Veteran Voices is a series that gives our veteran-employees a chance to discuss their time in the military and how it prepared them for their careers with Highmark Health companies. In this post, we learn about Highmark Vice President of Business Innovation Paul Puopolo’s transition from more than a decade as a Navy pilot to a successful career in the health care industry.

The first time Paul Puopolo took to the skies at Navy Flight School, he realized a lifelong dream. Everything he’d worked for had come to this, and everything he would come to accomplish in his career would be traced back to this moment.

“Growing up, I’d always wanted to fly,” says Puopolo, Vice President of Innovation for Highmark. “I figured the best way to do that was to go into the military.”

Serving the country also continued a family legacy. “My dad and uncles all served, and then my cousin went to the Naval Academy, so I always had the thought of joining the military,” Puopolo says.  “Combine that with what I always knew I wanted to do — become a pilot — and it just made sense.”

Taking Flight and Making Sacrifices

Ensign Paul Puopolo

Ensign Paul Puopolo at the start of his career in the U.S. Navy.

Puopolo’s first step toward earning his wings was enrolling in Villanova University’s Navy ROTC program on a scholarship. After graduating as an officer in the Navy, he was ready for flight school.

“It was the 80s, you know — we all wanted to fly Top Gun jets,” Puopolo jokes, recalling his early days in the aviation program. In the end, though, his interest was piqued by helicopter flight, the area of aviation he eventually pursued.

Between helicopter training and officially receiving his wings, Puopolo got married — to a fellow Villanova graduate.

Puopolo helicopter photo

Lieutenant Puopolo fires first fleet Hellfire missile from the Navy’s new SH-60B Armed Helicopter.

Over the next 13 years, he served around the world, including two six-month deployments in the Arabian Gulf and the Adriatic Sea, and four shorter deployments in the Caribbean. “We did a lot of drug ops in the Caribbean,” Puopolo explains. “We usually had one or two small ships and then the helicopters out there to chase bad guys … from Colombia to Jamaica and Mexico.”

With so much time away from his home and family, Puopolo says he relied on the support and understanding of those closest to him. He also gives a great deal of credit to his wife who, for years, served as “Commander in Chief” at home. Because of her, he says, they were able to start a family early in his career rather than putting that part of life on hold.

“My wife is a very specific type of person, and I knew that while I was gone, she’d be able to handle everything at home, on her own,” he says. At the same time, he acknowledges the real sacrifices that come with being away so often, including missing “big moments in life like the birth of your child, or your sister’s wedding” (he jokes that he’s still paying the price for that second one).

“You’re going to give up a lot, and you’re going to make many sacrifices, so you have to be committed to the mission, and you have to be happy and excited about what you do,” he says. “For me, the people in my life understood that the reason I was missing those things was that this is what I had signed up to do. And they knew that I loved it. I loved serving the country, I loved flying, I loved being at sea with the crew and my team. If I didn’t, it would have been a huge waste of my time.”

New Mission: Health Care Innovation (and Adjusting to Civilian Life)

After 13 years of deployments, Puopolo moved from active duty to reserve duty and began researching a civilian career. Working through a Navy employment service, he found himself attracted to “the mission of health care.”

“I liked the fact that health care in general is meant to take care of people — the idea is to help people finance their health,” Puopolo says. His first position was as a strategic consultant with Humana, a national health insurer.

Puopolo says the transition into civilian life was “very difficult” — particularly citing the differences between a military work culture and the corporate environment.

“I quickly found that the way the military does things is not the way they’re done in the corporate world,” he admits. Among other things, he notes that it was hard to get used to the structure of “matrixed organizations” and the more loosely defined scope of responsibility.

“There’s nothing cross-functional, really, in the military; you have something you’re accountable for and you’re responsible for getting it done,” Puopolo explains. “Now, you can work with other people, but you are ultimately accountable and you know your level of authority. It’s pretty clear what you can and can’t do, and I think that was a challenge for me coming into corporate; I had to learn how to work with people who didn’t need to work with me. I’m still working on that.”

The new challenges didn’t stop at the office. While he was relieved to be with his family, Puopolo says he hit some turbulence when transitioning back into life at home.

“Initially it’s hard when you realize that you don’t make the decisions — things have been running without you for a long time and you can’t just walk in and think you’re going to take over all the decisions about home life,” he says.

He adds that he got through the struggles by communicating openly with his wife, especially when it came to raising their children.

“My recommendation there is always to check,” he advises. “Have that conversation with your spouse, even if it’s a little awkward, because you don’t want to start making decisions when you’re not exactly sure if that’s the way it’s been done while you were away.”

The Veteran Advantage

Paul Puopolo

Paul Puopolo today, as Highmark’s Vice President of Innovation.

Despite the challenges, Puopolo has enjoyed a good deal of success in the corporate world, including building and leading Highmark’s Innovation department since 2011.

As vice president, Puopolo oversees the team responsible for developing and implementing new ideas and ventures for Highmark’s non-insurance business. The Innovation department has been the driving force behind Highmark’s new caregiver business, CaregiverHQ, and the new REMWorks Sleep Store. Puopolo’s team has also engineered the company’s first steps into telemedicine to better manage the health of its patient populations and reduce unnecessary care costs. His team is working on a new “connected health” business model for 2015.

Puopolo credits his success, in part, to his military experience.

“The military gives you passion: You have to be committed, and you have to have 100 percent of your time really devoted to everything you do,” Puopolo says. “Innovation can be extremely frustrating. So if you don’t have all that passion and energy, you’re not going to be successful.”

Similarly, Puopolo says he draws on many of the same leadership skills he learned as a Navy officer to carry out his role as Highmark vice president.

“My idea is to give people as much responsibility and accountability as possible, and to trust them to do what they need to do,” he says. “That’s what the military does. You give a lot of accountability to your team members, and you let them run their processes and you help coach them along the way. That’s what I do here.”

Another skill he picked up in the military: managing people from a variety of backgrounds.

“We’ve got a lot of different personalities here — which is very similar to the military — but at the end of the day we have a structure for everyone to play in, and I’m just trying to guide that process,” he says.

Puopolo emphasizes that many veterans leaving the military to join the workforce possess similar strengths.

“I think there are a lot of skillsets that veterans have that can be applied to corporate America,” he says. Admitting that many veterans experience some frustration, as he did, in transitioning to a corporate environment, he adds that “it helps to have a coach or a mentor who can help get you through that adjustment period.”

In that spirit, Puopolo has signed on as one of the executive sponsors of Highmark’s Veterans Business Resource Group (BRG) — an internal group dedicated to helping veterans develop in their careers and make the transition to civilian life.

“I think mentoring and coaching is the biggest thing you can get within a company in terms of helping veterans acclimate and be successful. But I think it’s important to be a veteran in order to coach a veteran,” Puopolo says. “You have to know what they’re thinking, and what their life might be like, and what their challenges are; you have to understand what skills they bring in order to coach them through where they need to go.”

Puopolo also believes organizations can structure themselves in ways that feel more natural to veterans and that — in the long run — may be more efficient for everyone.

“People in the military are geared toward ‘what’s next?’” he points out. “That’s why General Electric is so successful, and it’s why they hire a lot of military people. Their corporate structure is built with a very specific process for how you move through the company, and what you have to do to move up, and military people like that structure.”

Puopolo is living proof of the success that can be achieved from applying lessons learned in the military. With a windowed office on the 24th floor of Highmark’s Pittsburgh headquarters, Puopolo has found a new place in the sky.