The CMO Club caught up with Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing, experience, and customer officer at UCHealth, Colorado’s nationally recognized health system. We asked him to share perspectives on the journey which has taken him to the highest marketing role at the region’s top health system and academic medical center. Manny shares defining moments and talks about how empathy, commitment, and the power of storytelling can lead to personal and professional triumphs.
Our first question: What are three themes that have been present throughout your career?
Three Defining Themes
The first theme is luck. Anyone who tells you that they got to where they are without some sort of luck isn’t being straight. The second theme is risk. You can’t get lucky if you don’t take big risks. Luck and risk go hand-in-hand. And the third theme is persistence. You have to know what you want and you have to be willing to work hard to get it.
Breaking through to the next level always involved risk for me. I was never classically trained as a marketer. My undergraduate degree is in finance and my graduate degree is in international business. Nearly a decade into my career in finance, I looked up and recognized that I wasn’t excited about the future state of being a VP of finance or CFO. I was the embedded finance partner for the marketing team at a large pharmaceutical company. My close day-to-day interactions helped me understand the ins and outs of marketing and recognize I wanted to make a leap to marketing. Doing that involved taking a two-level demotion and accepting an entry-level associate marketing manager job. It was uncomfortable. I took the risk, I was persistent, and I got lucky.
If luck and risk are the front and back covers of my book, all the pages in between are persistence. It’s important to always be looking at what the future state will be – both for your career and for the brands and customer experiences you manage. When you recognize the future state is uncomfortable, take risks to change it. Never stay in a place where the future state is mediocre or leaves you moderately happy. Take the risk. I always say if you aren’t learning something new every day or having fun it’s time to move on. Once you have, persistence and hard work keep you moving forward. And maybe in that way, you make your own luck.
If luck and risk are the front and back covers of my book, all the pages in between are persistence.
I was brought to UCHealth to launch the new brand that came out of two healthcare systems coming together. The easy path would have been traditional healthcare marketing. But that would not have led to the transformation we needed.
We are a lifestyle brand. Traditional healthcare brands promote the physicians and the system. Their implicit message: “you’re broken, let us fix you.” That’s not what UCHealth is about. Our brand is rooted in the strength of the people that we serve. We don’t promote our own excellence. Instead, we help people see how that excellence fuels the capacity for extraordinary in the patients that we serve. Healthcare is not about the providers. It’s about the people. We had a transformative opportunity to tell our story in a new way, but to do that we had to push ourselves. We had to get off of the well-beaten path and that made a lot of people uncomfortable.
Once you have transformed, the next set of challenges is around continuing to do so and maintaining your lead. That’s what keeps us highly motivated, engaged, and challenged. We perpetually ask ourselves how we stay true to our brand and raise the bar by continuing to reinvent.
We had a transformative opportunity to tell our story in a new way, but to do that we had to push ourselves. We had to get off of the well-beaten path.
Ironically, some of the most important leadership lessons I’ve learned have come from two horrendously bad bosses. They gave me vital lessons on what not to do. They created tremendous anxiety and turbulence through micromanagement, insisting everyone asks for permission and positioning themselves as the smartest person in the room. Really bad leaders give very formative lessons about who not to be.
Make sure you’re never the smartest person in the room. Hire people a lot smarter than you. Go into every conversation knowing you have something to learn. Seek out the most junior person in the room and get their perspective. They can tell you things you don’t know and can’t see from your vantage point. Be the last to speak. Not just because you need to listen. But because your people want and deserve to be heard.
Don’t be afraid to be challenged. If your people storm into your office that means they trust you and they have passion for their work. If you have an org that always agrees with you, you have problems. Surround yourself with people who will push you and contradict you. If they see something that isn’t right, you need to create the space for them to call it out. You’ll be a better leader for it. And your business will be stronger too.
Hire people a lot smarter than you. Go into every conversation knowing you have something to learn.
We changed the vantage point of how our story gets told and it let us tell a deeper, richer, and more human story. Healthcare brands like to be the hero of their stories “because of me you’re cancer-free; you’re now able to walk, to run.” We recognized that was the wrong lens. We start with the patient, the tremendous sacrifice and journey they and their families have to take.
