Leading with Emotional Intelligence

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Making Waves with Dan Hilferty, Chairman & CEO Comcast Spectacor

In our careers and in life, we’ve all been handed the responsibility of looking after something—or someone—at one point or another. And we’ve all got different personalities, backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives that shape our own unique ways of doing things, including how to lead effectively.

If you ask my good friend Dan Hilferty, effective leadership starts with admitting what you don’t know and what you can’t do, and then you build a team that fills in the gaps. It’s important for leaders to tap into their own emotional intelligence to support their teams build relationships based in trust to empower their people to ensure everyone is working toward a common goal.

Dan is one of the smartest guys I know and one of the most iconic figures in business in Pennsylvania who embraces all of the above leadership qualities. Dan most recently was CEO of Independence Blue Cross Blue Shield, and after retiring, he is now chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor. I was fortunate enough to hear insights from his years of experience when we spoke for this series and am pleased to be able to share them with you here.

Interview:

Hal: Dan, one of the things I’ve always admired about you – and it’s rare in business – is you’re emotionally intelligent. Both inside and outside of business, everybody says, ‘I love Dan Hilferty.’ And while I’ve always questioned that… 

Dan: Haha. So have I!

Hal: Does emotional intelligence come naturally to you? Is it something that can be taught?

Dan: Well Hal, first of all, it’s exciting to be here with you. We’ve been great friends for a long time. I worked on The Hill when I was in graduate school in D.C. and back then you took a bus down Pennsylvania Avenue to get there. And inscripted on the side of the National Archives building was the saying ‘the past is prologue,’ and the reason I say that is, unless we as an organization or as individuals know and accept our history, you can’t plot a bright future, and I say that because my past is truly prologue.

I’m the youngest of five children. My father died when I was three. I have no recollection of my father. Learned about him through my mother, my siblings, other relatives. But I think as a youngster, I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. But there was something in me that wanted to be liked. That wanted to make sure I fit. Wanted to have people comfortable around me.

So I think that’s something that was foundational to who I became as an adolescent, who I became as a teen, and then ultimately as a grown man. So, I would say it’s something that I didn’t know was in there. As I worked my way through a relationship with the love of my life, Joan, and through different career paths, I began to realize that I have a skill. I couldn’t even identify at first, but in later years, it was identified as a level of emotional intelligence. 

Hal: I’ve always felt that gut plays a role in decision-making, especially when emotion and logic collide. And you’ve always focused on collaboration and the importance of collaboration. If you’re in a situation where you’re collaborating, and obviously collaboration doesn’t mean everybody agrees, does your gut come into play?

Dan: We all have a unique makeup and it’s a combination of intellect and some level of emotional intelligence. So, when you combine those two, and you’re in a situation that calls for a combination of understanding a complex issue or a complex set of issues, and having to make a decision on them, you rely on not only your read of the environment, you read of other people involved in it, your read of a broader set of issues.

But at some point, you have to make a decision. I’ve never had an issue if I felt like I had collected enough of the facts on a certain topic, a complex topic, had had the conversations, relied on other people who were more expert than I was on that particular issue, I was always confident and comfortable making a decision based on the set of facts, how I was feeling about it, and relying on the gut.

Hal: We live in a world that obviously is constantly changing. In corporations, there’s a lot of cynicism about leadership, the world in general. There’s cynicism. Who do you trust? Who don’t you trust? Trust is critical. I think it is related to emotional intelligence or maybe even a result of it. But how have you created such trust in the way you lead?

Dan: I was fortunate, as you mentioned, to run Independence Health Group – Independence Blue Cross – for ten years, a large multi-regional company. When I left, it had nearly $30 billion in revenue, and I always felt that it was important to make individual connections, and it was really worrying me when I first took that position, because how was I going to get to know over 10,000 people?

What I decided was everybody that I ran into, I would make sure I said hello, even if I didn’t remember the name, and whether it was a clinician who was in the medical management area or the individual who held the door, or the security guard, or the individual who had to clean different parts of the building, I went out of my way. 

I figured I rode the elevator 45 floors about 20 times a week, and I decided that whether it was six in the morning or ten at night, if someone else is on the elevator, I would engage them in a conversation. If you look somebody in the eye, if you show interest in what interests them, if you want to know about their family, it builds a level of connectedness and a level of what ultimately becomes trust, and a joy in being part of a great journey. 

Hal: I think it also was helpful when you had to select your replacement. But you had to make that decision of who was going to replace you. What was your thought process there?

