Jess ElmquistAug 18, 2023

How a Romanian Cattle Truck Driver Inspired Fortitude in This HR Leader

When I first got into the business of people, I didn’t realize how much I’d enjoy getting to know them beyond their career aspirations. As the years went on, I enjoyed these interactions so much I would set aside time in interviews to find out what made that candidate in front of me tick.

I’m carrying forward that practice on this and future podcasts by speaking to my C-suite peers about their lives, their influences, and the events that molded them into who they are. The goal is to peel away the veneer that builds as leaders ascend to positions of authority, and expose that layer of vulnerability we all have.

While I could talk AI, technology and methodology with HR leaders all day, I’ve found just as much value in a candid back-and-forth when their guards are down to explore what makes their leadership effective, partly to help inspire tomorrows HR leaders today

My guest on this episode of “Smarter” is Mandy Day, Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at The Cigna Group, the health insurance colossus.

“I feel lucky every single day that I get to wake up and do my job,” she said with conviction. Day has been with the company for nine years, and there are about 200 people who report up to her.

A few years back, Day and her team made a remarkable discovery – it was easier for external candidates to find a job at Cigna than it was for their own people! The story doesn’t end there; Day went out and did something about it. (Read more about this in my other blog, Skills: the Metadata of People.)

When you look at Day’s career trajectory, yes, she has “made it” in the classical sense. Funny thing is, her father was a partner in an executive search firm, and Mandy had no desire to follow in her father’s footsteps.. What she really wanted to make a career out of is a story unto itself.

[Watch the full episode, listen to it on Apple and Spotify, or continue reading for the big takeaways]

Crime Scenes & the FBI

Day actually had her heart set on a criminal justice career. In fact, she chose to study at Marist College in upstate New York because of its highly rated criminal justice program at the time.

“I wanted to be in the FBI or do something in criminal justice, so I got a (Bachelor’s) degree with a focus on crime scene investigations, and then 911 happened,” she said.

That’s when she looked around at the state of the world and wondered where she saw herself in 10 years. She stayed in school to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration, but that cost money, so she interned at Heidrick and Struggles where her dad was a partner of the executive search firm. After graduation she joined another search firm started by three Heidrick partners.


Working at her father’s firm, Day got to see the daily ins and outs of the HR function, and began to realize at the time that HR back then was not the career path fit for her.

“This is 30 years ago (when) HR was more behind the scenes,” she said. “I don't think they had a seat at the table at the time.”

That was when HR was less strategic, more transactional in nature. Think old school payroll, benefits, and printing paychecks in the basement.

“I wanted to do something different,” said Day. “I wanted to have a seat at the table.”

It wasn’t that she was turned off by back office work -– “If the back office doesn't work, the front office doesn't work,” Day said — rather, it was a realization that she had found her niche in executive search acquiring talent. This led to building the skills and experience she needed to step into HR and the talent leadership role as HR functions have moved to greater importance.

She now has a thousand-foot, strategic view into all aspects of Cigna and insight into the company’s growth based on how talent moves in and around the organization.

That is such an important exclamation point she just made right there. HR today has a talent-forward mindset. Every industry, but especially health care, has to be talent-forward and proactive. That makes HR such an amazing and vibrant place.

I love the fact that she saw the evolution of the function when it was a quiet, little back-of-the-house operation that has grown into a strategically vital nerve center of the business. And in turn, Day herself has developed into a global judge of talent who is challenging the way Cigna does business.

Seeing 74,000 Employees as Candidates

Don’t let the word “acquisition” in Day’s title fool you. She’s super-focused on the inside game and the outside game.

In fact, Cigna hired about 24,000 last year, a nearly even split between internal and external offers. The company is aiming even higher this year. “We implemented Phenom and it's helping us with our overall internal talent management recruitment process,” Day said.

All told, 74,000 people work for the company, filling thousands of roles. It might be tempting to call them “employees,” but that’s not quite how Day and her team view them.

“We have 74,000 employees, which are 74,000 candidates that we could be touching every single day,” she said of the approach to letting people explore different roles, even if they’re not looking to make a permanent change.

“Creating a world where that can exist and they can try something outside of their swim lane,” Day said. “Maybe they're not ready to make a shift from marketing to finance, but they want to learn more about it.”

That’s huge, because one of the things that’s top of mind for Day is keeping people at Cigna.

“That's an evolution that I'm not sure anybody has quite figured out yet,” she said. Maybe the key to hanging on to talent is benefits or internal mobility or workplace flexibility. At the same time, the healthcare industry as a whole is changing, which means Day and her team are recruiting differently than they ever have before.

The Biggest Influence In Her Life

We all have that certain someone in our lives who sustains and inspires us to be better. I was curious to find out who that special person is in Day’s life.

“This is the person who instilled a really strong work ethic in myself and how to be resilient, and that was my grandfather. He came from Romania on a boat and got off on Ellis Island” when he was 14 years old, remembered Day.

“He came to America with a backpack, a pair of shoes on his feet, and a change of clothes. He didn’t know anybody here besides his mother, father, and two brothers, and they traveled with no money.”

He later joined the U.S. Marines to learn to read and write English. From there he got a driver’s license and became a truck driver, transporting cattle from Indiana to Wisconsin.

“His last wish that he wanted was to be able to afford a home for his family, and he did that,” Day recalled. What made him successful was an always-on work ethic and the fact that he never took no for an answer.

I loved that story. I mean, today, she has a big, complex role with responsibility for a global organization, yet she can trace her skills, success and secrets of success to an immigrant story. That’s pretty fantastic.

What’s your story? I’d like to hear what and who made you the leader you are today. Maybe I’ll even have you on an episode of “Smarter.” Let’s connect on LinkedIn.

About Smarter

“Smarter” is a podcast where I engage with top experts and senior leaders to uncover the big people trends, unlock the insights, and listen for new ideas related to purpose, people, and the processes that work the best. Let’s get smarter together.

Jess Elmquist

Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.

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