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Leader for the Ages

William J. Colbourne has garnered awards and accolades for making the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association a great place for older workers -- and employees of all ages.

This article accompanies Piloting His Own Path: Jeff Shuman, the 2011 HR Executive of the Year, and The 2011 HR Honor Roll .

Sunday, October 2, 2011
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At many -- if not most -- organizations, once workers reach their late 40s or early 50s, they start feeling a little wary. They look at their younger, more energetic (not to mention healthier and lesser-paid) colleagues and wonder if they'll be able to keep up. They read news reports about workplace age discrimination and worry there's an invisible target painted on their own backs. They stay up at night pondering whether the comfortable retirement they'd envisioned having will turn out to have only been a pipe dream.

William J. Colbourne wants the older employees at his organization to experience none of this.

As senior vice president of human resources and administrative services at the Chicago-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, Colbourne has devoted a considerable amount of time over the years to ensuring older BCBSA workers feel respected and valued. 

"We want older employees to feel comfortable here," he says. "After all, I'm one of them."

His efforts haven't been in vain. BCBSA has been on AARP's Best Place to Work for Employees Over 50 list for two consecutive years, in addition to winning AARP's Nash Award for innovation. Older employees have hardly been his only focus at the company, however.

Colbourne has provided the entire workforce with developmental opportunities, to the extent that BCBSA has been recognized (also for two consecutive years) by BusinessWeek as a Best Place to Launch Your Career. It's for these and other efforts that the Staten Island, N.Y., native has been named to this year's HR Honor Roll.

"A True Professional"

Retaining skilled older workers has long been a priority for Colbourne, who's been with BCBSA for 15 years. The organization tends to hire people with a lot of experience in their chosen field, and that's resulted in a workforce demographic that skews a bit older than average: Approximately 40 percent of the staff are age 50 or older, while about 25 percent are 55 or more years of age.

"We're not about processing, customer service or the other occupations that tend to have a lot of younger workers -- most of our people are in roles in which they provide expert advice to our member companies [and] put together and manage projects that require a lot of experience to run, that sort of thing," he says. "They're older, more experienced, and we want them to feel valued here."

BCBSA serves as the umbrella organization for the nation's 39 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield health-insurance companies, which collectively insure about 98 million Americans. Headquartered in Chicago, the 1,000-employee organization provides a variety of services and training to its member companies and represents their interests in Washington.

Lately, this has entailed working with the federal government as it implements the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- no easy task, considering all the different moving parts of the massive healthcare-reform law.

"We're trying to align the regulations with what we think is the proper way to go forward," says Colbourne.

Getting all of this right requires a workforce that's well-trained, motivated and engaged, and that's where Colbourne comes in. He's created a variety of development initiatives aimed at building a strong management cadre, while introducing programs that encourage employees to celebrate diversity and further their own knowledge.

Under Colbourne's leadership, BCBSA introduced a three-part managerial-development curriculum that starts with a four-day "boot camp," introducing participants to management skills and the organization's management-related policies and practices. Attendees also learn about workforce trends.

Next, managers are encouraged to attend any number of presentations from outside experts on topics related to industry and leadership issues. Finally, managers who demonstrate exceptional promise attend the Advanced Leadership Program, an intense one-year program combining a 360-degree assessment, an individualized career plan, an assigned executive coach and monthly development programs. The ALP culminates in a group presentation by the class to senior management.

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"My personal feeling is that the success of any organization depends on strong, effective and knowledgeable managers," says Colbourne. "For employees, they are the face of the organization."

Colbourne has attempted to make learning the cornerstone of all employees at BCBSA, not just managers.

The diversity council he created early on in his tenure sponsors, among other things, an annual "Language Fair," in which employees give presentations on a dozen different languages and discuss their impact on the healthcare industry. An employee literary circle meets regularly to read and discuss business-related books. Finally, he implemented -- with the help of nearby Lake Forest Graduate School -- an in-house MBA program for students to enrich their own skills and knowledge, and, indirectly, the organization's. 

So considering the resources BCBSA devotes to developing its people, maybe it's not surprising that it tries so hard to hold on to them -- even after they retire.

The organization's new Blue Bring Back program allows retired employees from BCBSA and its member companies to come back to work in consulting roles, working on a temporary basis or on projects as needed. Colbourne describes Blue Bring Back, which currently has about 500 retired employees working at the BCBSA and its members, as a "labor of love."

"It's working beautifully right now," he says.

Soon-to-be-retirees at BCBS are also eligible for six-week paid sabbaticals to prepare for their retirements, such as looking for houses and/or jobs in a retirement destination. They can also attend an annual daylong retirement conference (spouses welcome) to hear from experts on everything from post-retirement financial planning to enrolling in Medicare.

Colbourne himself says retirement is not too distant in his future. He's working closely with BCBSA President and CEO Scott P. Serota on a plan for choosing and developing a successor and looking at a post-retirement role of his own at the organization.

Serota praises Colbourne's accomplishments at BCBSA.

"Bill is an innovator and a true professional," he says. "His work here has truly made a difference for all of our associates."

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