Category Archives: feature

“The story”: corporate journalism or the real thing.

Lazy, Self-Indulgent Little Girls

Real and troubled: Claire Danes as Carrie on "Homeland"

I’m about halfway through catching up on a program, Homeland, that wrapped its first season some months ago. It could not be much better: a Federal agent (Claire Danes, as Carrie Mathison) tries to exorcise her guilt over the botched intelligence of 9/11 by preventing the next big instance of domestic terrorism from occurring. She becomes convinced that a former Iraq POW, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), now returned and trying to adjust to American life, is working on carrying out such an attack. Once convinced, Carrie is not the kind of person who’s likely to change her mind.

One of the best things about Homeland is Carrie herself: an intense workaholic who is both an asset and a liability at work. Early on, we see her struggling with a medical issue, then we learn that it’s a mental issue, next that it runs in the family. Throughout, this woman is persuasive. She has a knack for convincing her colleagues that the things she believes are really happening.

Hell, she convinces us.

But Carrie’s lows are dramatic. She cusses, rants. Has alcohol-fueled impulses, sleep disturbances, crying jags. Declares that I just can’t do this anymore (never mind this is her life, her passion, all she seems to want to do). Naturally she does these things. I’m not sure you can depict a mental patient in fiction without showing them. Continue reading


Keeping Promises Pays Off

Ask Operations Specialist Sharonda Ball what it’s like being a single mother of four boys (Julian, 18; Jamie, 18; Jordan, 16; and Jaylen, 14), and she’ll laugh.

“It wasn’t easy,” she admits.  “It’s not easy.  I could have taken a different route.  But if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Sharonda is the strong center in the lives of her sons, two of whom have recently attracted the attention of the Sacramento-area media for their success on a local basketball team.  Her twin sons Jamie and Julian, seniors at San Juan High School in Sacramento, lead a team – the San Juan Spartans – that currently leads its league, and is headed into the playoffs.  Two weeks ago, the Sacramento Bee ran a story on Jamie and his girlfriend ; and last week, The Sacramento Union named the brothers the team’s “Twin Towers”.

Jamie’s girlfriend Amara is the top scorer on the Spartans women’s team.  Also a senior, Amara has been Jamie’s girlfriend since middle school – but the two have been friends since grade school.

“I like Amara,” says Sharonda.  “The focus these days is on having an ‘adult relationship’, but these two just focus on being kids.  They exchanged promise rings; they’re best friends.  And in my home, they know they’re safe.  My kids know how to behave,” she laughs.

High Standards As a Family Tradition
The recent media interest in Sharonda’s sons seems to be about more than their athletic ability.  It’s also about relationships, hard work and achievement.  The twins continue to set and reach progressively higher goals, on the court, at work and at school.

Jamie is a true academic success:  he raised his grades from D’s in middle school to a current 3.8 average, thanks to the combined inspirations of basketball, a supportive girlfriend, a varsity coach who’s been in his life since the fourth grade – and his positive, loving mom.

At least one of the newspapers that ran the story on Sharonda’s sons credits her with their success, on and off the court.  The Union mentions her “strong character” and her very high standards for her sons.

“She just will not have anything but a strong effort in school,” the twins’ varsity coach, who has known them since elementary school, says of Sharonda.  She’s raised the boys to “have respect for elders and authority, and it shows.”

Her sons agree. “My mom, she’s my everything,” says Jamie.

“She’s done it all by herself,” adds Julian.

Sharonda sees things a little differently. “Jamie challenged himself,” she says.  “He could have taken an easier way to the higher grades, but he took on AP classes.”

She’ll agree that the boys have learned a few things from her.  “They’ve noticed my work ethic.  If you want something, you have to work for it.”

Sharonda at Blue Shield:  the Heart of the Work Ethic
“I’ve been at Blue Shield since before the boys’ high school days,” Sharonda says.  Starting at the bottom, she was soon promoted to lead the team she’d once worked on as a temp.

Now in Direct Sales, Sharonda enjoys a range of responsibilities:  designing workflows, performing training on Individual and Family Plans and Medicare Products, maintaining public and private web pages.  She occasionally has to travel within California for work.  She may have to miss one of her sons’ basketball games due to an upcoming trip next month, she added.

“I try to make it to all of their games,” says Sharonda – who lives right across the street from the high school that all four of her boys attend.  Living there is less convenient for her work, but much more comfortable for her sons.  “Everything’s always more convenient for them!” laughs the devoted mother.

Now, with the twins applying for scholarships and weighing college offers, Sharonda knows that she is ready for the next stage of her life.  Her two oldest sons will soon leave for college. “I had a day earlier on when the sadness hit me,” she admits.  “But now I’m ready.  I’m ready to move on, to what’s next for them and for me.”

Sharonda knows that she has done a lot of things right, but she’s also realistic.

