IBX New-Hires

Meet the diverse talent Deavens has hired in his first nine months

I can’t remember the last time a prominent CEO strung together such high-profile diverse C-suite hires as Deavens in his first nine months, writes Larry Platt. That includes seeing to it that now the top two positions at IBX are held by people of color. Read company bios on:

Juan Lopez, CFO

Dr. Seun Ross, Director of Health Equity

Crystal Ashby, Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer


Well-Being @ Work

It's important. See how IBX cultivates good company culture.

IBX has a whole webpage dedicated to its mission to create a more harmonious work environment for its employees. Providing resources that encourage employees to improve their physical, mental, and emotional health, says IBX, helps spark positive lifestyle changes and fosters a more engaged, productive, and healthier workforce.

Check out IBX’s four-step plan to workplace well-being, and make some suggestions to higher-ups at your company if you feel like it’s lagging in the company culture department.

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Diversity For the Win

For first-year IBX CEO Greg Deavens, diverse hires and tackling health equity is smart business.

Talk about big shoes to fill.

Dan Hilferty, the longtime CEO of Independence Blue Cross (IBX), was a larger than life leader, both at IBX and for the region. A gregarious backslapper, you’d constantly see him on public service TV commercials, right out of CEO central casting, hair perfectly coiffed, smile glistening. When he stepped down a year ago, it was a loss for his company and the region: In his various roles, including a stint as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, few have done more to try to hector and cajole Philadelphia into a more robust pursuit of the common good.

In some circles, it may have been seen as a head-scratcher when, last September, Hilferty’s replacement was named: the company’s CFO, Greg Deavens. This was no Hilferty clone; the 60-year-old African-American executive was a numbers guy, oft described as mild-mannered, shy even.

Turns out, I had previously heard something about him. For years, I’ve occasionally played in a friendly doubles tennis game with one Charlie Pizzi, chairman of IBX’s board, someone best described by a word we seldom hear anymore: gentleman. One time a couple of years ago, between sets, he regaled us middle-age hyperventilators by telling us about some guy at IBX who was just a “remarkable human being.” I didn’t catch the name, but that’s the phrase I remember—remarkable human being. During his time on the public stage of Philadelphia, Charlie has dealt with some massive egos, and I remember him shaking his head talking about this fellow who had, to hear him tell it, no ego, just bedrock humility and heartland values.

I thought little of the exchange at the time, until Deavens was named Hilferty’s successor. I called Pizzi and, sure enough, this was that guy. Little did I know that, working in concert, Hilferty and Pizzi had been grooming Deavens for the top spot.

To be CEO of IBX is not like heading most other companies here. IBX is a behemoth, the region’s largest health insurance provider. Under Hilferty’s steady hand, it posted a 13 percent rise in revenue ($22 billion) and a nearly 100 percent increase in net income ($633 million) between 2019 and 2020.

To be CEO of IBX is not like heading most other companies here. IBX is a behemoth, the region’s largest health insurance provider. Under Hilferty’s steady hand, it posted a 13 percent rise in revenue ($22 billion) and a nearly 100 percent increase in net income ($633 million) between 2019 and 2020.

That success turned out to be a windfall for Philadelphia communities, particularly disadvantaged ones, as the corporation made a $30 million donation to its Independence Blue Cross Foundation—the largest in its 10-year history—and a $10 million contribution to its AmeriHealth Caritas Partnership, which offers health awareness and education programs to underserved communities.

Now nearly one year into his role at the top, it’s tempting to think of Deavens as a caretaker CEO, someone chosen to do no harm to what Hilferty and those before him had built. And, at every opportunity, Deavens helps fuel that perception by never failing to credit the leadership that has come before him. But don’t let the gentlemanliness fool you.

Right out of the gate, Deavens has put his stamp on his company, and is showing signs of doing the same when it comes to our region’s fortunes. This is particularly true when it comes to two of his abiding passions: diversity and inclusion, and confronting stubborn health equity issues.

