Ferociously Curious: An Interview with Coreen Dicus-Johnson

We were barely into our conversation about BOLD leadership when Coreen Dicus-Johnson, President and CEO of Network Health, headquartered in Menasha, Wisconsin, mentioned that her staff has told her she is “ferociously curious.”

Curiosity, along with confidence, empathy and trust are the core characteristics of BOLD leaders who are capable of driving transformative change. When I asked what her staff meant by that, Coreen replied, “I ask a ton of questions. I look really deep into things and I’m constantly seeking better answers. I love what I do and want to know as much as possible about it.” She continued, “I’m also curious about every person, every role.” To feed her curiosity, Coreen spends time shadowing employees. She has done this everywhere she’s been. “I want to know what it is like for the front-line employees. If I understand their challenges, I can be a better leader.”

Coreen quickly offered that she struggles with some of the competencies we were discussing – always feeling there is more to learn, more to understand. For example, she said she can be highly empathetic, but she sometimes assumes (incorrectly) everyone has the same skills, interests and drive that she has. She does not always stop to understand that everyone is not like her.

Like others I’ve interviewed, when it comes to confidence, Coreen offered, “You would never know when I lack confidence. I can fake it. I can sell and project confidence. Behind closed doors, I worry, I stress.” This is one of the things that drives her to do better, learn more, reach farther.

Coreen also describes herself as a naturally cynical person. She holds herself to very high standards and will only promise things she knows she can deliver. “I’m also very direct; I’m not a gameplayer. If you ask me a question, I’m going to give you an answer.” About trust, Coreen says, “I trust, but verify. It takes a while to earn my trust.”

The oldest of 11 siblings, Coreen says she’s been leading since she was a child and learned early on to be a shepherd, not a wrangler. “I needed an approach that I could use to get my brothers and sisters to do what we needed to get done. Shepherding works. Everyone contributed and felt good in the process. Had she been a wrangler, she says she would have driven them to the outcome, “but everyone would be frazzled and upset at the end.” Not the outcome a BOLD leader will accept.

As a shepherd, she said, “I talk about the same things that help me get comfortable. I find things where others have succeeded and help them translate their abilities to the new challenge.”

I asked Coreen for an example of her shepherding positive changes. She gave me two.

Early in her career, as an attorney in the general counsel’s department, she was assigned the responsibility to settle litigation with a large provider group. What she quickly discovered is that a settlement was out of the question because there was no trust. “We had the data, the superior information, the numbers, but they didn’t trust us.”

So, what did she do? Coreen replied, “I built in a process that allowed them control of substantiating their damages based on an agreed upon formula. If they could substantiate, we would pay at 100%.” This solution worked. She explained, “In that example, what was it that I was solving for? I was solving for lack of trust. Once I figured that out, we could settle.”

Her second example came later in her career, when she was running a market in a hospital system. They needed to get their costs down and productivity up. “We couldn’t just tell the employee physicians to work more. We had to come up with new answers that worked for everyone.” Coreen gathered a cross-functional team and asked them to think and act like independent consultants to help analyze the situation. They applied LEAN thinking and cross selling principles to the challenges and ultimately made a number of changes that not only made the professional staff more productive, they improved the bottom line by $9 million. “I’d never done anything like this before. With the cross-functional team, we figured out how to get the needed changes done.”

She continued with a really important point I’ve heard from other BOLD leaders, “There were people all around saying, ‘This will never work. Just fire the unproductive doctors.’” Coreen knew that was not an option, nor would it deliver the desired result. And she committed to starting small, trying things, and learning her way to ultimately great success.

Coreen observed, “Too many times people just go to NO because the answer doesn’t come to them quickly. We don’t give people enough time to think. We place too much emphasis on speed (rather than finding the better answer). There is also a fear of failure, and failure is often considered unacceptable. I will not punish failure as long as the cause wasn’t sloppiness.” She finished the thought, “You need some governors because not everything works. You need to build contingency plans.”

BOLD leaders galvanize teams, and lead and support them in the quest to find better answers. Coreen describes herself as a shepherd, and she uses her “ferocious curiosity” to find the hidden needs to solve and deliver successful, transformative results.

If you asked your colleagues to describe you, what words would they use to describe your approach to finding better answers?  

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.