Sixer Spotlight with Michelle Johnson

Wholeness and Active Listening: Driving Workplace Transformation

Have you ever wondered how active listening and embracing wholeness can transform the workplace? Well, today's Sixer Spotlight is all about that, and I'm excited to introduce you to Michelle Johnson. She'll take us on her journey to Agile Six and discuss her pivotal role in the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services' Quality Payment Program. Michelle discusses the power of active listening and the impact that embracing wholeness has in the workplace. When she talks about Agile Six, she doesn't refer to it as a workplace but as home, a company deeply committed to its purpose and values. Join us as we uncover the transformative potential of active listening and embracing wholeness, and explore how these practices can create a work environment where we can truly thrive.

Who is Michelle Johnson?

A. Michelle Johnson is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, a friend, a coworker, a Girl Scout Troop Leader, a product owner, a Christian, and a Bible study leader. Michelle Johnson is a lot of different things. 

Can you tell us about your journey to Agile Six, your role as a product owner, and the project you and your team are working on?

A. I've been with Agile Six now for four years, and we work with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (CMS) on their Quality Payment Program Human-Centered Design research team. We do all of the research and design for the Quality Payment Program application. And that means really working with the clinicians to understand what they're experiencing, what their needs are, and how we can make their lives better while they are working to fulfill the Quality Payment Program and focusing on improving quality and cost for their patients. I've been working with CMS for 13 years and really have enjoyed the time and the passion of everybody that I work with in really dedicating ourselves to bettering the lives, not only of the people we work with, but of the patients that they support.

This is a big deal. Your team has been recognized for leading the way in HCD with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. You recently won a recompete on the contract. Let's talk about your team and some of the notable achievements.

A: I'm so blessed to work with such an amazing team of unique individuals who come to work every day and show up, excited to work, ready to work, and ready to dedicate themselves. They're very passionate about what they're trying to accomplish, and that could be whether or not they're doing the research and sitting down and talking directly to our users, or they are a designer on our team. Even the engineers that we have on our team are working on building a design system that ensures that users are able to access the application without having a lot of cognitive burden. These are small things that we don't realize make a huge difference in someone's experience.

Walk us through a typical day in the life of Michelle Johnson.

A: So it is a lot, but I will say, being part of a fully remote company allows me to have that kind of fullness of doing everything. My kids are 13 and 10 right now, at a good age where there's a little bit of independence, more than if I still had toddlers at home. So it’s getting up, getting them out the door, and spending some time focusing on myself–whether it's doing a pilates routine, reading a devotion, or just centering and focusing for the day. Then my day typically begins around 9:30 AM, and it's pretty much on Zoom all day interacting with either Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (our client) or various partner contractors. We work with at least three or four different contractors. I have meetings with my team, and a lot of what we're talking about is what’s going to be best for our users and what’s going to allow us to move forward and bring the greatest value. I work a lot on prioritization, ensuring that we are all in sync, that the team knows what they're going to work on next, and that they have all the detailed requirements they need to get their work done. By 3 PM, the kids are coming home, and most of the time, they're self-sufficient. But it's really nice to know that during the two percent of times when they need mommy after getting off the bus, I am there for them and accessible. Then it’s homework, dinner, sports, Girl Scouts, and whatever else wraps up at the end of my day.

Have you had any "oh my gosh" moments while working on the QPP project? And if so, can you share any of them?

A: I think for me, some of the biggest moments are when we share what we've learned from our users with CMS. When one of our researchers has a readout and uses a user quote, you realize what it's like to be in their shoes, especially when we were supporting this through the pandemic and they're representing the frontline workers, our heroes, and what they were going through. We were able to be that voice of what it's like to have requirements put on your plate and having to do paperwork, even though the intent is to bring quality and cost of care reductions. Sometimes the overburden makes things really, really hard for these users, to the point where we've had users want to cry. They're just so exhausted and tired. So for me, the big "aha" moments are when we can understand that and find an opportunity to do something through the application, whether it's release some better-written policy information or point out to them that they can go to this one page that they didn't know existed that has all the answers they were looking for – something that's just going to make their day better.

