Building a Culture of Innovation at Delta Dental

By Kaitlin Milliken |  February 23, 2021


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Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. And this is the start of a very special season where we take you inside the C-Suite of big organizations. In each episode, we’ll interview a different C-level leader to talk about how they connect to innovation teams. That includes how they set priorities and their advice for getting support from senior leadership. I’m your host, Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead. 

Today, we’ll sit down with Sarah Chavarria, the Chief People Officer of Delta Dental. With dental insurance plans in 15 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands — Delta Dental forms one of the largest dental benefits delivery systems in the US. In fact, Delta Dental now serves over 80 million Americans.

On a personal note, this smile is also a product of two rounds of braces, courtesy of Delta Dental insurance… You can’t see it, but you’ll have to take my word on this one. 

As a Chief People Officer, Sarah is responsible for talent acquisition, human resources, and how the company implements its strategy. That includes championing the company’s core values: trust, service, excellence, and innovation. 

We’ll talk with Sarah after this break. 


Kaitlin Milliken: Looking to learn new skills to help you advance your career and manage a rapidly-changing environment? Well, don’t worry. InnoLead is here to help. We’ve asked your peers to run workshops all throughout this month that they typically run internally for their colleagues. The goal? To give you insight into how other innovations build innovation knowledge and capability at their companies.

In our next session, Chick-fil-A’s Michael McCathren explores how asking the right questions can help you better understand —and solve— challenges at your organization. To register and see what else is on the agenda, visit Now, back to the show. 


Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back with Sarah Chavarria, the Chief People Officer of Delta Dental. During the conversation, Sarah shared how her team ensures innovation is a central part of the company’s culture, and best practices for helping people manage change. She also discussed how her team adapted to meet new challenges caused by COVID-19. 

So just to kick us off, can you talk a little bit about what change management is and how that plays into your role as Chief People Officer at Delta Dental?

Sarah Chavarria: Once an organization or a leader decides they want to do something in the organization, that will almost always mean something has to change. There’s a big effort to figure out, how are we going to do this? And my role as a Chief People Officer becomes really important here. Because what you’re really trying to do is make sure that you get all of the people who work for your organization, or all of the people who are going to be impacted by this change, to understand it, participate in it, and at the end of the day, come out on the other side of whatever this change is really bought into and supporting the change. And frankly, it’s something a lot of organizations don’t do well, it’s the reason a lot of implementations fail is because we don’t attend to the change management, which is anticipating, “How am I going to feel about something that’s new to me, or different than I’ve been doing it for years?” 

Kaitlin Milliken: Yeah, you mentioned that this change management process can be difficult at times. What are some of the biggest barriers to innovation and making change at these larger organizations?

Sarah Chavarria: Probably the one word that will resonate with everyone that’s a big barrier, I’ll just say, is culture. And especially in an organization that has been very successful at doing what they do for many, many years, and has embarked on a transformation which is a series of changes that they’re going to introduce. I think the culture can get in the way of how people come together to discuss those changes, how people make decisions, who they include, right? 

So a big part of change management, for example, is thinking about who are the stakeholders who are going to care that we’re going to make this change and making sure you’re inviting them to the conversation early and having them participate in shaping what that result can be. And if your culture has been one that doesn’t naturally bring people together to have discussions like that, that could be a really big barrier. So that’s just one example of a potential risk, if you will, to driving a great change in an organization.

Kaitlin Milliken: Yeah, I love how you mentioned culture. I know last time we spoke, you talked a lot about the employee values at Delta Dental, which sort of plays into that idea of culture. What are those? And how are those values reinforced in the way that people work?

Sarah Chavarria: Delta Dental is an organization that’s been around for a long time and is, you know, a wonderful brand. We’ve probably all had Delta Dental at some point, if we don’t have them now. And they invited me to join their organization to help drive transformation — to think about, you know, “How can we take care of our customers, our providers and our employees differently, thab we take care of them today?” And I said, “Culture can be a big driver for that.” So we set out to say, “Well, the best thing to, to really engage people around change is to make sure that we’re driving that change from a set of shared values.”

And so I met, other leaders met, with hundreds of employees across the organization really asking one question, which was: “If you would want everybody you know to work here, what kind of organization would we be?” I think what’s really important about that is that our employees shape those. And so we have trust, service, excellence, and innovation. And for innovation, it was really critical that we give them some definition, because that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. And so we were really clear that for us, innovation was defined by a sense of curiosity, and inviting people to start to bring a sense of curiosity to their work. And then we spend time on developing people around what that means.

Kaitlin Milliken: Something we hear a lot about in our community is this debate on whether you can train people to be more innovative, and learn things like lean startup and agile. Or do you have to hire people who already have that mindset and those skills? What do you think of that debate that we see in our community?

Sarah Chavarria: Well, I have spent my whole career, almost 30 years, focused on development. And I absolutely believe you can develop people to be more innovative. And it really centers around a word that you used, which is “mindset.” And the development isn’t going to look like, “Hey, here’s a recipe for how you’re going to be innovative tomorrow.” You have to really rethink how you might develop a population.  

