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Should You Join a Start-Up?

J.L. Greene Human Resources, Issue 11 - May/June 2014 3 Comments

Lumeris’ Susie Robinson explains why she exchanged a stable job at a big company for a rollercoaster ride with a new venture

By J.L Greene

Susie Robinson recently decided to climb a professional Mount Everest. After 17 years of executive leadership positions in companies approaching or well beyond the billion-dollar mark, including a role as Executive Vice President (EVP) and Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) for the international data and marketing giant Infogroup, Robinson decided to leap into the exciting, fast-paced and flexible world of the startup.

Lumeris, which provides accountable care operations, technology and consulting services to health systems, payers and providers, is a company so unique, so revolutionary that there are almost no competitors in its field. The company’s work in a niche area of health care, known as value-based care, defines a market. It is transforming the way health care is both delivered and paid for, and is pioneering a new frontier in a similar spirit to Edison and electric lighting.

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Part of Lumeris’ allure was the visionary leadership of Mike Long, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Lumeris and partner organization Essence Healthcare. Long hires educated and experienced professionals to operate his team—smart people he can rely on for their ingenuity and expertise. As a result, the company does not look like the typical startup with a 20-something CEO. Instead, the leadership team is made up of seasoned professionals who are able to make educated and influential decisions.

“Mike is a courageous and shrewd leader,” Robinson said. “He has led very successful companies, and his insight into the future of healthcare is unequalled. He sets the bar very high for me and our entire team. I feel really privileged to be on his team, and it inspires me to perform to my optimal level every day.”

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Becoming VP of HR at a small startup may not be the traditional step a mid-career business professional takes, but Robinson is not a typical, cookie-cutter businesswoman either. From her earliest memories, the prospect of leadership roles and financial success drew Robinson to the business world.

“I don’t think I ever considered anything else,” she said. “When I was a little girl, instead of playing house with dolls I would play professional girl in a city apartment. I always had corporate America aspirations.”

When Robinson entered the business program at the University of Southern California Fullerton and found her classes packed to capacity, she faced a difficult decision: Should she vie for standing room and compete for precious classes, or take another path? After a year and a half of classroom battle, her guidance counselor suggested changing majors. With her natural curiosity for human behavior and love of the business world, the university’s Industrial Psychology program proved to be the ideal fit. She even got a seat.

A Greater Impact

From an entry-level clerk, Robinson’s star quickly rose to leadership positions in prestigious companies like Dow Jones, Wyeth (now Pfizer) and B. Braun Medical. When Lumeris knocked, she could not ignore the prospect of a new challenge. Her role is somewhat different from the previous positions she has held over the years, but the core HR principles remain the same: build relationships, integrate and align the strategy, and create excitement to reach goals. She is seeing, too, tangible results from her work─even more so than in the senior-level positions she has held in the past.

“You feel like the heartbeat of the company is really close to you,” Robinson said, “and you are able to make visible, tangible, often real-time impact.”

Though the role is rewarding, it is not always easy. “Cookie-cutter approaches almost never work,” she added. “You have to apply everything you’ve learned in often creative ways and pay attention to your instincts. You have to be careful not to let the day-to-day pressures of the journey distract you from the company’s objectives and key results.”

It is with that focus in mind that Robinson works hard to set the pace and direction of her HR staff.

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Robinson_Susie_forefun_Q&ANot Reinventing the Wheel

Robinson knows that while her role requires different thinking, she is not reinventing the wheel. She and the rest of the team take the knowledge they have gained to rework time-tested structures to suit their company. But it is a difficult journey. One of the challenges of being in a new and one-of-a-kind market is that there are no other models to emulate.

“We have to utilize every bit of experience that we have amassed over our career,” Robinson said. “We have to look around to different markets, to different companies, even to different industries and say, ‘OK, that looks a little bit like this. We’re going to take that, tweak it a little bit and make it work for us.’ It requires a tremendous amount of insight, thought, intellect and creativity because there isn’t an example of another company trying to do what we do at this time.”

Scaling Professional Mountains

With her 17 years of experience, Robinson’s wealth of knowledge and ample abilities allow her an essential and prominent role in establishing a sustainable company. She is quick to point out, though, that she would not be where she is without her previous experience. Robinson believes that all of her jobs, from low-on-the-totem-pole clerk to high-stress senior-level positions, prepared her for this journey.

What is her greatest advice to young professionals looking to take on a similar role? Get experience on every level. Become a specialist in whatever position you hold—and, to boot, the best your company has ever seen. Make a visible impact and realize tangible results to add to your resume.

Besides, what is more encouraging than keeping your passion high as you mark goals along the way? As you climb your own professional Mount Everest, you will need it.

J. L. Greene is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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Susie's Key Partners:
 Lockton (Employee Benefits Consulting)

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