An Interview with Elana Schrader, M.D. on Why Being Vulnerable is Liberating | Women in Leadership Series [Podcast]

Posted on Jul 15th 2014 by Kate Warnock

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Dr. Elana Schrader is fiercely intelligent, practically sparkling with her wit and in command of health care industry trends and management best practices. In her current role as Vice President of Product for Florida Blue, Elana is tasked with developing and managing a dynamic portfolio of insurance and care offerings that reflect the needs of the market. One may not imagine that she’d consider her greatest accomplishment the loving relationship shared by her three daughters, or that mentoring employees at Florida Blue gives her unparalleled satisfaction. I learned in my interview for the Florida Blue Radio “Women in Leadership” series that Elana is far more then the sum of her successes. She is a woman who’s learned that leadership is best when it is rooted in vulnerability.   Listen to our podcast to hear more about Elana’s fascinating transition from practicing internal medicine to launching her career on the insurance-side of health care. What you might find even more compelling is:
  • How she instilled confidence in her three daughters, one of whom has recently been named a Truman Scholar, another who attends a school for young adults with learning disabilities, and a third who attends a college prep boarding school in the northeast.
  • What Elana sees as the biggest challenge to the next generation of women in earning leadership roles.
  • Why being vulnerable in a new role is “a beautiful place to be” and gives you the latitude to learn – and establish a collaborative dynamic with your team.
Whatever you find most compelling about Elana’s experience and advice, I hope you (man or woman) find the inspiration you need to be the best you can be in your career! Be sure to listen to our other “Women in Leadership” podcasts for additional wisdom. Know a woman leader we should interview? Leave us a comment below!   The following is a complete transcript of the interview: Welcome to Florida Blue Radio, where we explore health care topics important to you. Whether you own a business, are a health practitioner, or are an individual interested in how health care is evolving, experts from across Florida Blue will keep you in the know. In today's session we continue our women in leadership series with Doctor Elana Schrader, Vice President of Product at Florida Blue. Elana shares how she's become more vulnerable as she's gained confidence as a leader, how she's raised three successful daughters, and who inspired her along the way. Our host is Kate Warnock, social business strategist at Florida Blue. Now, here's Kate. So today I'm so excited to bring you Doctor Elana Schrader. Doctor Elana Schrader is Florida Blue's Vice President Product. And in this role she's accountable for the design and development of new and innovative health solutions, the management of the existing product portfolio for all commercial business, and the product network program. It's a pretty big role. So, Elana, can you tell us, is this what you imagined you would be when you grew up? Oh, absolutely. I always wanted to be an insurance executive. No, actually, no, it is not at all what I imagined I would be. What I always wanted to be when I grew up was just like my dad. And he's a physician, though it wasn't that I wanted to be a doctor like him. I wanted to be an expert in something like he was. And I watched him, with authority, help people as I was growing up. And I wanted to have that kind of knowledge and expertise on something that would allow me to help people. That's what I thought I wanted to do. I did end up being a physician just like him. I love it. So, obviously we know from your background that you graduated from Barnard and then went on to your medical studies. Can you tell us a little bit-- how did you come from the private practice, as an internist, into the payer side with Florida Blue? Sure. When I first was entering the workforce after my medical training, I knew that I didn't want to do full time, clinical medicine. And I interviewed and met with a lot of different people who were related somehow to the health care industry, including physicians who were doing clinical medicine. But also including administrators and executives, folks who were running departments in hospitals, senior vice presidents of medical affairs types of people. And one thing actually led to another and I was offered a great position that I knew nothing about in advance with one of the local hospitals here doing administrative medicine. So that's how I got into a non-clinical path. Interestingly, the guy who first hired me, who was also a physician but doing executive type work, was insistent that I practice part time. And I resisted it early on because I felt like that would prevent me from focusing. Anyway, it turned out to be the best thing I've ever done. Because it gave me the experience I needed to be a good physician executive as I progressed in my career. That's fascinating. It must have been quite a juggling act because-- I don't know when you started your family, as well, but you probably had kind of two full time careers. Because even though it was quote unquote