Jeff Russell: The New Leader of BCBSNE

When Jeff Russell assumed the role of president and chief executive officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska (BCBSNE) upon the retirement of Steve Grandfield, he knew he was stepping into enormous responsibility for an organization more than 80 years old. Nevertheless, Russell sees his primary objective to be the same as that of anyone else in the company that provides health care coverage for thousands of Nebraskans.

“At the end of the day, what we’re about is helping our members live their best and healthiest life,” he said.

As part of a nationwide association, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield brand represents one of the nation’s largest health care benefits companies. Headquartered in Omaha, BCBSNE is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and — as its name suggests — focuses on Nebraskans. Its mission: “To lead the way in supporting patient-focused care.”

“The CEO of any organization is really a caretaker for the organization and leading it into the future,” Russell said. “A lot of that is about how we align our fantastic people — our team members — to serve this mission, this purpose of championing the health and well-being of our members and the communities we serve.”

Russell was named to his new position effective June 26. Prior to that, he served as president and CEO of Delta Dental of Iowa for 10 years. The organization provides dental, vision and legal benefits to more than 1.6 million members. Russell’s more than 20 years of experience in senior leadership roles also includes leading a variety of companies in the banking and payments industry including TMG Financial Services and The Members Group, a financial technology and payments company.

Jeff Russell, president and CEO, BCBSNE (Photography by Debra S. Kaplan)
Jeff Russell, president and CEO, BCBSNE (Photography by Debra S. Kaplan)

The Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa) graduate hails from the Cedar Rapids area and had lived in Des Moines since college, but said he is already finding his new community to feel like home.

From a professional perspective, Russell said, Omaha is proving to be a good place to build relationships.

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“I think Midwestern markets have this ability; certainly when I was in Des Moines, I saw it. I think here you can actually build relationships with people that I don’t think necessarily can happen in Southern California or New York City,” he said. “We can actually get in a room and start talking about what does it mean to be able to help providers with their patients, or as we call them, members? And how do we integrate those things together for our shared purpose, which is to help people be healthier?”

Russell said he also sees BCBSNE as serving the larger community aside from its membership.

“This is our headquarters, this is our home. Our employees live here, they work here, they play here, their kids go to school, they’re engaged in civic organizations, they go to the local church, they’re in their neighborhoods,” he said. “I think that each of our team members has this positive ripple for a community.

“I think that what we saw, certainly coming out of COVID, was those community relationships matter. Whether that is somebody who’s a customer service agent talking to a member provider, whether it’s somebody on our sales team or marketing team, or in our technology group — when they leave here, they also have a role to play in their community … And so, I think our role as a corporate citizen in the metro area is really about how our employees engage … it’s broader than the role that the company plays, it’s each of our employees and how they engage in their own piece of the community.”

His own engagement matters, too, Russell said.

“One of the traps I think that CEOs can get into is spending too much time in their four walls,” he said. “I really like to get out and visit with our customers. That’s been important to me in my first few months here, whether that be our group customers, brokers, providers, or members. If I have an opportunity to meet with them, associations, all of those people, I think it’s important because I learn things about how our business can improve.”

Ultimately, people should find the company “easy to do business with,” he said, explaining that he believes good leaders don’t insist that all decisions come to them, which tends to create a bottleneck. 

(Photography by Debra S. Kaplan)
(Photography by Debra S. Kaplan)

“My goal really is to help us articulate a vision,” he added.

“I think about [the company] more like a school of fish, all moving the same way but in different directions. My job is then to really empower our team members to do that … How do we align on a vision, and then how do we go forward to be able to serve our customers? We have this great history, 80-plus years, of serving our members. When I think about being a health insurance company in a state like this, obviously we have a long history of integrating into the state and being part of the state’s success. I think that our competitive advantage and part of our purpose is in our name: ‘of Nebraska.’ If you think about our competitors, they can come and go. But we’re embedded in our community, and that really has been being the champion of the health and well-being of our members in the communities we serve.”

Going into the fourth quarter, Russell said a primary responsibility in leading an already-successful company is to “land the plane of the things that were already in progress for 2023.”

Looking ahead, he said, “I think we have to widen the aperture, the lens, and think about ourselves more broadly as being the champion of health and well-being.

“While we are always going to be there for our members when they need us, my hope, personally, is I don’t spend a lot of time at the doctor or the hospital. So how do we help our members, all those other days of the year, live their best and healthiest lives? That’s really the conversation around that, so that when our members think about us they don’t just think about ‘when I go to the doctor,’ ‘when I go to the hospital’ — it’s ‘Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska is really a champion for my health.’”