the tension in the room, she recalls saying: “How about if I take notes and we see how it goes?” No one in the room would make eye contact with her. This continued for weeks—and then months. Months turned into several years of consistent (and slowly increasing) effort, which eventually transformed some senior-ranking critics into reserved allies. Ultimately, her success in helping the team move forward in an organized, thoughtful way—and accomplish more in six months than they had in two years—caught the attention of the CEO.
She had become a humble change agent: “In that moment, I realized that I can do this—and it’s OK to step out and take risks.”
Several years later, when she was responsible for clinical and administrative services for a managed care plan, she kept taking on more and more responsibility. Overwhelmed by her environment and feeling out of control, she remembers marching into the CEO’s office one Friday afternoon and declaring: “I’m leaving to go home now and I don’t know when I’m coming back.” She took a few days away from the office to give herself some much needed room to process the situation. “I fell hard. This was my brick-wall moment. Looking back now, I realize that I did it to myself.” After a few days, she started to formulate a solution—one that would require both structural and personnel changes to the organization—and with it, significant risk. The following Friday, she came back to the CEO’s office—equipped with a yellow legal pad outlining her plan for change. “This was a huge learning situation for me,” she recalls. “I’ve never come close to being in this type of situation again. I waited too long to address what was happening and to ask for what I needed to be successful.”
Next, her story brings us to Colorado, where the CEO of Peak Health Plan recruited her as Colorado Regional CEO, where she had to renegotiate a critical contract necessary for the future success of the business. Prior attempts to settle the matter had been unsuccessful, and each meeting seemed to push the sparring sides further apart.
After a few meetings without progress, Jeannine settled on a foolproof strategy inspired by her values—and weekend shopping at a local farmer’s market. She opened next week’s meeting equipped with a bushel of tomatoes and a flak jacket. She remembers being nervous at the time, knowing that this was an emotionally charged situation with serious business implications. She recalls, “I took a step back, and told them—there is something that you need to get out. Throw these tomatoes at me and get it out.”
She was met with complete silence. Then, breakthrough laughter and communication that ultimately led to productive conversation.
Although many years have passed, Jeannine continues to tell this story. Why? Because with a little willingness to think creatively and in the best interests of the people, she knows that leaders can create win-win situations.
These formative lessons helped create the foundation of values that guide how Jeannine leads and mentors today. She shares them with others in hopes that we can each learn from one another and extend our leadership shadow. “You are seen by more people than you know,” she says.
The Legacy Continues: “My goal is to be a role model for other women”
Jeannine has been at UHG for 26 years, where she currently serves as a member of the executive leadership team. Her interests and values are reflected in her contributions both inside and outside of the organization. She is known for her efforts in creating a positive, forward-thinking culture at UHG, which is no small feat for 230,000 employees globally.
Affectionately known as the Queen of Culture by her colleagues, Jeannine still makes time to connect with people one-on-one, especially new hires. She has also mentored countless leaders at all levels of the organization—and is known for her straightforward, candid, and supportive approach. To this day, Jeannine leads a workshop called How to Climb the Ladder without Getting Dizzy or Falling Off, where she shares wisdom with the next generation of up-and-coming leaders at UHG. She often uses the power of her own story to inspire others; as she says: “Stories are what people relate to and it’s what makes you human.”
Ten years ago, Jeanine established an office of social responsibility at UHG. This division is thriving today with two foundations and formal processes in place to successfully measure and manage employees’ contributions in the community. She also serves on ten boards and is a founding member of Women Business Leaders, a national nonprofit with 3,000 members. Their mission is to connect senior executive women in healthcare to create new partnerships and move the industry forward.
Jeannine has created a truly remarkable legacy that has earned her the respect of her colleagues, her organization, the community around her, and the healthcare industry. Her ability to nurture others to grow, both personally and professionally, and to create environments where people can flourish is unique.
She concluded our conversation with some words of inspiration that I won’t soon forget: “Always know what your values are and what you are being measured on. Ask good questions, assume positive intentions, and in following the advice of my father: always do the right thing for the right reason—and you’ll be fine.”