part time, I'm sure that you were working crazy hours at the time as well as being a mother. But for right now, I'm curious to see how was it that your medical training and having that exposure to patients and that clinical setting impact the decisions you were making on the insurance side? Great question. There's a certain thought process that goes into diagnosing people's problems and coming up with the solutions for those problems. It's not really that different. It's of course in a different arena with different levels of importance and criticality. But if you're in a business and you're diagnosing a problem and you have to come up with a solution, having had the training in doing that day in and day out is unbelievably helpful. And I actually think that it's that thought process that I had trained so intensely in that has helped me be successful. People come to me to help solve their problems. And that's what I spent the first 15 years of my career doing. So I think that follows. What a great idea. I love that. So with the different accountabilities that you've had within Florida Blue-- and you've really had a range of responsibilities-- when you're given, or you're tasked, with a new concept, or a new department, or a new project, or a new area to lead, how is it that you bring yourself up to speed where you may not have the expertise before being asked to lead that area? How do you get yourself grounded and then really know how to make the best decisions for that side of the organization? Well, I will say, first of all, that it is one of the things that I'm most proud of. And that is that I've been asked and had the opportunity to rotate a lot and learn new things as often as I've been able to do that. I hate to oversimplify, however, I think of these opportunities in terms of two dimensions, always. One is the content of the work that I'm about to take on and the other is leadership and management. And I see them as being sort of separate disciplines, almost, that ultimately come together. So when I take something new on I first do a quick assessment of whether or not I have the experience in the content. In which case, I am likely to not have the experience in the leadership aspect of that role, which might have been why I've been asked to take on that role. Alternatively, if I have no experience in that particular content I often will rely on my leadership experience to sort of get me through the first x number of days or weeks. And I'll tell you, there's a lot of variability in how that plays out. So over time, I've developed a little system. I always give myself about 90 days to be unbelievably uncomfortable. Literally, to not sleep so well, not eat so well, to live and breathe this new role. I always get myself 90 days. And what I've learned over time is that there are certain roles that end up requiring less, which is like a gift. But also there are certain roles that end up requiring just a tad more. And while now I'm comfortable with that, those have bopped me over the head, sometimes, with incredible surprise and caused a huge amount of anxiety. And I'd like to tell you one story about one of these moves that I've had. So about four years ago I had been doing planning, and business program management, and Six Sigma kinds of things, cost management. And was asked, sort of in the middle of all that, to take on the role of Vice President of Product. And I thought, huh? Product? Well, OK, OK, I'll do product. So I go to the product area and I quickly learned that I knew nothing. I couldn't believe how little I knew. And I knew so little, that time, that I couldn't even tap into my leadership skills. So I was lost. I was really lost. It wasn't 90 days, though, it was like five months. It was so difficult and so painful. But at the end of the five months that same thing that happened to me every other move I made at about three months, was this sort of-- it was like the veil lifted, the veil over the content lifted. And I got that much more comfortable, or that much less uncomfortable. And I was able, then, to start leveraging my ability to be a leader. And so that got better, and then by the time six months rolled around I was really able to put it all together. And what I was looking for at the time-- I remember this like it was yesterday-- was, I called it a fluency in the language of product. And I would say I was not fluent at six months, but I could speak the language. And so I got comfortable. The two dimensions that I had been looking for sort of started to come together. And that's what made the rest of the time that I've been in product that much more doable. That's such a great story. I really wonder, you probably had to learn to be a little bit more patient with yourself, where you were accustomed to a shorter on-ramp, so to speak, to that fluency. What did you draw on, as far as your own personal support, to get you through five or six really challenging months? That's another great question. You know the first thing I did was, relied on the team that I had taken on. The first thing I always do is dive into my team. Who do I have? What strengths are there on the team? And frankly, what opportunities are there on the team? So knowing very close to out the gate, whom I can rely on for which issue, leadership or content, or