“I’m raising four boys.  I have to be a good role model,” she says.  “I have to work hard, to show them what it means to make your way.  And I’m very thankful to be in a department with supervisors who are so people-friendly.”

“I like this company,” Sharonda adds.  “My team is a big part of my family’s life.  We do the Heart Walk together every year, all six of us:  Amara, the boys and I.  Last year we even brought some friends.”

Though she seems a little surprised by the recent media attention, Sharonda is pleased.  She knows how hard her family has worked – and the work doesn’t end here.  There are many more goals for the five of them to achieve together.

“I think it’s a good thing,” she says with a laugh.

The Sacramento Bee feature story

The Sacramento Bee blog

The Sacramento Union story

After 36 Years, a Veteran Says Goodbye

The year is 1972, and a young man named Jim Flagg has just started his career with Blue Shield.  Nixon is President, the country is at war, but Flagg is focused on other things.  He is focused on the new chapter in his life:  a new job, and the child he and his wife are expecting.

By 1972, Flagg is already a lucky man.  He has a young son, born during his tour with the Navy in Hawaii.  His captain offers him a choice:  two years with his wife at Pearl Harbor, or his original assignment, in Da Nang.  Flagg chooses Hawaii … and life.

If he could have named that baby girl Kevin, in honor of his captain, Jim would have.

Jim Flagg’s years of service to Blue Shield outnumber his years in the Navy:  he put in only 20 there.  In his 36 years at Blue Shield, Flagg has moved a few times – from one building to another, between offices in San Francisco – but he held his favorite job, as Forms Analyst, for 27 years.

“I liked doing it,” he says simply.  “Helping people, giving them what they wanted.  Designing a paper form to satisfy the needs of the user and the company allowed me to be creative.”

Flagg remembers a time when Blue Shield was young:  growing rapidly and geographically dispersed.  There were fewer people spread out across more land, and those who worked here had to work differently.

“I remember going out to do fieldwork in the late 70’s.  This made it easier to understand the whole department and what they were doing.”

But the offices themselves?  You could keep them.  “Dreary,” Flagg says, of 1970’s office culture.  “Unwelcoming.”

He finds today’s work conditions much improved.  “You just look at HR, how much it’s changed, how much it’s really trying to do,” he says.  “People are more engaged now.  And the HR:Connect website – in those days, who even thought of something like that?”

Flagg has struggled with his health over the years.  In October 2004, the Forms department was eliminated, and Flagg lost his job.  That was before Marianne Jackson, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, stepped in to bring him back.

“I said, ‘I can still do a lot for you guys,’” he recalls, of the discussion that preceded his return to Blue Shield.  “And Marianne [Jackson] believed me.”

Jackson remembers agreeing to rehire him.

“Believing that each employee has a contribution to make and mutually benefiting from the experience is what this company is all about,” she says.

“Listening to Jim and creatively thinking through an alternative for him was just the right thing to do, in my opinion.  We can not always make the win/wins happen, but when they do – glorious!”

Flagg appreciates the work he has been able to do since his return.  “What I do is necessary and helpful.  I perform tasks that need to be accomplished.  But it’s less creative,” than the Analyst role he held earlier on, he admits.

Lately, he says it’s been more challenging to physically navigate the office.  “I’m finding it more difficult to get around,” he says lightly.  “It’s probably time to go.”

Few are ready to agree with him, though.

“Jim’s terrific,” laughs his carpooling buddy Francine Behar, of Facilities and Security Services.  Behar met Flagg a couple of years ago, when they carpooled to work together.  He loved to drive, and she loved riding with him.

“When traffic was bad,” she says, “he’d try to give us a scenic route.  We’d go on these joyrides:  Jim would find any road that wasn’t full of cars, just to get home.  I wasn’t one of the regulars in that carpool – they called me the ‘extra head’ – and Jim would leave notes at my desk when there was room for me.

“I have such respect for him,” Behar continues.  “I use Jim as an illustration of determination for my son.  He’s so positive.

“Once Jim told me that he was going camping.  I said, ‘That’s great!  Who are you going with?  He said he was going by himself.  ‘I just like camping,’ he said.”

Why leave now?  Even Flagg has mixed feelings.

“At my Navy Reserve retirement gathering, it just hit me – and hit me wrong – that people would say, ‘this guy’s retiring’.”

Still, he has good reasons to make the move.

“I’ve sold my house to my son,” Flagg says.  “I’ve paid off my RV.  And I’ve always wanted to travel and live in my RV.  This has always been my dream.”

Where would he go?

“Anywhere it’s warm,” he says with a smile.

One of the Good Guys: Lou Lombardo

Lou Lombardo has worn a lot of hats in his career at Blue Shield of California, and enjoyed them all.  The man who is now Vice President of Installation and Membership started as a temp in the Orange County office 16 years ago … when he was twelve.

