Mary O’Hara is the chief human resources officer and senior vice president of Internal Communications at Blue Shield of California. She joined Blue Shield in 2013 and leads people strategy, leadership and organization development, diversity and inclusion, total rewards, internal communications and employee experience for 7,000 employees across California. She brings to the position more than 25 years of experience leading award-winning talent and development strategies across large enterprises in many sectors.
Why health care?
After spending almost 20 years working in financial services and telecom, I took time off in 2012 to care for my dad, who was battling cancer. I spent just about every day for four months at a hospital cancer center, where I saw people from every walk of life, all facing the same struggles. As you can imagine, it was a time of deep introspection – both personally and professionally. I was interviewing for jobs at banks and tech companies, but I felt a pull to do something different, something that really mattered. The experience with my dad and the community we became a part of at the hospital opened my heart and mind in a way that I hadn’t planned.
As luck would have it, a search professional who knew me called and encouraged me to meet Paul Markovich, who had recently been named CEO at Blue Shield of California. Right away, Paul’s vision and values resonated with me. First and foremost, he was a good human being to the core. Fortunately, his plans for Blue Shield were a good match with my skillset, leadership philosophy and my new-found aspirations to work at a mission-driven company. Today, seven and a half years later, I am proud to know that I’m doing work of real meaning at an organization that is leading the transformation of health care to benefit all Californians.
2. Who are women that inspire you? Why?
My mother is extraordinary. She was the youngest of 15 children, but she was never the “baby of the family.” In fact, it was quite the opposite: everyone always looked to her as the leader and guiding force. She’s a tiny person – maybe 80 lbs. when she’s soaking wet! - but she’s always been a force to be reckoned with.
We had a pretty humble life growing up. When I was 5 years old, our family home burned to the ground, and we lost everything. My mother was so resourceful and resilient. Even after a tragedy like this, she gave me the sense that I could do anything and be anything I wanted. She became an entrepreneur and inspired curiosity and love of business in me. She cultivated that belief in me, always creating the conditions for believing in myself.
I’m also inspired by Mother Teresa. She demonstrated the power of one person to be the change that she wanted to see in the word. She had Incredible humility and a sense of others that made her so effective at doing good.
3. How can business leaders support the next generation of women leaders?
It’s important for today’s leaders to remember where we came from and build a support system for the next generation of leaders. In fact, we have an accountability to create that opportunity for others. It’s not only a mindset, it’s a heart-set. And, it’s not just women who need to provide these supports; we need male allies to also encourage women to move beyond boundaries in the workplace and create those pathways to leadership.
4. What challenges do we still need to overcome to achieve equality?
Inequality is not a problem that is unique to women; there are so many people in our world who feel marginalized, like they aren’t included. People in positions of power and privilege need to educate themselves and build empathy and understanding. It’s essential to have a posture of continuous learning and connect with people who are different than you. We are all equal, regardless of where we come from. Being aware and adopting this mindset in the workplace – and beyond – is essential to achieve equality.
5. How has the Covid-19 outbreak changed the way you lead?
The outbreak has amplified the importance of leading with humanity and having a strong sense of others; it has brought those aspects to the forefront. People on my team have very complex jobs, and they are having to manage lots of new stresses while working from home. I know I need to be a lot more present for them and make the time and space to check in about all of those challenges. At the same time, my deeply held belief that leaders need to make meaning for their teams continues. I and senior leaders at Blue Shield are working hard to ensure that we’re staying in touch, being authentic, and reaching through all our communications channels to keep our employees well informed and engaged.