And so what I would offer here is, we’ve spent a lot of time focused on behaviors, right? So we learn the right behaviors to bring to being agile and being a part of a great team, for example. Well, what drives our behaviors is how we think, and that’s where mindset comes in. So what I would say is, some of our successes have been running development programs, with our leaders and with the workforce, that really help folks get a sense of awareness about how they think about things. And as a result of how they’re thinking about it, how do they show up to fill in the blank: meetings, projects, you know, whatever that is. So I think that if we can focus our development on really giving individuals some insight to how they think about things and how they’re showing up to things, then you can absolutely invite them to reshape their mindset and come to the team or the project or their workplace in a different way. 

Kaitlin Milliken: To go a little deeper, when it comes to teaching people and coordinating these ways of learning new things, what does that look like? In two parts: What did that look like prior to COVID? And what does that look like in today’s environment? 

Sarah Chavarria: Of course, we want to do that bringing people together because we want to create a room full of experiences where, Kaitlin, you and I would be interacting with one another and then we would have the “Ooh, that’s how that landed.” COVID has, you know, invited us to think about is wow, how do you move some of that content and some of those experiences — which I’ll call simulations, because you’re simulating some some reality but you’re inviting people to work through — and it’s asked us to really move them to a virtual format. And so about four months ago, one of our vice presidents asked me to just do a snippet of culture training is what I’ll label it, for her team that I would traditionally facilitate in front of a room or someone on my team would traditionally pull a class together for. 

And while we couldn’t exactly embark on some of the simulations, or some of the exercises with one another, threesome storytelling, and my ability to relate how I’ve had experiences with people going through some of these exercises, so kind of leaning on a different skill, which is storytelling versus setting up an experience for you to have. We were able to get through it in a way where the group that reports to this vice president — and it wasn’t just a small group. We had a few 100 people dialed into the Zoom. So maybe that’s a benefit as we were able to bring this to a large group of people. But they walked away with similar expressions of gratitude and appreciation that any instructor-led class I’ve ever had the pleasure of leading has walked out with. 

Kaitlin Milliken: You mentioned storytelling as one way that you’re relaying information. And teaching people are there any other practices when it comes to teaching and training, that you find are very effective, especially when it comes to innovation, 

Sarah Chavarria: A really big thing to get right is for an organization and the leaders who are driving the change, to be able to articulate why the change is important. Some change management, folks would call it lightning a burning platform, you can call it whatever you want. But it’s really this impetus for the change itself. And being able to clearly articulate that for people. Because if you’re in an organization, it isn’t readily apparent to most of the folks there that anything would need to change. Because if you think about it, “I feel effective. I’m filling my day. I’m doing my work. My performance reviews are fantastic. So I have no reason to stop doing what I’m doing and do something else.”

So I would say the ability to articulate why a change is important is really important. I think the ability to get a little vulnerable, if you will, and let your folks know that “It’s not going to be a meadow of roses, as we march through this. We’re going to encounter some problems. We invite you to help us find those. And we invite you to help us solve for those.” I think a leader or a group of leaders who can do that will find themselves with a much more engaged population, not only the ability to articulate why we’re doing something, but to help people envision what it’s gonna look like when we’ve gotten there. I think those are other critical components that really support engaging people — which, at the end of the day, that’s what you want to do around even wanting to take on a new mindset, develop their skills, play in change, when it’s going to be harder than it is today.

Kaitlin Milliken: Definitely, that’s really interesting. I love how much you talked about buy-in. And I kind of want to get a sense of how that fits into that larger picture. So say we’re in a circumstance where we want to implement a new change at Delta Dental. What is the process of rolling that out? What is the more step-by-step way of thinking about accomplishing said change? 

Sarah Chavarria: It’s probably the biggest missed change-management exercise ever. And that is sitting and thinking about who your stakeholders are. So the process is actually facilitating with the individual or individuals who are leading that change a session to anticipate who the direct stakeholders will be. And those will be obvious, right? “Oh, we need technology because we’re going to implement a technology tool.” And, “Ooh, we might need to bring in HR because we’re going to probably change people’s titles.” So the direct stakeholders are a little more obvious. 

But then the exercise of really identifying who the indirect stakeholders are, and who might we be impacting, even though we don’t need them at the table to design the solution, because you want to start communicating with them early, and you want their buy-in because at the end of the day, they’re going to be impacted, and you’ll find resistance there. So I would say it’s stakeholder identification and creating a list. And then this is really important, then you have to really kind of sit in the exercise of anticipating the “what’s in it for them.” Where is their resistance going to come from? What do we know? What can we anticipate? And then really start to shape how you’re going to address that early. 

So really getting that anticipated response from those stakeholders and building a plan for how you’re going to address that. And that plan should have a couple of parts to it. It should have an informed bucket. Some of your stakeholders you’re just informing. You’re running nice communication channels and content to keep them in the loop. Some you’re educating. If you’re going to change out a contact center’s technology, where they get all their information, you’re going to be doing a lot of education, and re-skilling, and rebuilding that, and that’s really important. And then some it is you need their approval or you need their, let’s call it, buy-in. You need them to come make some commitment to something that they’re going to help.

