A Tad Bit Uncomfortable: An Interview with Terri Kline

“If you are truly BOLD, everything you do is a tad bit uncomfortable. You can’t be bold if you’re not courageous and willing to be uncomfortable.” Terri Kline, President and CEO of Health Alliance Plan (HAP), made this observation about halfway through our conversation. From the beginning of our call to the end, she captured many of the traits that distinguish BOLD leadership from all others.

Today Terri leads HAP, a 650,000-member, 1300-employee health plan based in Detroit. She came into this role having led from just about every executive position you could have in the healthcare industry with experiences in insurance, managed care, consulting, physician practice management, health care information technology, financial performance, and clinical network management. Healthcare, as we’ve all learned from the various political and regulatory upheavals, is complicated! It requires BOLD leaders, like Terri, to solve the industry’s many transformation challenges.

I asked Terri if she sees herself fitting the Aveus BOLD definition: someone who thinks and acts beyond the existing organizational limits, is imaginative, and is willing to take risks to get rewarding results.

She replied, “I do. I don’t really think about it, but when you ask, and I stop and think about it, yes, I am relatively fearless.” Terri’s portfolio of work includes a lot of turnaround work at one extreme and a lot of rapid growth work at the other. She continued, “There is usually nothing I’m not willing to try once. To me, you learn so much from every setting, every knotty problem. I love them both: turnarounds and high growth work.”

We talked about the “born with” traits of curiosity, confidence, empathy, and trust and how they develop over time. She commented, “I’ve always been really curious. I did my junior  year in college overseas (at a time when there were no cell phones!). I was really on my own.” World travel continues to be one of her great interests.

She has also learned to be curious in more disciplined ways. More business experience brings more competence and that in turn brings more focus and confidence. All those capabilities expand when you experience more things. She also observes, “When you know that failure is not going to kill you – you learn to be bolder, stronger. People that don’t fail don’t know the limits of possibilities.”

Our conversation turned to getting others on board to see the challenge or opportunity and enroll them to help solve it, and sometimes to confront difficult realities head on.

“You cannot lead people if you can’t understand how others are impacted. You can’t motivate them without understanding them and what makes them tick. You want people to do things because they want to do it, not because you TELL them. It feels like a failure if I have to tell them.” Terri’s observation is exactly why empathy and trust show up as such important ingredients in the makeup of a BOLD leader.

Terri knows that you can flip negative stress around to inspire action. And she views change and chaos as her friends, creating opportunities for her team to win. In turnarounds, she acknowledges that the leader must be more controlling to get their teams to the starting line through financial and operating improvements and a culture oriented in the right direction. High growth situations, she says, are all about motivation. In both cases, it takes a leader confident in themselves. And it takes careful selection and development of the right team talent.

Terri said, “The best teams are diverse. Not just in the typical way that diversity is thought of, but also in how they approach issues and solve problems.” She continued, “I think the other thing that differentiates BOLD leaders is their reliance on others. When you are confident enough and curious – you need to go find others smarter than you on some subjects. Seeking guidance is a strength, not a weakness.”

She continued, “When people say, ‘being at the top is lonely,’ I wonder how good a leader they are. It is only lonely if you make it lonely.”

Returning to her comments about courage, Terri observed, “There are lots of good leaders, but they don’t accomplish exceptional things because they don’t have the courage to go for the extra uncertainty.”

Are you willing to put yourself in situations where you are “a tad bit uncomfortable”? If you have a story of how you’ve learned to be a better leader through uncertainty and discomfort, we’d love to hear it!

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.