Few people knew Ann Asbaty was battling breast cancer, but that’s how she wanted it. She felt her diagnosis would be true only if she said it aloud and it was visible to others. “This was my way to survive,” she says.
Asbaty’s journey with cancer was a lesson of compassion. It was also a lesson that would ultimately strengthen her ability to lead Cigna through the perpetual metamorphosis of the health marketplace. “It made me a better, more empathetic leader,” she says. “I now understand that everyone is dealing with something; it might be invisible to others, but it’s real. This perspective serves me well in my role of challenging our best and brightest leaders to motivate their teams to give their best self at work.” And after twenty-seven years with Cigna, she’s more capable than ever to empower others and lead the global health services organization into the future.
With more than 95 million customers across thirty countries, Cigna must constantly adapt to stay at the forefront of the health insurance industry. “The world is awake while you sleep,” Asbaty says. “The pace is exciting and exhausting, but I love it.” As the CEO of the Americas, her impact spans more than two hundred jurisdictions, more than thirty licenses, and international regulators. The cultural nuances in healthcare consumption also mean that her team’s purview is not only extensive, but it’s also far from uniform. “Change is energizing,” she adds. “It forces a fresh way of advancing the business. I’ve always seen it as an accelerator if done right.”
Asbaty’s own career path reflects her embrace of change. After graduating from Middlebury College, Asbaty interviewed for the role of product director of a cracker manufacturer, but decided to pivot her career path instead. “I realized that I needed to do something that was more meaningful,” she says. So Asbaty spent her first three years in the workforce at Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, but it wasn’t until she joined Cigna in 1990 that she found a home for her energy, appetite for change, and vision.
Starting as a national account executive in the US business, she moved through the management ranks of Cigna to market leader, chief operating officer of national accounts, senior vice president of key global accounts, global health and wellness officer, and president of North America Global Health Benefits. She assumed her current role, CEO of the Americas – International Markets, in late 2017. “I was able to reinvent myself through different parts of our business, which is also constantly in flux,” she says. “The pace of change is so fast that we must invent products and innovate continually to stay relevant.” For example, Cigna recently launched a mobile wellness app that provides customers with 24/7 access to a vast global health network of medical professionals wherever they are in the world. A tool such as this and access to 24/7 multilingual customer service accommodate increasingly mobile and global customers.
“Cancer, diabetes, and heart attacks don’t need a passport,” she adds, citing the 150 clinicians available to Cigna customers outside of the United States. This unique and very personal view, shared by few, has not only shaped Asbaty’s leadership style but also her company’s coverage offerings. As a leader within the organization, Asbaty brings to the boardroom her extensive background in US business, which built on a foundation of leading through change. At the same time, she brings the lessons she’s learned from receiving Cigna’s health and wellness solutions.
Asbaty’s own biopsy results arrived in February 2012. She was participating in a large group employers’ workshop at an annual client forum when her cell phone rang. “There’s a time when I would have judged someone who took that call, as I did,” she says. “I know better now.”
Leaving the workshop to answer the phone, her doctor delivered a devastating diagnosis—one that would take her on a grueling journey and include a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. “It’s not an overstatement to say that this call forever changed me,” she says. “It was a moment of learning; a lesson in compassion. You just never know what someone is dealing with. No one in that room had a clue that my life was about to change.”
As Asbaty highlights the breadth of resources that Cigna provides, she recounts how deeply she depended on the organization’s oncology case managers. Her breast cancer specialist not only expedited everything from handling claims to working with a pharmacy to deliver medications to her doorstep, but she also provided an additional support system. “She checked in with me all the time,” Asbaty says. “I could have ended up in the hospital or missed a treatment if not for her. One day, she insisted I eat a meatloaf; my oncologist wasn’t going to tell me that!”
When Hurricane Sandy hit and severely damaged her home on the same day her father died—leaving Asbaty without power for a week and grieving—her oncology case manager found her. “She made sure I was okay. I would have paid money for all the help she gave me and amazing service she provided if it hadn’t already been included with my Cigna medical coverage,” Asbaty says. “Our company really has a soul. Health and wellness is the heart of who we are.”
As a patient with Cigna healthcare coverage, Asbaty experienced personally the value that Cigna delivers to its customers—and a few areas of opportunity that she was sure to address. “When I began losing my hair as a result of the treatment I was receiving, I realized our coverage for wigs could be enhanced and slight improvements made to our processes,” Asbaty explains. She pursued these matters, and she’s proud that her advocacy resulted in modifications to Cigna employee coverage.
Now five years cancer-free, Asbaty continues to champion preventative care initiatives in her global role. For Asbaty, the mission is personal. She points to Cigna’s recent campaign—Go, Know, and Take Control—which promotes screenings and check-ups across social media platforms. The campaign’s popular 2016 advertisement, “TV Doctors of America,” featured actors from popular television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, House, and ER, including Patrick Dempsey.
Her experience with cancer is not the only thing that enlightened her leadership, though. Mentors shaped her journey along the way. Mentors provided guidance that reinforced some very important lessons. “Trust who you are, and tomorrow is another chance,” she says, citing this as advice she received from mentors. “ I’ve always believed that you can breathe your future into existence.”
Today, Asbaty’s helping the next generation of leaders by offering one-on-one mentoring and support for women. In fact, she created the first North America, International Markets’ Women’s Network. This forum unites people around the globe to facilitate individual growth through its quarterly collective conversations. “Some of it may be gender-based, but we include men because they have a vested interest in women reaching their human potential, too. Many have female managers, partners, relatives, and friends,” Asbaty says. “As we have more dialogues to understand each other and to connect and lift each other up, our workforce can go from engaged to truly inspired.”
These events showcase Asbaty’s most significant piece of advice: find your voice. Asbaty found her own voice amid the constant change in the industry and her personal health; it required the courage and determination she aims to develop in others. Her journey is one of triumph over complacency, and thriving through change—a stance she believes will continue to transform the company. “You must do what you think you cannot do, because that’s how you go to the next level of being your best, truest self,” she says. Changing marketplaces require adaptable and dynamic leaders—and Asbaty is both.
Workplace Options, a global leader in employee support solutions, serves more than fifty-three million working people in more than 78,000 organizations across more than two hundred countries and territories worldwide. Workplace Options is proud to partner with Cigna to bring wellbeing support to organizations around the world.
Photo by Maura McConnell