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Management Strategies

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An Agile Path To Success

From the US Navy to Ford, senior VP and CIO Susan Courtney has taken lessons from her unique career path to transform IT, culture, and collaboration at Nebraska Blue.

One of her most influential roles, she says, was her six-year term as a naval flight officer in the US Navy. As an officer, Courtney led people in the back end of her aircraft in communications. Observing the crew’s coordination in flying the plane and the interactions among team members taught her core principles in teamwork and communication. In addition to understanding and leveraging the strengths of each team member, she learned to consider the effects her actions have on others. Often, Courtney says, team members have an impact on each other without knowing it. “I see a lot of that in corporations,” she adds.

Spurring cultural change at Nebraska Blue proved a challenge. One of the core components of its cultural transformation was training IT managers in the concept of servant leadership, a task recommended by the same experts who assisted in its first trial of the Agile methodology. The servant leadership course offerings are considered a strong foundation for a successful Agile-focused organization.

“It’s the philosophy that says, ‘I’m not here to tell you what to do — I’m here to get things out of your way, I’m here to facilitate your growth,’” explains Courtney.

The idea behind this technique is to make employees as strong and competitive as possible without holding their hands throughout each project. This strategy empowers workers to make their own decisions and their managers can trust they will have the ability to perform.

“If you give [workers] a vision, and you give them the support in building their skills, they can outperform anything that you could micromanage,” says Courtney of the results. “It’s maximizing the power of the individual contributors to a level that I never thought was possible.” She notes that the strategy’s influence has expanded throughout the organization.

While the initiative was ultimately successful, there was initial pushback from employees in managerial roles, who preferred the command-and-control model of working with their teams. Some people left, Courtney admits, and the organization has consequently altered its standards for hiring managers. In contrast to more authoritative individuals who typically fill leadership roles, she seeks candidates who excel in collaboration and motivation, and who treat mistakes as learning experiences.

Eye On Innovation

Courtney’s influence has extended to how Nebraska Blue approaches innovation. “Any company that’s founded on risk is going to have some struggles with innovation,” she says. While the insurance industry will never be on the far end of the innovation spectrum, she says, carriers can build a culture that encourages development of new ideas.

In an effort to spur innovation and team building, Nebraska Blue recently launched its first hackathon, which was inspired by similar events at local companies. Participants had six weeks to form teams and refine their ideas prior to the hackathon, during which they had 48 hours to collaborate and develop potentially innovative ideas.

“I was really surprised by the number of people who signed up,” Courtney says. About 66 staff members formed 14 to 15 teams for the company’s inaugural event, held in August. Selected winners will have the opportunity to see their projects further developed and implemented.


Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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