Prescribing Change

Margita Thompson reinvents Health Net, Inc.’s company culture to make it the go-to plan for Latinos

“Latinos are no longer an emerging market, we are the general market,” says Margita Thompson, senior vice president of communications and Latino programs officer.

Having spent most of her career in prominent public roles—such as press secretary for former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and before that, Lynne Cheney in the White House—Margita Thompson is quick and sharp as a whip. “I have a sense of urgency built into my DNA,” Thompson says. Today, the fast-paced, media-savvy communicator (whose résumé includes a stint as political producer for CNN’s Larry King Live) is challenged to channel her accelerated drive into a tempered approach to revamp a corporation’s culture.

Thompson is changing the game at Los Angeles-based Health Net, Inc., a Fortune 200 health-insurance company. She was recruited there in 2007 to take on the role of vice president of communications, a move that marked her shift to the private sector. “After four or five cross-country moves, and 24/7 jobs, I needed to take a step back and get a little more stability,” she says. Chief among her tasks is a strategy to grow Hispanic market share and make Health Net the go-to plan for the Latino population in commercial and government-funded health programs. “This means integrating the community’s needs into everything we do, making it a central component of our operations and not a stand-alone effort,” Thompson explains. “Latinos are no longer an emerging market, we are the general market.”

Her title recently expanded to include “Latino programs officer.” A Mexican-American, raised between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, Thompson is the ideal woman to lead the march. Bicultural and bilingual, she was California’s first gubernatorial press secretary to give fluent Spanish interviews to Hispanic media.

Thinking Out Loud

Trading words with Margita Thompson

Is best when you can help spread it—because a rising tide raises all boats

Personally necessary so that you remain relevant no matter what changes happen in the world

Central to my core—can’t have long-term success without it

Exciting and at the tipping point

To inform the initiative, Thompson’s team brought in Santiago Solutions Group, a consultancy specializing in Hispanic-growth strategy. Together they’ve pored over external data, pooled internal data, and conducted focus groups. “Because we have been so data driven, it has given us a huge amount of credibility. When you are partnering with key stakeholders like actuaries, having numbers is very important. We can talk about what the numbers say with what is going to resonate with the community and who we are representing,” she says.

Health Net’s core now burns “Latino hot.” Making a bold statement, it contracted Acento Group, a renowned Latino advertising firm, to create its general market campaign—before even defining the Hispanic campaign. In addition, Health Net has added bilingual English/Spanish phone service at Community Solutions Centers in California’s East LA, Modesto, and Fresno. Further, it has set out to answer questions like, “How do you rearrange your performance metrics to meet the needs of a community that is much more high-touch?” The team is now challenged to find forms, other than turnaround time, to measure reps, since Latino calls average longer.

In the quest to become “culturally competent,” Thompson helped to create a group called the Jefes. These leaders are charged with sponsoring different aspects of the Latino initiative to encourage ownership and a shared vision. “At first people’s reaction was, ‘Let me give you the Latino on my team,’” Thompson recalls. But she was able to explain that the initiative needed decision makers, first and foremost—regardless of cultural heritage—to make Latinos an organizational priority.

“We have made an effort to bring executives from the top to the bottom along the journey, so that it’s not one that is fraught with a fear of the unknown,” Thompson says. She has relied on endorsement of the board and senior leaders, such as Steve Sell, president of the Western Region Health Plan; Patricia Clarey, SVP, chief regulatory and external relations officer; Jim Woys, chief operating officer; and Jay Gellert, CEO. Thompson also has a strong support system: namely, Carol Kim, a communications manager who has been tagged, unofficially, “deputy Latina.”

For Thompson, this Latino revolution is invigorating, not only for its potential to help the community and deliver ROI for the company, but also for the personal experience. She regularly mobilizes groups and aligns agendas in an enterprise-wide initiative that takes more than crafty messaging. Not many communications execs get that chance for P&L responsibility, she says. This self-labeled news junkie—whose first-grade “show and tell” revolved around the gas crisis—has found a way to marry her love for politics with a corporate pursuit. “Working in politics has made me aware of the overlapping environments that coexist and impact each other in order to move a policy, procedure, or project forward,” she says.

What’s more, as a Latina, Thompson can help her organization think from a different perspective. She can build a tighter connection to stakeholders. And that, she says, is the premio mayor.