Dan: Well, I always believe Hal, that the board as a whole, especially the chair and the vice chairs, were my boss and bosses. I started my leadership journey, just understanding that, yes, I’m in charge, but there are others who need to be part of it, so I always included them in any decision that needed to be made. Ultimately my theory on teams really helped us—and me—decide who was best to take my place.

You have to be adept at connecting skill sets with blind spots. I have blind spots. I have things that I’m not as good at as others are. So in putting the team together, I was always observing what were the strengths, the people sitting around that table and what did I need to complement those strengths?

And it really got down to, how do we continue with someone who fits the needs of a complex organization going forward? We needed somebody with significant financial acumen who had a charisma unlike mine, but of his own, who was committed to the task, what it meant to be a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, and to making inroads in the Philadelphia corporate community and nationally.

Hal: So you retire, I remember sitting in these chairs talking about it. And I said, “Dan, so what are you going to do now?”  and you said “I don’t know.” A few months later an announcement is made, you’ve been selected to become CEO and eventually chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor. What did it feel like to accept that position, knowing that you didn’t know what you didn’t know?

Dan: I always believe that a decade in a role, a pressure-packed role like that was a good, good time frame. And ultimately to the day I stuck to that ten-year plan. I was growing tired of just that—the complexity of the issues related to healthcare, the life-and-death nature of the decisions we were making on a regular basis. And I truly did want to spend a lot of time with Joan, who was going through a health crisis of her own. You and I had conversations about that, and I decided not to make decisions about the future. And I really did rest for about two weeks.

Hal: That’s an awfully long time for you!

Dan: I actually didn’t work for anybody for two years. I did some advising through a family office that I started, called Dune View Strategies, you and I collaborated on putting together the Health Key Summit, and that gets to the answer to the final question.

One of our sponsors was the parent company of Comcast Spectacor. I had the good fortune of having a long-term relationship like ours with chairman and CEO Brian Roberts. We worked together on bringing two conventions to Philadelphia, brought Pope Francis to Philadelphia, and most recently the World Cup in 2026. It was after a great fireside chat that Brian broached the subject of my role as CEO and I said, “Well, Brian, I like sports. I played sports, but you should really vet me, I’m not sure I’m qualified to do this.” And he said, “Nah, I have a feeling about this.” And I liked that because that’s how I made a lot of my decisions throughout my career. I have a good feeling about that.’ Back to your gut comments.

I’ve admitted from the beginning the things I know and the things I do not know. The next time I make a hockey decision or have an educated comment about how we make our arena attractive to everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan to some of the younger acts that come in, will be the first time.

What I do know is people, what I do know is creating a vision, what I do know is putting those people in a place that we can all maximize our potential, maximize our strengths, and cover each other’s weaknesses. And that’s the process that’s underway as we speak at Comcast Spectacor. It doesn’t matter what I know, what I don’t know, it matters what the team is that I’m putting together where, as a collective, will maximize the group potential and great things will happen there.

Hal: Authenticity is so key, especially when we live in a world of cynicism and lack of trust. You’re believable. But what would you say to a 25-year-old who is thinking about what are they going to do?

Dan: I look in the mirror and I see a flawed, very human individual. And what I recognize in that mirror is that we’re all on this life’s journey, and we all face hurdles, whether they be internal hurdles, family issues, economic issues, racial issues, whatever it might be. At a young age, as I tried to weed my way through this life, this beautiful life that that we’re given, I decided that although I wasn’t sure where I wanted to end up, that when I had the opportunity to meet something new, someone new, or be introduced to a new concept, I would do everything I could to build relationships in that in that environment with that individual.

What I say is engage people. You may not know what the answer is, but to your point, be yourself. You’re beautiful. We’re all imperfect, but you’re beautiful, and make a contact with people. It won’t always resonate for them. But let them know that you’ve made that contact. And this puzzle that is in your head that is unfinished will come together. A certain number of people that you do touch come back and give you thoughts on where your journey needs to go next.

If somebody said to me, “Dan, you’re going to be the executive, the CEO of one of the largest healthcare companies in the country,” I would have laughed at them. By letting others in, by being comfortable with who we are, good, bad, and sometimes ugly, and trying to improve every day, doors will open that you don’t even know are doors. And ultimately, if you allow it, you can live a fulfilled, imperfect life.

Making Waves is a series of conversations between New Ocean Health Solutions CEO Hal Rosenbluth and a variety of executives from a wide range of industries and areas of expertise. The above article has been edited for length and clarity from the podcast version of Hal’s interview with Dan.

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