Deavens with guests at an All Faith vaccination campaign event. | Photo courtesy Independence Blue Cross

I can’t remember the last time a prominent CEO strung together such high-profile diverse C-suite hires as Deavens in his first nine months. First came his appointment of Juan Lopez as CFO. Lopez, the third generation of a Puerto Rican family that settled in Camden, was called by Al Dia “the heart of Independence Blue Cross” when it honored him at its 2017 Hispanic Heritage Awards. Right out of the gate, Deavens, the company’s first African-American CEO, had seen to it that now the top two positions at IBX were held by people of color.

Next came the hiring of two prominent African Americans: Dr. Seun Ross, IBX’s first-ever director of health equity, and Crystal Ashby, who would fill what, at other companies, might dryly be referred to as the human resources position. Not so at Deavens’ IBX, where Ashby’s title is executive vice president and chief people officer.

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The latter innovation may seem like simple wordplay, but Deavens believes that language matters when it comes to establishing a culture. For some time now, for example, IBX hasn’t had “employees”; they’ve had “associates.” In fact, Deavens beams when talking about his company’s ARGs—Associate Resource Groups, nine different safe space, open forums for co-workers to connect, share and engage—and IBX’s Blue Crew, a volunteer army consisting of some 1,700 associates serving nearly 100 nonprofits.

There has been no more fervent adherent to the distinction between employee and associate than Deavens. Donna Farrell, IBX’s senior vice president of corporate communications, says she often has to remind him that people outside of the company don’t know that when he talks about his associates he’s really talking about his employees. Yet he won’t make the clarification, lest those inside 1901 Market Street get wind that he feels the need to kowtow to an increasingly antiquated hierarchical setup.

When Deavens got the top job in the middle of a pandemic that had so starkly laid bare so many health inequities, he made clear that job one was to disrupt that longstanding state of things.

When Deavens got the top job in the middle of a pandemic that had so starkly laid bare so many health inequities, he made clear that job one was to disrupt that longstanding state of things.

“I would say that my passion for making sure that people have access to care is really at the core of the work that I do,” Deavens told the Philadelphia Tribune then. “Certainly I’ve seen firsthand some of the challenges that people face in interacting with the health care system and I believe that we can continue to make it better and make it better for everyone.”

To that end, Deavens hasn’t shied away from the hot-button issue of our fragile state of race relations. Along with Sharmain Matlock-Turner of the Urban Affairs Coalition and Rev. Dr. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, he’s created the Ending Racism Partnership, a series of roundtable discussions with the goal of developing strategies for ending racial injustice and economic inequality.

I caught up with Deavens last week, for a wide-ranging discussion, touching on those hires, his background, what (if anything) keeps him up at night, and his thoughts on Philadelphia, where he’s lived only for the last four years. Our conversation was edited and condensed.

Larry Platt: I’ve written often about how, post-George Floyd, many companies sent out press releases saying Black Lives Matter, but now we’re seeing data that many pledges along those lines were not followed up on. I reached out to you because I noticed your spate of diverse hires—it seems like you’re walking the talk.

Greg Deavens: First, let me say, I’m really fortunate in my role. IBX has a stellar reputation when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s the most diverse company I’ve ever worked at in my nearly 40 year career. It’s the only organization I’ve been with that has had a Board committee on issues of DEI. Now, we’ve got to bring the benefits of diversity to our communities. That means introducing our suppliers to businesses in the communities where we do business and making sure they do business with them. And we’ve got to bring diversity to all of our workforce. We’re still not equally diverse at all levels of our organization.

LP: Tell me about the diverse hires you’ve made. When you named Juan Lopez as your number two, and followed that up with other diverse hires in short order, it struck me as a bold statement in a town where leadership often prefers incremental steps over boldness.

“We’re making significant investments in the health equity area, which is good for our business, good for the region, and good for the local economy,” says Deavens.

GD: Well, we’re a true meritocracy. Those were the best people for each role. I do believe that a company should reflect the diversity of the community that it serves, and it’s also important for me as a leader to focus on finding the best people. Seun Ross was one of 20 final candidates. She rose to the top. Juan Lopez was the best candidate. Crystal Ashby I had gotten to know over the last 10 years or so through The Executive Leadership Council. When she became Interim President and CEO of The ELC, she led efforts to increase the number of global Black executives in the C-Suite, on corporate boards, and in global enterprises. I knew she’d be the right person to be our Chief People Officer.