What's been the most rewarding part of working at Agile Six?

A: For me, working at Agile Six feels like I've finally come home. 

Prior to coming to Agile Six, I had compartmentalized myself, very much like I had to be a worker during the day and then be mom at night, with no crossover. I remember this one time I felt like I was missing something with my kids, and I was crying to my mom, and she was talking about the hard choices we as women have to make. And you know, maybe it was time for me to make the hard choice to put my work on the backseat to be there for my kids. And what I love about Agile Six is that's no longer a decision I have to make. I don't have to put my work on the backseat or the back burner to be a mom and be the best mom I want to be. I can actually be both at the same time.

What's been the most challenging?

A: I went through the COVID pandemic during my time here at Agile Six, which is when I ended up going fully remote. So prior to that, even though Agile Six is fully remote, I live near the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare and would spend Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday onsite working directly with the clients and any of my Agile Six counterparts that are local to the Baltimore area. I thrive off of interaction. I love the conversation that happens when the phone hangs up. I'm definitely an extrovert. That's where my energy comes from. And then I had to move to a completely almost isolated environment where I was not able to really see anybody for almost what felt like a year, except for my husband and my kids, and had to figure out how to work.

At the time, I had two elementary school kids at home trying to attend some semblance of virtual school. It was really challenging, to say the least. Life has gone back to normal, but we haven't returned to the office. We are now fully remote. They shut down the collaboration center where we used to work. And so as much as I love, love the flexibility I have from being remote, I miss the interactions, the conversations that happen really when you hang up the phone, or in this case probably hang up Zoom. You have to strive a little bit harder to connect with people when you're not running into them in the lunchroom, or you can't just turn and talk over the cubicle wall.

How did you overcome or how are you currently overcoming the challenges of remote work, knowing that many others who work remotely share similar feelings?

A: Even though you might spend all day on Zoom meetings, you're never connecting in the personal sense. It's all business. So what I have done with several of my team members is we have a half-hour coffee chat, and we get on Zoom once a week with zero agenda. Sometimes we talk about work, and sometimes we talk about family. Sometimes it's the book we read or what we did over the weekend, but we have intentionally made time to connect with each other as human beings, and that has really, really helped with that. It's not always easy when you have a busy schedule, but it's worth it.

What Agile Six core value resonates with you the most: Purpose, Wholeness, Trust, Self-Management, or Inclusion?

A: For me, it's definitely wholeness. They all resonate with me. I think it's why I feel so at home at Agile Six, but it's wholeness. I think we were all created very uniquely and with a purpose, and when we start to be asked to break ourselves down and not come to work being whole, we start to lose kind of that center focus of who we are and who we're meant to be. I like coming to work today where everything is focused on who you are as a whole person and bringing your strengths to work each day. You're not put in a box, you're not told to conform, and it just really resonates with me. It's where I want to be each day.

How does Agile Six's culture and values impact your work, and what sets them apart from other companies?

A: When you work for a company that shares that same purpose-driven approach to what is value, and that's rooted in their decision-making, everything changes. You're surrounded by people who value that. The work you're taking on is with partners who are going to value that. So every day you feel like everything is in full alignment. You, your work, your company, your coworkers—you're all moving in one direction and in a partnership together. It makes my job so much easier and better. I can live what my company supports and values, and what the culture sets me up to be successful for.

What would you say to somebody considering a career at Agile Six? What do you want people to know about this company?

A: Agile Six cares about the people. They're going to do everything they can to help take care of the people that work here. You're working with a company that just cares about who you are.

How important is partnership to this company?

A: It's very important because when you don't have the right partner in any project or scenario, it can really create a toxic environment. In order to be your whole self and for a team to be healthy, you have to be able to have open and honest conversations with each other. And if we have a partner who doesn't embrace that, it can really stifle the conversation and the productivity of the team.

Tell me about your team.

