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Wisdom From the Top: How Sandra Clarke Keeps Blue in the Black

Blue Shield of California's CFO has been named one of the '50 Most Influential Women in San Francisco' talks about her career choices, strategy and being a woman in the workplace

Congratulations to Sandra Clarke, who has been recognized by the San Francisco Business Times as one of the “50 Most Influential Women in San Francisco.” She will be honored by the publication later in May.

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"When it comes to work, I want to be remembered for making a contribution and driving our mission forward."

For Clarke, Blue Shield’s chief financial officer, finance has always been so much more than counting beans. It’s like a great mystery novel with a puzzle that must be solved. Clarke brings more than 25 years of experience directing world-wide financial organizations. She was attracted to Blue Shield of California’s mission and wanted to help improve healthcare for everyone. She told Forbes in a recent interview that she aims to slash $100 million in administrative costs over the next three years through data analytics and automation. She wants to capture that efficiency to invest in technology to reduce the stress and paperwork for providers, so they can focus on improving the health outcomes for their patients.

Clarke received her bachelor’s in finance from MIT, her masters in accounting from Bentley University, and her passion for solving seemingly impossible business challenges -- or a good mystery -- from the school of life.

What was the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do in your career and why?

I was a VP at Siemens and I was up for a promotion where I would have to uproot my family. My son begged me, “please mom, don’t make me start at new school,” so I left Siemens and took a job with a lower title and role. I left a company where I spent 11 years of my career, had an amazing team that was truly my work family. Our kids grew up together, I loved my job, and the leaders supported my growth, but my family was more important to me, so I took a senior director role at Philips. There were times when I was trying to get established that I asked myself, “why did I do this?” I’m thankful that I did, because that’s how I got into the healthcare space.

Do you have any daily rituals you do to stay healthy, grounded and sane?

My dog is the best blood pressure medication. He’s just unconditional love. I also really like kick boxing. It’s a great way to get your frustration out. I try to work out 4-5 days a week, but I believe you have to have balance. I like my wine and I like my chocolate.

How were you able to differentiate yourself from others during your career?

Early on in my career when I was a senior financial analyst, I had a leader tell me he never had a finance person ask him so many questions about the business. Back then, not a lot of financial professionals took the same perspective about understanding how our work fit into the business. I like fixing things and I’m always willing to take on a challenging project. He said he could see me as a GM for the business.

When you observe women in the workforce today, what do you wish they would do more or less of?

I wish women would get thicker skin and have more confidence in their abilities. At a prior company under a former leader, we wanted to consider a woman on the team for a promotion, and we encouraged her to apply for the role. She didn’t have 100% of qualifications, so she decided not to go for it. Men seem to be more confident, in general, and are willing to apply even if they do not meet all qualifications. Any position is a two-way street. You should be able to learn from it and give to it. If you have 100% of qualifications, how are you going to learn and grow?

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"My dog is the best blood pressure medication. He’s just unconditional love."

Studies show that women will live longer than men, yet we have less savings for retirement than men. What creative solutions can women do now to close this savings gap?

I wish I had magic solution. Most women prioritize saving for their children’s college over saving for their retirement. My philosophy is pay yourself first! Whatever you can afford to put away, do it. When my mother started as executive secretary at Fidelity, she wasn’t making a lot and didn’t think she could afford to save. My husband and I calculated her expenditures and worked out a budget where we convinced her to put a little bit away each pay check. Each time she got a raise, her savings got a raise too. She retired 20 years later and had a reasonable nest egg. You have to believe even when you start small, it will make a difference, because your savings compounded over time will add up to something real.

I lived through these tough choices. I had to put myself through college and graduated with large student loans. I didn’t think I could have children and I got pregnant. There we were: young, newly married with entry level paychecks, and a mortgage, hefty student loans, day care, diaper and formula expenses. Our budget was extremely tight. Each time our baby graduated off formula or diapers, we felt like we had a raise, and we put that into our savings. I did walk my talk and I continue to do so.

What keeps you up at night?

We have an ambitious agenda that I’m excited about where we have an incredible opportunity to truly realize our mission of creating quality healthcare worthy of our friends and family that’s sustainably affordable. It’s a lot of work, and I’m asking people to get out of their comfort zone. I’m worried about our ability to keep all things moving forward effectively without burning people out. My family is in the East Coast, and now that I moved to California I’m also worried about my family and how I’m not as available to them with our time difference.

What do you want your legacy to be?

My son is my legacy and knowing I did a good job raising my him and I’m a decent human being is most important to me. When it comes to work, I want to be remembered for making a contribution and driving our mission forward. Whenever I left a role, I felt I made a positive impact on my organization.

What is your latest obsession? Is there a book or show that you can’t get enough of and why?

I read a lot of mysteries, because I like to try and figure out who did it. I really enjoy this series by author J.D. Robb, and I finished her latest mystery, Connections in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death Book 48) over one weekend.

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Sandy Clarke with her son at his graduation

What advice would you give someone who wants to succeed or rise in your organization?

  • Be curious.
  • Be open to trying different things.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up.
  • Volunteer if you see something that needs to be fixed.
  • Demonstrate that you understand the business.
  • Do it all ethically! I don’t’ know how many times I’ve said in my career, “that’s very creative, but I don’t look good in orange.” I may push people to come up with a better solution, but I will never cross that line.

So, I asked for one and she gave me six pieces of advice, but I would expect nothing less from our CFO. Remember, you don’t have to come to the table with 100% of the qualifications. Every role should have room for you to give to and take from, so get a cup of courage, follow your moral compass and go for it!