As Delta Dental’s new president, Sarah Chavarria has been handed a big challenge: She’ll guide the entire organization by overseeing all aspects of Operations, People, Growth and Technology. In August, she was named president of Delta Dental of California and its affiliates, which expanded her former role as executive vice president and chief people officer with the company.
We recently sat down with her to discuss her thoughts about the new position and the changes she looks to drive for Delta Dental.
Becoming president wasn’t something Sarah Chavarria would have predicted when she first started at Delta Dental.
“I thought I would retire as chief people officer,” she said. “I did not think that my career would take this turn, so this is pretty remarkable. I feel like I've been handed this incredible opportunity.”
Sarah has a long track record in health care. Before joining Delta Dental in 2017, she was chief people officer at NantHealth. She also served a similar role at Optum360, a joint venture between Optum and Dignity Health, and was vice president of human resources at Dignity Health.
“What I love about health care is that we all know the patient experience that we want for ourselves and for our loved ones,” she said. “Working in the health care industry, helping to shape that experience and bringing about change, is something that I'm just really passionate about.”
In all her roles, her focus has always been on people, she said. She pointed out that for her, leadership has never been about telling people what to do, but instead about inviting others to do their best work.
President Sarah Chavarria enjoys a coffee break with employees in the Alpharetta office.
“I think at my core, I'm just trying to be a good coach,” she said. “I like to help paint the picture about where we're going or what we're trying to accomplish, to get people excited about something that's coming. I lean a lot on the experience of others because I think that's what engages people.”
It's a style of leadership she considers essential to her new role at Delta Dental.
“We're in a service business,” she said, “so engaging Delta Dental employees around where we want to go aligns with what I have spent my career doing: helping organizations make changes and guiding transformations.”
To ensure Delta Dental’s continued success in the future, it will be crucial to understand how patient needs are changing, Sarah said. Over the past 20 years, one of the biggest transformations she’s noted in health care has been a shift from acute care towards proactive preventive care.
“It’s now about pushing patients toward healthy habits,” she said. “It’s about regular visits with a primary care physician and, in our business, regular visits with a dentist, so that we can identify what might cause an acute event far earlier in the process and not have it result in surgery, in tooth extraction or a root canal.”
It's a trend she expects to continue. For another example of how customers’ relationships to health care can change across generations, she said she doesn’t have to look further than her own family.
“The way my dad, an Army veteran, interacted with his insurance and his health care was very different from how my 20-year-old daughter interacts with her insurance and her health care,” she said. “My dad saw it as a benefit, as an obligation to go to his appointments, and my daughter hardly knows she has it! She sees it as something she doesn’t need until she needs it. And when she does need it, she needs it right now.”
Accounting for that sort of change will be key to Delta Dental’s success in the years ahead.
President Sarah Chavarria connects with Rancho Cordova employees during her Week in the Life tour.
“I love Delta Dental because there are a lot of really great people who recognize that we need to innovate and need to think about new ways to meet those needs of our customers,” she said. “Our biggest opportunity is how we as an organization that covers millions of Americans look at the information we have at our disposal and figure out what we should be doing to best support the patient experience for the next five, 10 and 15 years.”
Throughout her life, Sarah has had a passion for communication, and she speaks several languages fluently. Born in California, she grew up in Germany, where her father was stationed during his time in the Army. Growing up, she studied French, and when she attended university in the U.S., she met her husband, a bilingual Spanish-English speaker, and learned Spanish to communicate with his family.
Originally seeking a career in languages, Sarah taught English as a second language in her first job, which soon led her down a different path.
“For me, studying how people learn languages translated pretty quickly to: Well, what else do adults want to learn? How else are adults trying to develop themselves?” she said. “And so that's where my career path ended up going.”
When she’s not at Delta Dental or learning new languages, Sarah enjoys being outside, traveling and spending time with her family and their dogs, a dachshund and a working line German shepherd.
“I don't know what people without dogs do,” she said. “They keep me really busy!”
Throughout her time at Delta Dental, Sarah has demonstrated that a focus on people and a passion for health care are driving forces in enhancing quality across the company.
“We’re in a people business,” she said. “My No. 1 focus is to just bring the teams together. We want to make sure that we're delivering access to quality care, period. We do that through focusing on patient experience and partnering better with providers to deliver that patient experience. The ripple that runs through all of that is quality.”