With distinct dedication, Rod Young set his sights on becoming a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) early on during his career. He achieved his goal – three times over – and leads Delta Dental of Minnesota with a people-first mentality. We caught up with the Twin Cities Business 2021 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductee to reflect on his career and gain insight into his leadership approach.
THE EARLY YEARS
“Well, first of all, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. Let’s be clear about that!” Rod Young says with a laugh. In reflecting on his career in healthcare, it’s clear that Rod approaches every facet of his life with purpose and dedication.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised in Centreville, Illinois, Rod grew up in an athletic family with two older brothers. “My mom and dad were significantly important in all of our lives. We [received] great love, great discipline, and great guidance,” Young shares. His father worked in the construction equipment industry for forty years, and his older brother focused on sales. “My second choice [as a career] was to go into business based on what I saw from my dad and brother,” explains Young.
Rod started his healthcare career in pharmaceutical sales for Uptown Pharmaceutical. It required tremendous dedication and studying to be successful. “To get into the pharmaceutical industry and do fairly well was quite a personal accomplishment. There were a lot of days and late nights spent at the medical library trying to get a grasp on various disease states. It was enjoyable and rewarding and gave me a good foundation for where I’m sitting today,” Young says.
"Our culture is the most important asset of the organization."
Initially selling to physician and dental offices, he soon graduated to large hospital sales, with the ability to call on the operating room and multiple departments in the hospital. “I quickly learned that, although hospitals are where they treat people who are ill, they are a business amongst themselves,” Young shares. “Everything from Post-It notes to Scotch Tape – you can tell I used to work for 3M – to floor and window cleaners. All things that a business needs are also sold to hospitals. Those experiences provided me a much broader understanding of the healthcare industry,” Young recalls.
From physician office pharmaceutical and hospital sales, Rod progressed on to marketing and corporate business development. He assumed an account executive role with Baxter International, a large healthcare manufacturer and medical products corporation headquartered in Chicago, with the responsibility of providing hospital distribution management solutions to Chief Executive Officers and Chief Financial Officers of the largest hospital systems in the region. It was then that Rod set on his path to lead a healthcare company. “Based on those experiences, I said, ‘I’m interested in becoming a CEO to lead an organization.’ While working through a local executive search firm, I was successfully placed with LecTec Corporation in my first CEO leadership role – a small, publicly-traded med-tech company,” Young describes. Next, he led another medical technology, Angeion Corporation, before assuming the helm of Delta Dental of Minnesota.
Rod believes his best preparation for becoming a CEO goes back to his family, specifically his parents’ guidance. “You work hard and treat people the way you prefer to be treated. When you show respect; you typically receive respect. My father particularly demonstrated that you do whatever it takes to get the job done – these core values have served me well throughout my career,” Young summarizes.
LEADING DELTA DENTAL
As a self-professed Star Trek nut, Rod likes to consider himself the Captain or Starship Commander of Delta Dental of Minnesota. His priority is to take care of the business, continue to grow it, and serve all of its constituents, including members, subscribers, dentist partners, brokers, and team members. Effectively balancing these priorities day-to-day is key to running the business well. “The most important factor in managing priorities is having a great team. I’m fortunate that our executive leadership team is pretty, pretty cool. They’re talented, smart, bright, ambitious, dedicated, and fun!” Young emphasizes.
It’s clear from watching the executive team interact and listening to Rod describe the organization’s inner workings that they are a close-knit team and genuinely enjoy working together.
Leaning into teamwork allowed Delta Dental of Minnesota to weather the COVID-19 pandemic well. The team rallied together in March of 2020 to adapt to remote work while continuing to deliver quality care and support for all of the organization’s constituents. At the end of September 2019, Delta Dental of Minnesota opened a technology call center in Bemidji and hired new team members to run the operation. Just a few short months later, Rod made the decision that the entire organization would work remote. “It was a herculean effort by the Information Technology (IT) team. They converted our new technology call center, and everyone began working remotely from home immediately. [We] went from centralized management at our call center and Minneapolis headquarters and [became] very efficient in managing operations remotely. They really showed their strength – and continue to!” Young remarks.
