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Finding meaning in the “why:” Delta Dental’s plan for an enduring organization

December 28, 2023 Article 6 min read
Jim Proppe
What does it take to build an enduring organization? For Goran Jurkovic, president and CEO of Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, the key is a focus on mission, maintaining a strong culture, and continuous development of future leaders.
Doctor sitting at a desk using a computerAs Plante Moran prepares to celebrate its 100th year and my successor, Jason Drake, gets ready to assume leadership of the firm, I’ve been reflecting on what it takes to build a successful multigenerational organization. Here at our firm, it started with what Founding Partner Frank Moran referred to as his “grand experiment:” He wanted to create an accounting firm where the best practitioners couldn’t wait to get in the door and clients were lining up to receive unsurpassed service. The result was a strong, “people-first” culture that’s resonated with staff and clients alike and a vision that’s strengthened with each generation at the firm. This made me wonder what other organizations do to create longevity.

In a recent discussion with Goran Jurkovic, I asked him how Delta Dental successfully and sustainably grew from its start in 1957 with a small staff working out of a Lansing, Mich., house into an enduring, multibillion dollar dental insurance organization with over 1,000 staff serving over 15,000 providers and several million enrollees. His answer was unequivocal: keep staff aligned with the organization’s mission and maintain a people-oriented culture that never wavers from a commitment to customers, staff, and the community.

Goran began his career as a certified public accountant and, after several years observing Delta’s culture from the outside, joined the company in 1999 as an accounting manager. Over the years, he served in key roles, including chief risk officer, controller, CFO, and COO. Today, he’s in his fifth year as president and CEO.

Goran says despite its significant growth over the years, Delta has stayed close to its roots and maintained its small, family-like culture. And that’s why, like many of Delta’s loyal staff, he never left.

“It’s the Delta culture that’s kept me here for 24 years,” he says. “It’s all about what the company does and how it does it: the mission, the people, and the customers.”

Goran acknowledges that the dental insurance industry isn’t usually top of mind for people choosing a career, but he says in the right organization it can be exciting, rewarding, and most importantly — meaningful.

“There’s got to be meaning behind it. Your staff need to understand what the company is about, its mission in the community, and why you do what you do.”

Your staff need to understand what the company is about, its mission in the community, and why you do what you do.

He says in order for people to truly understand the company and buy into the mission, leadership needs to be transparent and frequently communicating the organization’s goals and management decisions to staff.

“Transparency is key. It’s important that everyone has a direct path to the company’s metrics and why they exist. Everyone should feel like they’ve got skin in the game when it comes to our operations, our strategies, and our goals. They need to understand the part they play in collaboratively achieving our goals, and the ‘whys’ of accomplishing these goals.”

Everyone should feel like they’ve got skin in the game when it comes to our operations, our strategies, and our goals.

I couldn’t agree more about the importance of regular communication, and particularly the “why” behind decisions. When a leader clearly explains a decision, what went into making it, and most importantly why, it reduces second-guessing, minimizes confusion, and most importantly helps get buy-in, even when people may not agree with a decision. At Plante Moran, our strategy is, “Create the vision, get the information out, and tell people why.” Not everyone will agree with every decision, and we won’t always get it right, but we do the best that we can. And when people see why we’re passionate about our direction, they get on board, and we move forward as a team.

Along with being the communicator-in-chief at Delta, the next area of focus for Goran is finding and coaching the next level of Delta’s leaders. He starts by identifying individuals with a strong career focus and a passion for the company.

“Career versus ‘job’ is big for me. I’m looking for individuals that are oriented toward a long-term career. They need to have a willingness to learn, a passion for the organization, and show that they put the success of the company ahead of their personal ambitions. If the company is successful, that breeds opportunities for everyone.”

To build a strong bull pen of future leaders, Goran moves future leaders into strategic roles and then encourages them to move some of their operational tasks to the next level of leadership. This forces senior staff to draw from their own team and find their next-level leaders. The process helps people move through the levels in the organization without a creating big knowledge gaps — a strategy that ensures the organization doesn’t skip a beat as it transitions through the generations.

What’s Goran’s advice for aspiring leaders?

“Get involved in strategy, and take every opportunity that’s offered. I love staff development and I want to be as involved as possible, but it’s incumbent on individuals to show their chops and express their desire to be leaders; they’ve got to want to do it.”

My discussion with Goran highlights the reality that leadership succession in an organization isn’t just a matter of looking for someone when a vacancy opens up. Over a century, Plante Moran has honed a very deliberate process of identifying staff with leadership potential, preparing them, providing opportunities for growth, and helping them understand the role. And this includes staff at all levels of the organization — everyone is given the opportunity to lead. This process not only generates business success but ensures all staff understand and live the culture at a deep level. As a leader, there’s nothing more rewarding than to watch this process play out — to see people flourish, do well, and build a team capable of guiding the organization no matter what comes next.

More from Goran

What leadership traits are important to you?

“Transparency, accountability, and helping others be successful. That’s how you get a sustainable organization. And it’s fun.”

What keeps you up at night?

“Nothing keeps me up at night. It’s what gets me up in the morning that keeps me going. To me, the fact that I’ve been here 24 years — five years as CEO — and I still want to get up every day and get into the office and do what I do … I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

When you’re no longer in your role, what would you like others to say about your tenure as leader?

“That I considered myself privileged to be steward of the seat and that I had passion for the organization and the success of its employees and stakeholders. If people knew that, I’d be completely fine and content that I had a solid career.”

Leadership personality profile

Your leadership approach in one word: Transparent

The leadership quality you most admire in others: Integrity

Your best piece of business advice: Ditch perfectionism. Perfection gets in the way of progress.

What you look for when you hire: Someone who is hungry and wants to make a difference.

To be an effective leader, you can't: Believe you know everything.

With a legacy that's 100 years strong, you can count on us. 


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