Posted: December 01, 2012
Executive edge: Linda Arneson
Delta Dental COO applies lessons learned on athletic fieldsBy Lynn Bronikowski
When Linda Arneson started her career at Delta Dental, she worked out of the basement of a two-bedroom apartment in central Denver. At age 18, she would painstakingly file paperwork as a temp worker in an effort to gain business experience.
In 1972, the graduate of Aurora’s Hinkley High School was hired full time and by age 26 was in management. Forty years later and seven moves to new locales before landing in the Denver Tech Center, Arneson is chief operating officer of Colorado’s oldest and largest dental-benefits company, serving more than 1 million members.
"When I started, everything was done by hand," recalls Arneson, 59, who would ultimately oversee the automation of claims as one of her many jobs through the decades. "As the business changed, I began to move up and move around the organization. I pretty much worked in all the departments, so I have a broad view of the company.
"One of the reasons I’ve been at Delta Dental for 40 years is that I have been able to be in a position where I could be creative and come up with things that were new. I’ve been able to create all these opportunities here and didn’t need to go anywhere else."
At age 42 she earned a business degree from Regis University, regularly bringing what she learned in the classroom to the workplace.
"I don’t know if I had gone to college at another time if I would have gotten the value out of my college education," Arneson said. "Working here, I had a place to try things out. I didn’t just read it in a book and put my book down; I put what I learned into practice."
Arneson’s father was a mechanic for Western Airlines. Her mother worked part-time in admissions at St. Joseph Hospital. Growing up, she never gave a thought to becoming a business executive.
But in a pre-Title IX era, Arneson was very involved in sports, particularly track and field and synchronized swimming. When she was 15, she was the national Junior Olympic champion in hurdles and also excelled in shot put and discus.
"Sports gave me a sense of competition and a sense that I don’t really like to lose," said Arneson, who credits sports with helping her to develop her business acumen. "I also learned it takes a lot of hard work to win and that you have to be willing to make sacrifices. In team sports, you have a leader and a group of people who develop strategies. You all have to work together, and there’s give and take with everybody having a specialty. For me, that analogy really helps me in business."
As an adult she played flag football, basketball and volleyball.
"Identifying your strengths and bringing them to the team are really important along with respecting the strengths that others bring to the team," she said.
She’s watched the company grow from about 50,000 claims a year to nearly 2 million claims annually. Last year, Delta Dental celebrated its 1 millionth member by giving each employee $1,000 to give to a charity of his or her choice.
Arneson gave her contribution to the Girl Scouts of Colorado and the Mile High Down Syndrome Association. She has been on the Girl Scouts board for 10 years.
"One of the things I try to mentor is that if you want to do something you should at least try it," Arneson said. "And I always try to get them to think bigger – to look at the bigger picture."
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.