We’re kidding.  He was ­­13.

“There’s such a rich history of ‘blue-blood’ that runs through the organization,” Lou says.  “I enjoy seeing people advance in their careers.  After 16 years, you get to know a lot of people.”

He means it.  On our way from the interview room to the elevator, Lou greeted every person we passed by name.

What is your role here?

My team in Installation & Membership is responsible for welcoming new members and employers to Blue Shield.  We work closely with our sales team to bring on new customers, enroll them into eligibility systems, and maintain accurate enrollment information.  I like to think we’re the “front door” to Blue Shield.

What’s the most satisfying part of your workday?

Spending time with employees in the division – we have over 450 team members.  Everyone has an idea on how we can do things better.  Meeting with them individually or in groups is the most rewarding part of my job.  I wish I could do it all day!

Do you talk with all of them?

I try to.  We have two offices in Lodi and one in El Dorado Hills.  When I’m in any of them, I think it’s important to stop and talk to everyone.  I think I have the best team, but I’m biased.  In operations, it’s critical to know your priorities.  I’m accountable to the customers we serve and to the people who make it happen every day in I&M.

What’s the biggest challenge you encounter at work, and how do you solve it?

My biggest challenge is preparing my organization for Legacy Modernization.  We’re replacing a 30-year-old system that has outlived its purpose, and the new process will touch everyone.  But we have to bring ourselves into the future with new technology, processes, and ways of doing business that will keep us competitive.

We have some of the most talented individuals in the company involved in this project, along with the support of the entire executive team.  I have no doubt we’ll be successful in moving to the new system over the next few years.  But it’s everyone’s challenge.  I don’t feel too lonely when I’m worrying about it.

What does success look like to you?

I’ve seen success happen at many levels here.  When I started, I think we had just over 1 million members, and we were number 6 or 7 in the state.  Now we have almost 3 million members and we’re the third largest.  That looks like the right path to success – but it’s definitely a journey.

True success happens when everyone knows what they’re doing is the right thing to do.  I’m thinking of something like the Welcome Experience for Employers:  the team might not have known exactly how they were going to get everything done, but they didn’t get stuck thinking about roles or the difficulty of the challenge.  They just did what had to be done – and they blew their goals away.

What made you happiest when you were young?

My parents made sure my siblings and I got to see the world.  We were fortunate to be able to travel quite a bit, and I still find that very rewarding – seeing new places and meeting new people.

Is there a place you want to visit and haven’t, yet?

I haven’t been to Africa and I’d love to go.  But I’m not the type who will sleep in a tent just to get close to nature.  I’m waiting for the right opportunity.

What do you tell your friends you do at work?

I used to talk about my work at a health care company all the time, but then I started getting everybody’s medical questions … Lou, can you tell me if my prescription drugs are covered?  How do I find the right doctor to treat my bunions?  Can I see a chiropractor weekly?  What about acupuncture?

So now I tell people I have a top secret job at the Pentagon.

Which of your personality traits has gotten you the furthest?

This will surprise no one:   my sense of humor.  The world is too serious sometimes.  A lot of things going on in business create anxiety and fear; it shouldn’t be like that.  Work shouldn’t define you.

At work, a sense of humor breaks down barriers between people.  Humor’s unexpected, and it helps people drop their guard and deal with each other more honestly.   We sometimes forget how important it is to stop and enjoy a moment.  It really makes a difference.

Who is the most intelligent person you know?

Over the last few months, I’ve worked very closely with some great people on the business case for Legacy Modernization; Rob Geyer and Jan Vorfeld really stand out.  I’ve learned a lot from them, and even when we don’t agree, it’s usually in those moments when I learn the most.

Rob and Jan made an impact on me in how they continually go deeper in their understanding of any problem they’re trying to solve.  They’re inquisitive; they keep looking for solutions when it would be easier to stop.  That’s intelligence.

What’s the greatest opportunity you see here?

I hope I can share my message about what a great company this is for anyone who wants to grow.  When I started in the Orange County office, I was looking for a temporary job to hold me over while I looked for my true career.  Little did I know that career had found me .

I went back to school to finish both of my degrees in order to advance at Blue Shield.  I’ve had the greatest opportunities over the years, to work in each of the business units and now in Operations.  All along, I always had an idea of the next step I wanted to take.  This is a great place to grow if you work hard and develop yourself.  That’s the story I want to tell.

The bonus question:  what’s your favorite movie?

Ok, you can’t laugh.  It’s a chick flick.  I love The Color Purple.

It’s a great movie that shows sustained determination over time under such adversity.  What people dealt with, over years, because they believed something better was possible:  that’s such a testament to the human spirit.  Each of us, through hope, determination and belief, can accomplish so much.

It is a chick flick.  But it’s a great movie too.