Our creative has won 10 Emmy awards. We have a documentary doing the film festival circuit. We have won a People’s Choice Award. This recognition is not just about the power of our storytelling. It’s the power of the stories we told. They were not our stories – about our doctors and our systems. They were the stories of the extraordinary people we serve. Our goal was not to talk about our brand but to talk about patients that inspire, motivate, and encourage. This is important in healthcare because the people we serve need hope, they need courage, they need inspiration.
I’m a cancer survivor myself. I was diagnosed with leukemia and have been through that journey. I know the battle the individual faces. I know the fear, the anxieties, and the happiness and joy of getting back to feeling great again. Maybe that drives some of the vision. But the real compass that directs us is staying true to being real, to being human.
Of course, it’s enormously rewarding to see the metrics we monitor skyrocket as a result of our work. From unaided awareness, to brand preference, to likelihood to recommend, to engagement – across the board we’re seeing positive results from authentically, humanly, humbly telling the stories of the people we serve. Our patients are the key to everything we do. We’re moved by their power to be extraordinary and it’s our job to tell their stories.
It is not the power of our storytelling. It is the power of the stories that we told. They were the stories of the extraordinary people we serve.
On Instincts and Insights
Trust your gut. But instrument everything and deeply weave insights into your thinking. Early on we invested in a marketing analytics team that has innovated to create some amazing in-house tools. Data drives everything. We’re able to monitor the pulse of how well our work performs and that allows us to quickly make changes. We do everything internally, from the data and analytics to the creative. We don’t have to wait for partners to get involved.
Data allows us to be flexible, to get ahead of things. It allows us to be just a little bit smarter in the way we approach situations. It lets us make small changes to refine and hone. We are constantly testing, tweaking, and moving things around. I’m very data-driven. But I always trust my gut. There are times when you look at the data and something tells you it just can’t be. That’s where your gut and your instinct plays. Always trust your gut. Always trust your instincts.
Trust your gut. But instrument everything and deeply weave insights into your thinking.
On the Power of Partnerships
The power of a partnership strategy is rooted in its authenticity. We partner with a broad spectrum of professional sports organizations in the communities we serve. They are not just logos on a wall. We are principals in the success of these teams, just as they are principals in ours. We are involved in the care of the athletes. We’re involved in decision-making for the team. If you’re going to invest in a partnership you’d better make sure you make it real.
Our partnership with the Broncos helped get us a Guinness World Record, but it was rooted in a health and wellness program for fans. From baseball to football to lacrosse to hockey, we use the partnerships with professional teams as an entry point to serious conversations about health and wellness for their fans. The partnerships with sports teams give us the opportunity to engage fans in a different way. The beauty of authentic partnerships is that it doesn’t matter who gets credit. As long as the programs are moving people in the right direction and engaging our shared communities in great ways, everyone wins.
On What Matters Most
My wife and I love our community in Denver and it has given us so much. We try to give back in every way we can, serving on boards and contributing in other ways as well.
When my son was born ten years ago I made a commitment to always prioritize what matters most. I never miss anything when it comes to my son’s engagements in our community – sport, school, or any other kind. My dad died when I was four years old and I did not have that. It’s so important to me that he does. If my son is at a community event, I’m there too. If he’s out in the rain practicing, I’m out there too. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for organizations who respect and support that. This obviously keeps me very present in my son’s life. But it also strengthens my connections to my community, and it keeps me out there listening and engaging.
This value is also so important for everyone on my staff to see me doing. I want them to do it too. For some of them, who struggle to find balance at work, I actually put it in their annual performance goals. When we all prioritize what matters most, the work we do professionally gets better. We love it more, and, out of that love, comes greatness. And we feel better. Prioritizing what matters most helps us live extraordinarily, and that’s what it’s all about.
When we all prioritize what matters most, the work we do professionally gets better. We love it more, and, out of that love, comes greatness.
To get more details on how UCHealth won Emmy Awards after bringing all their marketing agency work in-house, check out this CMO Perspective piece where Manny gives the inside scoop.