specific problem, or specific detail of the work was always very, very, very important to me. So that's the first thing I did. You know, I allowed myself to rely on the experts who were the team reporting to me and the people around me. The other thing I did is I relied on my mentors and the folks who had asked me to take on the role. Sometimes I'd have to go back to them and say, why did you think I could do this, and get their answer again. You know, something to sort of re-solidify that this was a good idea. And then finally, I have a great family and great kids and daughters who are willing to actually listen to me complain and otherwise whine at night. Over a glass, perhaps, of wine, but it's really whine with an h. And they've been unbelievably supportive over the years. So that's how I do it. It's a very honest answer, but the thing that I'm taking away from this and what really resonates with me is, you're so willing to draw on the expertise of the team that you've got and you really want to listen and evaluate before you're jumping in, necessarily, to make that decision. So as far as your mentors, is that just something that came to you naturally? That approach to your leadership where, maybe that was being a little vulnerable? Maybe you realized that you didn't have that background? And I think for some folks that may have been a source of such discomfort that maybe they would have acted before they were really equipped to do so. So how is it that you've taken that approach? Is that just, again, something that's come to you naturally or is that something that you've gleaned from your father, who you admire so much, or from other mentors? I don't think it's purely natural. I know I can't say that I've always been willing to be vulnerable. In fact, I know, I haven't always been willing to be vulnerable. I do believe that the more confidence I've been able to gain over the years has allowed me, simultaneously, to be more vulnerable. And it's actually a beautiful, liberating place to be, confident enough to be vulnerable and give myself over to people who know more and who can do the job better. If there were anything I could impart to people coming up, it would be allow yourself that. Because it is freeing, and it gives you tremendous, tremendous latitude to learn and to be the best you can be. I would add to that. I would have to imagine that your team would really appreciate that opportunity to collaborate with their leader, to share their knowledge, to kind of make a name for themself, perhaps, with you but really impart the best of what they know to help you get on board. So what a great way to start that leadership position is coming from a place where you were vulnerable, and they help bridge you to that fluency that you seek. So I think that's really fantastic. So another thing that I realize looking at your resume, and the 16 years that you've been with Florida Blue, obviously the health care industry is going through tremendous, dynamic change. And we ourselves are positioning ourselves to offer health solutions to our members, and to our providers, and different audiences. Is there a particular change, or what is it that you're seeing in the industry, that you might be responsible, yourself, to respond to? Something that you're having to do differently inside because of how the market or the technology is changing on the outside. I think for me, especially in my role, the most obvious huge force that we're dealing with on a daily basis is health care reform. And to me, as complex as it is, as perhaps sometimes flawed as the new law might be, it provides a tremendous opportunity for dialogue in the industry. And I can't say enough about that. Whether or not the law as it stands now persists over a long period of time exactly as it is now, or again or not, the compelling nature of the problems we're having in the industry in our country, and the opportunity for all stakeholders to sit down at the table together is just huge. And I've seen it already. I've seen it with us. I've seen Florida Blue lead the way in terms of getting providers to the table, getting consumers to the table, getting large hospital systems who are providers and individual docs to the table. Again, aggregating all of ourselves, and our opinions, and our thoughts. And having the dialogue around what each stakeholder might have to give but also what each stakeholder might then be able to take away is really a tremendous opportunity that I feel so unbelievably excited about being a part of. So that's how I look at that. It's a nice opportunity for that collaboration, perhaps, where maybe before the relationships were a little more contentious. I've heard from other medical directors and other folks on our delivery side, too , that they feel that opportunity to extend across the table and say, our member is your patient and we both want what's best for them. So we have to figure it out for their opportunities, So I'd like to pivot, if it's OK, kind of more towards your personal experience. Would you be able to share-- you have three daughters. And I would love to know, how have you instilled in them the confidence that you have acquired over time so that they go out to the world and you have set them up for success? Yeah, I do have three daughters whose