Mark Brooks is Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Centene Corporation, a Fortune 24 multinational healthcare organization. With executive responsibility for technology and information systems for the $125 billion company, Brooks leads a team of more than 4,000 employees who develop and implement programs And services that focus on members of the institution’s health plan. In November of 2021, he was awarded the St. Louis Leadership CIO Award ORBIE Award.
Centene has acquired 20 companies since its founding, including seven in the past five years, and Brooks’ Centene Technologies team has seen significant growth as part of the process. Most recently, he led the successful technology integration of two $10+ billion health plans. when we talked about My CIO Whisperers PodcastBrooks explained how a culture of “radical candor” helped them navigate the scope and complexity of these integrations, particularly the dynamics of individuals and talents, which are often the most challenging.
In addition to acquisitions, Brooks’ story is also useful when it comes to developing a feasibility study for an IT investment to grow the team and increase its impact. The key, he said, is building capacity in the team to meet business and technology needs. After the presentation, we spent some time talking about what it takes for IT to get and keep its seat at the driving table and why learning is key to developing a culture and achieving results. What follows is that off-air conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
DAN ROBERTS: Can you talk about the process you went through to rebrand and also when and why CXO should consider rebranding?
Mark Brooks: When we started together in 2016, we were IT professionals. And with the formation of the leadership team, it became clear that what we were trying to achieve was much more than what IT meant – a service organization or a call center. We really wanted to be a strategic partner to our internal clients. We wanted to sit at the leadership table, help set strategy, and generate results. We really wanted to have a direct connection between the work we did and, ultimately, the profits and losses.
So, as I mentioned in the podcast, we’ve created Business Engagement Teams – well-organized centers of excellence focused on the specific business processes that support the health plan. As part of our operating model, we have selected these people so that they can interact with our business partners and start building that brand and reputation. And when these things started coming together, the team decided, in a very thoughtful process, that Centene Technologies really was the description that exemplified the results we were trying to achieve.
In the podcast I’ve talked about some of the transformations I’ve gone through in the flexible way of working. The only thing I liked was the full service culture you put in and that you stayed on the course for the duration and delivered. How do you cultivate that in terms of how your people appear, how they engage, and how do they engage?
We have a structured service excellence training program, and we are making this investment for a number of reasons. Starting with the Centene Matters mission, we offer health insurance to people who really need quality care. So, we start thinking about that and the results we need to achieve for these individuals. And obviously, the best way to achieve that outcome is to have teams that can be successful and make their own part of that outcome. And that starts with how we treat our internal partners.
So, there are many things, but ultimately we have to support our business partners, and that service mindset, service excellence mindset, is something we’ve really covered as part of doing that.
One of the things that has been very interesting to us as we try to hire talent right now is that there are a lot of techies who are already embracing this mission and want to be a part of Centene – not just because we work on the latest technology, but because the work we do is really useful and impactful. Live life in a very positive way.
You are the CIO of Fortune 24. Why is it important to you to keep learning?
One of our phrases is that if you don’t win, you learn. We believe that learning is essential to further developing our culture and our ability to deliver results. And personally, I’ve fallen in love with technology over 30 years ago and have always loved gadgets. I literally taught myself programming languages. Some of the younger programmers on the team will tell you that over the years, I’ve embarrassed myself learning Java and embarrassed myself trying to learn Golang and those kinds of things. But I really see the analogy for me is that if you like tools, the work product is much better.
In fact, my grandfather used to say that the best furniture maker should love the smell of sawdust, and I really think that’s true. I’ve never really understood people trying to somehow work without having the foundational parts or understanding how things work. I wasn’t majoring in computer science, but I’ve always felt very comfortable leading technology teams because I’ve always aspired to learn technology. And when I say learn it, I don’t necessarily mean master it, but I mean understand it at a level where I can get a good common sense about what it takes to do something. So, I think this is important in any trade. If you do not like the building blocks somewhat, it is very difficult to supervise and lead.
The flip side of that is that the best leaders are also teachers. I know you do it every day. Can you tell us what you do on Monday evenings in your spare time?
I did a Capstone course at Washington University here in St. Louis a few years ago. And I teach the Capstone course, in part, because I have a real passion for developing technology talent and the course is unique. It is a cycle that assumes technical confidence. It assumes that at that point in your learning journey as a student you know the piece of technology well. But what it challenges you to do is to be a very constructive and active participant in the team.
It requires you to learn to write about technical concepts in a way that is recognizable to a non-technical audience. Most importantly, it prompts students to do an effective executive presentation where they make a recommendation to solve a problem; Describe it technically again for audiences that are not necessarily technical. So I think it’s a really good way to help techies complete their skill set, and hopefully over time it will be impactful in terms of helping them build their careers.
The past 18 months have been a challenging time, just in general, and certainly in the field of IT. What are your thoughts on the future of the profession?
Well, I guess if I were to frame my responses while talking to college graduates considering either a career in business or a career in technology, I would really encourage them to consider a career in technology, because I think, ultimately, Centene’s philosophy is That technology is becoming a core competency of business is just a fact widely accepted by all businesses. Technology and the way it evolves, digital technologies fundamentally change the opportunity for doing business. For example, where two small entities can disrupt an old business.
In some ways, I feel the lessons of the past 18 months, and some of the acceleration that’s been caused by the pandemic, put individuals in a better position to benefit from a career in technology.
For more ideas from Brooks on how to connect IT and business, as well as some of the lessons he’s learned from diverse business leaders and mentors over the years, Listen to the full podcast episode here.