Kaitlin Milliken: I want to see that in context. Do you have any examples of effective change management initiatives that you want to share? 

Sarah Chavarria: March 16, we’re sitting in a conference room in San Francisco, and we are advising our vice presidents, “Hey, let’s dial back the travel. Let’s not get on airplanes, because this COVID thing looks like it’s contagious. Not sure what’s going to happen. But let’s do our part and keep meetings to a zero.” While we’re in this meeting, both the Bay Area San Francisco and Pennsylvania announced shelter-in-place. Big change. We are an almost full time, in-office company. We wrapped up the vice president meetiing. We huddled as a leadership team. And we did exactly what I just described: Who do you know, are we all here to make the decision about what we’re going to do as an organization faced with these two shelters-in-place that, by the way, don’t affect all of our offices. But, what’s the philosophy we’re going to use to lead through this, which for us became: “Let’s go with the community and the local governments that seem to be playing it the safest. And let’s apply that throughout.” Right? So we kind of made some rules. We got buy-in. 

So then we set out to “Okay, this means we’re going to remote everyone, except for the people who cannot do their jobs from home.” What we had to think about from a change management perspective was how do we create a channel for leaders so that the leaders can be the first to communicate with and equip them with the talking points that do everything I described in the last question, right? They anticipate the questions the employees are going to have, they anticipate where the concerns are going to come from. They anticipate everything we know to-date. What if the schools closed? And that we can have answers for that. 

So we created a communication channel for the leaders. We launched leadership meanings. Our CEO was magnificent. He jumped immediately into a cadence of doing regular town halls with the staff, like everyone across the company. We made sure that we were creating some channels for the employees to openly share with us what they’re concerned about, so that we can have that real time feedback, which is also really critical and change so that we’re not holed up in a room trying to imagine what everybody’s going through, that we’re responding to real people who have real concerns.

Kaitlin Milliken: And when you mentioned channels to get feedback from employees, do you mean like an online messaging system or form? What does that mean more specifically?

Sarah Chavarria: I call them channels because it’s a variety of those. So one, we did pulse surveys to more, kind of, formally go out, ask questions and seek feedback. We turned on the chat and the Q&A features anytime we’re doing a Zoom, whether it’s organization wide, or leadership-specific so that we could capture their Q&A or capture their feedback live there. We’ve done team huddles. So we’ve made sure that our frontline leaders are huddling with their folks, and then giving them a way to share those questions back through — for example, the people team or the leadership team — so that we have multiple ways to make sure we have a finger on the pulse of what’s happening. 

We also have a very, I hate to use “open-door policy” — because all the doors are open right now, most of us aren’t at work. But what I mean by that is I think we’ve created a culture of engagement such that I will get an email from an employee that will say, “Hey, I don’t know if you know, but in the city of ‘blank,’ we are now facing ‘blank.’ And we’d love it if you would think about, you know, what we can do about that.” And when you have that feedback loop, then you’re more agile, right? Because you’ve got kind of instant information. And I can take it to a meeting and say, “Hey, in the state of ‘blank,’ they’re dealing with ‘blank,’ what do we do about that?” And we can very quickly come to an opinion.  

Kaitlin Milliken: Wonderful. And this is my final question for you. Do you have any advice that we haven’t gotten a chance to go through yet for leaders tasked with spreading innovation practices, or change management at their organizations?

Sarah Chavarria: Ask for feedback, but be open to receiving it. I think sometimes people embark on a change, really set on not only what the change needs to look like, but really set on how it’s going to unfold. And anytime humans are involved, it’s not gonna unfold that way. So I would say, ask for feedback. But be open to it, and seek out some people you might not normally seek out to help give you some feedback, especially if you are new to an organization, and you have the benefit of having folks who have been in that organization for a while that might seem resistant on the onset. What they’re sitting on in their pot of gold is they know how things get done in that organization’s culture, and can be really helpful in helping you develop a plan. 

And yeah, and I would just say, don’t get hung up on bringing the right change model to the right framework to the right action plan. It can be so much more fluid than that. I certainly have taken my time to consume a lot of change philosophies, and I have my favorites. But what has happened is they’ve kind of bits and pieces of them have kind of come together to just help me think through all the things you have to think through change. And, and I would say just seek help from others, engage the people around you, and you’ll be so much more successful, and you’ll have so much greater buy-in, and thus you’ll see the change through. 


Kaitlin Milliken: So gathering feedback and listening to employees creates a culture where innovation can thrive. 


You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and edited by me, Kaitlin Milliken, special thanks to Sarah Chavarria for helping kick off our new podcast season. For more tips and tricks from inside the C-suite, be sure to subscribe to this special season of Innovation Answered. You can find our show wherever you get your podcasts and on our website, Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you soon. 


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