confidence, and self esteem, and well being have been on my mind since the day each of them was born. What I try to impart to them-- well, first of all, I guess one thing I do is model for them. So they see a mom who is quite busy outside the home and they understand that they can be part of that process with me. And I do engage them. We talk about-- this is not going to sound all that interesting to many, but we actually talk about health care and the health care industry. We've done that over many, many years. But we also talk a lot, my girls and I, about leadership, and about excellence, and about setting up our own expectations of ourselves for excellence. I have funny stories about my girls, who from time to time might have told me that it didn't matter to them if they did or didn't get an A in something or other. And I always wanted them not to have to get an A, but to see themselves as being able to get an A. Seeing themselves as people who would be naturally their best in anything they did. And I have, I'm proud to say, three girls who definitely follow suit in that. They definitely pursue their own excellence. And they are way more successful at it than I am, I must admit. So there you have it. I heard from someone who knows you pretty well that you have a daughter that-- did she just received a special recognition? If you'd be willing to share? Sure, my oldest just won the Truman scholarship, I think that may be what you're referring to. It's a very prestigious national award for a very few college juniors across the country. It's a really cool thing. She's a polyglot, speaks about seven or eight languages fluently, and is also the president of her class at University of Pennsylvania, which she's been for the last four years. So, OK, enough about my talk. And the most unfortunate part of it is that she goes by a different last name so no one knows I'm related to her. But I tell people about her anyway, OK? Well, I think what we had also heard is that-- is she the first female class president at Penn? In a decade, in over a decade. In over a decade. So you have got to be just bursting with pride, over her particular success. Just a little bit about the dynamics between your daughters then, especially since she's the eldest-- is there any challenge, or do your younger daughters feel like they have her as a role model for themselves? Or is she now someone that they have to live up to? And if so, how do you balance that, as a mom? Wow, what a great question. All three of my girls are incredibly different from each other. My middle daughter, who is fabulous and has a wonderful sense of self has learning disabilities, and goes to a small school for kids with learning disabilities. My little one, who's just 15 almost 16, is I would say at the one who looks most to my oldest. And who has managed find her own sort of niche in the world and has great command over her environment. That's just how she's wired. They're all three very, very close. And I think they appreciate what each other sort of brings to the table, in a really cool way. They're great friends. And of all things I've ever done, I am most proud of their relationship and their love for each other. That's what I live for. I would be, too. That's-- what an accomplishment. What are the age differences between your oldest and youngest? My oldest will be 21 soon. My youngest is going to be 16 soon. So there's five years. And my middle one is a little less than two years younger than my oldest. So really close in age. But that's terrific. So I'd love to know more. You have these conversations with your daughters about leadership. What would you perceive as the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you to come to a leadership position? And is there a particular way, or how would you help these women if you perceive a challenge, overcome whatever that challenge might be? Interestingly, because it is interesting, let me say that I have the perspective of this college age leader who has had tremendous challenges, I believe and she believes, because of gender issues. Which in today's world, just seems impossible to me. That said, what I think is her greatest asset, and maybe all of our challenges that we can turn into an asset, is our willingness to celebrate each other's differences. I actually think that's huge in leadership. When we come to the table gender blind, color blind, background blind, and appreciate the uniquenesses that different people bring because of any one of those things, or despite any one of those things, then we're bound to have a better product at the end. And I see my daughter, frankly, doing that every day, sort of operating from a platform of inclusiveness. And I think it's really amazing. And I know that on my own team, I look for a tapestry of different assets and uniquenesses that come together. And that's what we celebrate. So we don't spend too much time on how we're different, but celebrate what is different and put that together into a very unique whole. My follow up question to that, then, is you here in a leadership position at Florida Blue-- are you seeing other leaders take that similar approach? If not, if you perceive that women here at Florida Blue might have more opportunity in the future, how is it that you are playing a role in helping to