We're proud to announce that Ellen Meza has officially joined the Nava Benefits Advisory Board. Read on to learn more about Ellen, her insider knowledge as a prior broker herself, and her views on the ideal broker-client relationship.
You've had a really interesting career path, beginning with your work in theatre. How do you use these skills now in your day-to-day as an HR leader?
I spent most of my childhood thinking I was going to be a famous movie star — or at least working behind the scenes. But after I began working in the entertainment industry, I happened to land a side job in insurance. Although I mostly took the job to make ends meet, I discovered that I really loved helping people. So I stuck with it, and I'm so happy that I did.
Although I no longer work in theatre, I am constantly using the skills that I gained through that experience. In particular, I use a lot of my improv training in day-to-day interactions. I'm a big believer in "yes, and" — adding to what others say to build momentum and keep them engaged.
On a deeper level, theatre is all about the process. Whether you're the star of the show or the stage manager, there's a distinct journey from A to Z. That's also true of HR and benefits. Now wherever I turn, I see that process that I fell in love with at an early age. It's in everything I do.
You've joined the Nava Advisory Board at such a cataclysmic moment in the benefits space. After perhaps the most unpredictable year in modern history, benefits are transforming — as are employees' expectations. I'd imagine you must have a unique perspective on this. What’s your ethos on benefits in the age of Covid?
Last year put a lot of strain on the benefits space. We needed to quickly readjust our strategies and budget to deploy benefits to remote workers. But this also revealed one key truth: technology is going to make our jobs easier and more scalable, while also helping employees understand and engage with their benefits.
That last part is the most important to me. Benefits should make our employees' lives easier and better. Moving forward, we should focus on implementing benefits that are going to make a real impact on employees' lives. Given the choice between in-office ping-pong tables or robust mental healthcare support, I know which option has more potential impact.
I also think that it's become easier for employees to ask for the benefits they want and need. If you think about it, employees are giving their employers a gift: their time, energy, and talent. For them to show up and be present every day — especially during Covid — we should at least return the favor by giving them the tools and support to manage their lives.
We've heard from several HR leaders that a roadblock in the benefits renewal process can be pushback from their own leadership team. When "the call is coming from inside the house," what advice do you have for HR leaders on managing up and making a case for their benefits decisions?
Lead with the confidence that you were hired for your experience or knowledge. The fact that they've made the decision to bring you on and keep you there means that they trust that you can do your job well. And doing your job well means that you do the research and come prepared to make your recommendations.
Above all, remember that you're here for a purpose. The reason why you haven't been asked to leave — and maybe why you've made the decision to stay — is that you're passionate. You want to make a change. So if you really believe in the recommendations you're making, you should feel confident in them.
As a former broker yourself, you are very familiar with the role that a broker should play for an HR leader — and you haven't been afraid to speak up to advocate for yourself and your employer in the past. What are the telltale signs that an HR leader should look for to determine whether their broker is a good partner?
I think a lot of us HR leaders have been basing broker decisions on gut feeling: "I think this person and I are going to get along." But instead of focusing on the individual broker, take a holistic perspective on the organization you're going to partner with.
Look for a brokerage who aligns with your organization on a very deep level. I would make a list of your organization's most important values, and see if there's an organization who's working in that space. For instance, do you want to work with someone who can leverage tech to solve problems, or who holds themselves accountable to their clients?
And you'll know you're in the right direction when the broker spends time getting to know you and your company's culture. If I'm working with a new broker, and the first three months are spent talking only about future strategy, then I'll be nervous that this is a canned presentation rather than one made specifically for me. They can't really know me and my business that soon — it's going to take more time.
If your broker is not living up to your expectations, what options do you have?
I've been lucky that I haven't had to replace my broker many times throughout my career. But recently I had to make a really big change at a critical time.
The first thing I had to do was be honest with the firm we were working with at the time. I had to say, "I'm not happy, and here are the reasons why." I gave them a chance to come back and try to fix the issue — but if it gets to that point, it may already be a sign that they're not fully aligned with your organization.
Next, dive into a discovery phase. Go out and meet with new consulting firms. Listen to what these firms are saying in public spaces — it reveals a lot about who they are and what they value. And don't fall for the fallacy that the larger a brokerage, the better their services; there are firms of all sizes doing great work.
But don't commit to a broker until you have a three-year roadmap in mind. Without that plan to guide you, you won't be able to choose a partner who can provide the unique support you'll need.
Above all, don't be afraid to make a change. I've made vendor choices that worked for me at the time, but later on didn't work out. When that happens, changing your broker may be what's best for your business. So if you feel like you need to forge a new course, know that that option is always on the table.
What role can brokers play in transforming and reforming healthcare?
It's funny, I think a lot about how I can use my platform to drive change... but you're right! Our brokers and consultants should also be doing this work. A broker's job is not just about serving the client — it's about creating a more equitable and accessible healthcare system.
I'd love to see more brokers use their influence to push vendors to provide more comprehensive services. When employees are having problems accessing the care they need, their employers shouldn't have to seek out additional vendors. Nobody wants to end up managing 17 vendors when they could get the same results with three.
Overall, brokers should make HR leaders' jobs easier. When I take a look at my brokers' statement of work, I should be able to clearly see what they're planning to take off my plate. And if they don't deliver on those promises, I should be able to back out on our agreement. That's why Nava's Performance Guarantee is such an excellent tool for driving change — it holds brokers accountable.
And how can Nava lead the charge to make this vision a reality?
Number one is transparency. Be honest about your capabilities as well as your knowledge gaps. Set realistic expectations, and be willing to put yourself on the line when a client challenges you. Nobody wants to be surprised with bad news.
I can see that Nava is taking care to build relationships where their clients feel comfortable asking for what they want. We're all familiar with that idiom — "shoot for the moon, if you miss you'll land among the stars." When faced with that moonshot request, Nava responds with a "yes, and."
Have a question Ellen didn't answer? Our team can help.