A: My team is made up of wonderfully unique individuals. They are each passionate, and everyone is different. They are people who want to come to work, talk, and give their best to our clients, to ourselves, and to the users. It's incredible. Recently, I was giving Bravo Zulus, which is something we do internally. I was just going through each person on my team and thinking about what they've brought into my life over the last four years, and you know, one of them is just always there for me; it doesn't make a difference what I need. It could be for work. It could be something personal. Just knowing that you've got somebody who's constantly got your back. There's somebody who's just even-keeled, and when you need 'em to balance things out and just kind of have a really good thought process and think through every aspect of it, it's great to have that person. And then it's great to have that person who pushes me, who makes me really think outside the box, because they will just question and question and question until you're like, "You know what? I think you're onto something.” It's just incredible to have that type of diversity in the people you work with because you know that you are going to ultimately do the best work possible when everybody brings different strengths to the team.

Let's talk about what's next on this project.

A: We are continuing everything we've started and done, and we are getting even more of an opportunity to bring the user voice into the policy conversations. [This work] can really impact somebody's day-to-day job and their ability to be with their patient. For example, we talk to people who say, “I know that you'll tell us that it shouldn't be that hard to collect the data for that measure, but it's a new workflow, and that means I am either not spending the quality time with my patient that I should or that I can see less patients.” And so you start to realize these trickle-down impacts. We are able to bring those types of examples to the table in a policy conversation to take a deeper look at the nuances, how they might impact somebody's day-to-day life, how they might feel. They’re feeling overwhelmed; [how does being overwhelmed impact their work?] And so I think over the next five years we hope to be able to be that voice, but then also be able to take these complicated, complex policies and bring them back to the users in a plain language way that makes them see that the movement to a value-based purchasing program, and moving into value care and accountable organizations, has benefits for them and it's something they can do. And how do we take that complexity and make it something feasible? So that we can help move where we want to go. So it's both sides of the coin – it's bringing that voice to the table and then turning around to say, here's what CMS is really trying to help you all accomplish.

Why do you think they're listening to you?

A: Because we've listened to them.

When I think about what we, the QPP HCD team, has accomplished in the last four years and where we're going, I think it's really founded in the root of being a team that listens. I think that's incredibly important with whoever you're working with: showing a sense of listening, but active listening, listening in a way that you can show somebody that you understand and that you've heard them. For us, that becomes really important when we're with the policy folks; we need to understand the reason behind a policy, the good intentions, and why we are trying to implement what we're trying to accomplish. We need to understand and listen to how the users are feeling, and be able to take that and be their voice back to CMS. It's through that listening and demonstrating that we have heard and understood that we have earned the trust of both our users and our clients. When we first came on, there was an annual quality conference that the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare put on, and we were able to go and have a booth that said, “We do HCD,” or we would inform their presentations. This past week, Sammy and Kiel from our team were the presenters. They worked and partnered right up with our CMS client, and it was the three of them who presented the new learning experience that we've implemented on MIPS value pathways. I don't think that would've happened if CMS hadn't had complete and utter trust that Sammy and Kiel not only understood the users, but also understood CMS and its goals. And I think all we have to do is build upon that. We've earned that trust. Now what can we do with it?

It’s a big deal!

A: It really is! When you have the opportunity to be in the room and to be part of the conversation, the impact that you can make as a company is huge. We've come a long way in just four years, and I'm so excited for the next five.

Final Thoughts

A: Too many. You know, it is hard. I am a person who likes to be in the driver's seat and to have control, and I work a lot in my faith to realize that there are a lot of things out of our control. And you don't always know where life's going to go. There are a lot of phrases like, "when the door shuts and a window opens” and this and that. I never would've known where my path was going to take me. And there have been moments in my career where I've been really frustrated or upset in a situation. Looking back over the past 20 years, I am so thankful for everything that happened that led me to Agile Six, that led me home to a place where I can be everything I said I was. I can be a mother, a daughter, a girl scout leader, a wife, a sister, a coworker, a friend—I mean everything. And I don't have to ever hide any piece of me.

Sixer Spotlight is an ongoing series to share the stories of our team. If Michelle’s story piqued your interest in a career with Agile Six, explore our open roles.