LP: What’s the elevator pitch for your vision for IBX?

GD: We were really fortunate that, as I came in, we’d been working to develop the next iteration of the company’s overall strategy. The issues that were brought to the forefront by Covid-19 showed we needed a new strategic approach from a health equity perspective. That’s what we’re calling “Equitable, Whole Person Growth.” The center of our growth has to be equitable whole person health. That cuts across gender and race disparities and lines of access, patient experience, affordability, and health outcomes. That’s why we’ve doubled down on our efforts in the mental health space and are investing in technological tools that drive physical and mental health integration. We’re making significant investments in the health equity area, which is good for our business, good for the region, and good for the local economy.

This photo accompanies an interview with Greg Deavens, the new CEO of Independence Blue Cross, or IBX, in Philadelphia
Deavens attends an IBX Foundation event with Temple University President Jason Wingard (back) and nurses. | Photo by Andre Flewellen

LP: That’s a good point—investing in, say, startups like Evio, pharmacy solutions startup, and other entities that try and close health gaps is not charity, it’s actually smart business from your perspective.

GD: Well, I’d say it’s not just about our bottom line. Sometimes it is. But think of it. African-American males are not getting colorectal screenings at the same rate as others, which means we’re not diagnosing their symptoms as early. Which means their treatment is costlier and their outcomes are not as good. That affects a person’s life, families’ lives, and the economy. Earlier life expectancy rates, for example, limit the ability to transfer wealth to the next generation. That has real consequences for the labor market. We’ve got to start focusing on doing what’s right for communities.

LP: I was impressed reading about your parents. You grew up in St. Louis, where your late mother, Shirley Mae, was something of a celebrity—a minister with a penchant for high heels who was a popular religious columnist for the St. Louis American newspaper. Tell me about her.

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GD: Yes, I appreciated you writing about her when I was named CEO. She was also a teacher, a principal and a motivational speaker. On Saturdays, she’d bring my brother and I with her to hear her speak at seminars. A lot of what I consider the keys to success today I heard in those speeches, and they stuck with me. Hard work, resilience. Belief in yourself. She was always a positive person—which you need to be as a leader.

She met my father in college at Tuskegee Institute. Dad was a stickler for education. He served in the army and was an electrician—the first African-American member of the IBEW Local 1. He was as hard working around the house as he was as an electrician. We always had chores to do because there was value in an honest day’s work.

LP: Are you as handy around the house now?

GD: [Laughs] My wife Bev would say no.

LP: I saw that you are Chair of the Chamber of Commerce’s Policy and Advocacy Committee and you penned an Inquirer op-ed with Chamber chairwoman Susan Jacobson and the Committee of 70’s David Thornburgh, urging corporate America to stand up for voting rights. Are you planning to be a civic leader in Philadelphia as well as the leader of IBX?

GD: I appreciate that question. Yes. I look around the city and region and see so much potential. But we have our challenges. It’s better to be in the arena finding solutions as opposed to being on the sidelines. I decided to get involved with the Chamber of Commerce because I want to focus on helping to level the playing field when it comes to economic opportunity in this region.

LP: What keeps you up at night?

GD: I sleep well at night. But I think a lot about talent. How are we going to cultivate that next generation of talent that will enable me to leave the organization better off than when I was handed it? Without great people, you can’t sustain all we do. I think about talent all the time.

Deavens speaks at an All Faith vaccination campaign event. | Photo courtesy Independence Blue Cross

LP: And the city? You bring fresh eyes, having only been in Philadelphia for four years. If you could wave a magic wand, what would you do to move the city forward?

GD: Jobs, job, jobs. We have so many issues—crime and gun violence, health disparity, poverty, the schools. But when people have good paying jobs, the levels of those things tend to come down.

LP: You’re preaching to the choir now. I’ve been relentlessly arguing that we have to do more than just sustain the safety net. We need to extend capital and opportunity to neighborhoods that have been starved of both. That’s the only way to grow.

GD: That’s right. We have to make sure any job growth is inclusive, good for the environment, and targeted to new businesses. There are entrepreneurs all over the city who are willing to step out and take risks. They just need our help.

LP: Thank you so much, Greg. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

GD: Me too. Thank you.


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