develop that? And are you seeing that kind of approach from your counterparts? Clearly this sort of approach has taken root. Because our CEO is those things I mentioned-- he is color blind, gender blind, and background blind. And appreciates, I believe, and celebrates thought process that is different amongst the people around his table. And I feel unbelievably excited by that and proud of that, to be a part of this company while he's the leader of it. So I think that's really, really cool. I believe that there are tremendous opportunities here for all individuals who are willing to work hard and be excellent. And that is whether they're women, or men, or other. And I also take really tremendous pride in playing a role in mentoring as many individuals as I can. As it turns out, many of my formal or informal mentees are women, though I like to think that some are also male and that I can impart, from my experiences, some wisdom to them to help them along as well. I truly, in my career at this point, get no greater pleasure than helping and watching folks who come after me do their thing. And find their sort of niche and become individuals who are on their a-game. There's no greater pleasure that I get. So I hope people can appreciate that I try to do that on an absolute daily basis. I think you have that reputation. Absolutely, I know that you're known across the company as someone who's really approachable. But you really seem to take an active interest in the people who come to you. And I think that warmth is really valued in you, as well. So I'm wondering, does that contribute to your success? Would you say that that approachability that you have-- it's not just your brain, and your experience, and your medical background, and Six Sigma leadership, and everything that you espouse-- but is it the fact that maybe because you are woman you have been more successful for those traits, too? I hate to say this, and I hate to put a twist on this, but I'm not sure I've always been so accessible and approachable. Again, I do think that over time that I've learned how to be a better leader. I also think that I've again, sort of grown in my own confidence. And that has allowed me to be more approachable. I think approachability and vulnerability-- they're not synonymous, certainly, but they do come hand in hand. And I think they are, to some degree, female traits and I'm proud to have them. So, yeah, I think being a woman has been a great asset for me. And I love being a woman. You know, one of the great things about being a woman is that I get to wear makeup and heels. And have a fabulous shoe collection, I'll add. OK, so there you have it. Being a woman is amazing, OK? I agree. So with all that, if you could sum up, look back at your younger self. If you could give yourself two words of advice, the 25-year-old Elana, what would you say to her? Have a sense of humor. And make sure that you are in control of the imbalance you decide to have in your life. OK, I can't leave that alone. That's intriguing. You want to expand a little bit on that? I think it's erroneous to think about, or to aspire to balance. I think that's maybe not even achievable, personally. I don't know. We all talk about it, but it is ever elusive. That said, if you program out, almost-- if you plan and organize your life according to the different facets of it and know that there are times when the scale is going to tip, in terms of your efforts, and resources, and energies to one of those facets over another, accept it. And know that you're the one who's decided to do that. You can control that. And you are in control of that. And people sometimes ask me, they say, you know, you seem so balanced. And I am so not balanced. I have no balance. But I am completely in control of my non-balance. I am. I know exactly what I'm doing. I know exactly, what little time I'm spending on x and how much time I'm spending on y. And you know what? Over time, it changes around a little bit because I choose to change it around a little bit. And it's my choosing, no one is making me this. That's how I look at it. It sounds like a very empowered approach to kind of letting a little bit of chaos in your life and being at peace with it. Well said. Yes, I love that. You have a great way of saying things yourself. Well, I think that this was just such a fantastic discussion. I really appreciate all that you have shared by way of that vulnerability, your experience, your humor. And so look forward to talking to you again in the future. My pleasure, thank you so much. You've been listening to Florida Blue Radio, recorded at our Jacksonville headquarters. For notes for today's program, visit our blog at Be sure to leave us a comment there with your ideas or suggestions for future program. Until next time, here's to you in your pursuit of health.

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Kate Warnock

Kate Warnock is a member of the Florida Blue social media team and has loved being at the forefront of the social wave @FLBlue. A marketer with ten years’ experience, Kate is also a wife and mom to two children. When not at work, you’ll find Kate listening to NPR, reading The New Yorker and Cooking Light, and arriving two minutes late to yoga class.

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