At the Delta Dental of Minnesota headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, they recently completed a massive renovation effort. “We created collaborative spaces, gathering spaces, and all the improvements you do to [promote] conversation. They’re gorgeous spaces, and mostly unoccupied now,” Young acknowledges. As a company that relied on in-person interaction before the pandemic, Rod is optimistic that one day the collective business landscape will get back to the vibrant, face-to-face operation of the pre-pandemic world. In the meantime, the team has remained tight as a group. “Interestingly enough, even on Zoom, we’ve been able to maintain connectivity. It’s obviously not the same, but we’ve occasionally taken advantage of being able to get together outside in small groups where possible,” says Young.
When asked about the culture of the organization, Rod lights up. “Our culture is the most important asset of the organization,” he reveals. “We are an organization that rallies around common goals and objectives, we work really hard, and we embrace and celebrate success. We get rave reviews from our team members in internal surveys on the culture of the organization,” Young elaborates.
ADVANCING THE MISSION
Delta Dental’s commitment to improving oral and overall health is the common objective that binds the team. They promote the vital connection in many ways. “One of the most notable initiatives we have taken was to employ a medical doctor (MD) physician to join our executive leadership team as the Vice President of Medical Services. One of the key roles of this position is to provide clinical education on the connection between overall and oral health,” Young expresses.
Effective operations contribute to Delta Dental’s ability to fulfill their mission. When asked about the relationship between business and IT, Young replies that they are as tight as fingers in gloves. “Our IT team members contribute in our product development meetings, when we’re creating new programs, and when we’re working with grantees through our Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation,” elaborates Young. Keeping open communication across the business enables the organization to become more agile. “We are fortunate our IT team has a seat at the table to ensure our organization’s agility from a technology perspective,” states Young.
One of Delta Dental’s challenges toward improving oral and overall health is employees failing to utilize their employer sponsored dental benefits. “We’re working with our clients to inspire their team members to take advantage of their comprehensive Delta Dental benefits; the more people who regularly visit their dentist, the better,” Young says.
"We are fortunate our IT team has a seat at the table to ensure our organization’s agility from a technology perspective."
Beyond its goal of excellent customer satisfaction, the organization aims to do right by the community. In 2009, Delta Dental of Minnesota’s parent sold a company and used 100 percent of the proceeds to establish and fund the Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation. This foundation funds organizations and initiatives to expand access to dental care for Minnesota’s underserved populations. “The Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation is one of the largest – if not the largest – oral health foundations in the country,” explains Young. “We’ve helped thousands of individuals on their journey to improve or sustain their oral health,” he adds. In addition, the foundation made significant investments throughout the state, including a grant to build the Delta Dental Oral Health Center at Hennepin Health, a contribution to The Sanneh Foundation in East St. Paul to build a community center, and additional investments in the Twin Cities after the unrest following the death of George Floyd. Rod believes that a community focus is a win for everyone. “We have a purpose, and our team members embrace that purpose. It’s good for the community, good for us internally, and good for business,” Young posits.
Likewise, in his focus on the Twin Cities, Rod emphasizes the importance of this region becoming a place that is inclusive for all. “I’m not speaking strictly of racial inclusivity, but inclusivity in general,” Young clarifies. As the Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for the Minnesota Business Partnership, Rod is at the forefront of partnering with the largest businesses in the state to create an environment that will improve and address disparities. “There are gigantic values and benefits to living in Minnesota and the Twin Cities. We’ve got a way to go to make sure it’s inclusive for all, but there’s some fantastic work going on,” he emphasizes.
Between driving the organization’s mission and serving the community, the resiliency of the business and the continued satisfaction of its members comes down to one thing – putting people first. It’s clear that Rod leads with this mindset. Whatever challenges may arise, the Delta Dental of Minnesota team will continue to work together to serve and support their members and the community at large.
ABOUT DELTA DENTAL OF MINNESOTA
Delta Dental of Minnesota is one of the largest providers of dental benefits in the Upper Midwest, serving more than 9,100 Minnesota- and North Dakota-based purchasing groups and 4.3 million members nationwide. Founded in 1969, the company is an independent, nonprofit health service plan corporation.