Going The Distance
Matias Ferreira, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and double amputee athlete, was close to quitting the race. Sitting on the side of the road, struggling with his prosthetics, the young man got frustrated and chucked one leg into the nearby woods. His running guide, David Cordani ’88, wasn’t having it. “What are you doing?” Cordani asked Ferreira before calmly retrieving the man’s limb from its swampy resting place, wiping off the mud and reattaching it to Ferreira’s body. It was a low point, but it was not the end. With Cordani’s reserve of patience and persistence to draw from, Ferreira got up and finished the half-marathon.
This was Ferreira’s first race after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan and losing his legs a year before. A seasoned athlete, it was Cordani’s first race as a guide with Achilles International, an organization that promotes personal achievement and enables people with all types of physical and mental challenges to participate in mainstream athletics.
Crossing the finish line was a significant milestone for both men. For Ferreira, it confirmed that he was still capable of greatness despite his physical limitations. For Cordani, the euphoria he experienced in helping someone achieve such an enormous goal was intoxicating. He was hooked. “After that race, I volunteered wherever they needed me or whenever I could be of help to safely guide a veteran from the starting line to the finish line,” Cordani said.
Cordani has run in dozens of races as a guide with Achilles International, an organization that enables people with physical and mental challenges to participate in mainstream athletics.
For both men, the finish line was only the start of a much greater race. Utilizing the lessons he learned from Cordani and Achilles about goal setting, training and dogged determination, Ferreira later became a police officer in Long Island, New York, making history as the first double amputee to serve as a full-time officer in the United States. Cordani, the chairman and CEO of health service company Cigna, went on to run dozens more races as a guide. He also co-authored a best-selling book on leadership based on his experiences with Achilles athletes titled “The Courage to Go Forward: The Power of Micro Communities.”
Today, Cordani is bringing the life-changing lessons of his Achilles experiences to bear in his leadership of Cigna and finding new ways to make an impact in the lives of wounded athletes, as well as the 70,000 employees and 190 million customer relationships Cigna serves around the world.
Family Values, Aggie Vision
Cordani grew up in Connecticut in a multigenerational home, where he and his two brothers were raised by parents, grandparents and a network of relatives in the neighborhood. He credits his family with instilling in him three essential life lessons: hard work, the Golden Rule and giving back. “We were raised to make a difference in people’s lives and to give our time, energy and commitment to do it,” he said.
Cordani’s family temporarily relocated to Houston during his high school years, prompting his older brother John to enroll at Texas A&M University. Cordani visited campus often and fell in love with Aggieland’s unique culture. When the rest of his family moved back to Connecticut, he followed his brother to College Station, drawn to the university community’s emphasis on respect, leadership and service. “The environment to me was palpable,” he recalled. “I chose Texas A&M for the school spirit and the university’s values.”
In the classroom, faculty members encouraged Cordani to learn how to think instead of what to think. He appreciated that integrating real-life experiences into academic pursuits was paramount and that the “other education” was valued. He majored in finance in Mays Business School and enjoyed competing with his classmates in national stock market game and performance events.
“It was real-life learning that took classroom theory to practice,” he said. He didn’t realize at the time just how useful these events were to his career training, as the team had to collaborate to develop a strategy, pitch ideas and compromise while working toward a goal. The experience taught him how to research, merge analytics with intuition and lead in dynamic situations.
“You could come up with a brilliant plan as a team, but you had to be flexible and willing to modify the plan due to changes in the market situation,” he explained. Collaborating with people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to find a consensus was a valuable experience that led directly to his success in the workplace.
As the president, CEO and chairman of the global health service company Cigna, Cordani has guided the company to reach No. 13 in the Fortune 500.
The stock market crash in 1987, known as Black Friday, was a pivotal moment in Cordani’s life. At the time, he had ambitions of going to Wall Street to start his career the following year. “I loved the challenge of the complex finance environment,” he said. Cordani recalled a faculty member canceling class on that significant day. “History is being made,” he told students. “You’ll learn more by watching the news right now than what I can teach you.”
Standing in the lobby of the Blocker Building, watching the headlines scroll across multiple TV screens, Cordani decided to adjust his personal action plan. “I realized there wouldn’t be a lot of jobs on Wall Street in the foreseeable future,” he said. That day, he added an accounting major.
It was the right move.
After graduation, Cordani secured a position at Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), the highly esteemed accounting firm. His clients were primarily financial services and health care companies. The financial clients were in his wheelhouse of expertise, but he was surprised to discover how the health care companies captured his interest.
“The health care industry was on the brink of significant and innovative change—and change creates opportunity,” he said. For the generous-hearted Cordani, health care was also appealing because it focused on helping people and creating social positives. “When I saw those things line up—change and opportunity and human impact—I fell in love with health care,” he shared.
Three years after starting his career in public accounting, he was approached to consider a position in the leadership development program at Cigna. The program allowed him to take a deep dive into finance, operations, investments and human resources within the health care industry. It fascinated and motivated him, so much so that he spent the next 30-plus years moving through progressive positions of influence within the organization. Since 2009, he has served as president and CEO of the global health service company; in January 2022, he was named to the additional role of chairman.
And since 2009, Cigna has grown its customer relationships from 30 million to more than 185 million today, increased shareholder returns annually by 17% and increased its overall revenue 10 times over, thanks to Cordani’s effective leadership.
As a young man, Cordani wasn’t a great athlete, “but I was scrappy,” he said. He also loved to eat—and it showed. During his freshman year at Texas A&M, he decided he needed to get in shape. Instead of gaining the proverbial freshman 15, he took up running and intramural basketball and shed 55 pounds within a year. “I saw the health effects of being more physically active. I had a higher energy level and felt better physically,” he said. The exercise made him feel so good that it has become an essential part of his daily life.
“I get centered every morning by exercising and watching the business news. It’s a healthy means of keeping the mind and body in check,” he said, noting that exercise also helps manage stress.
In 2021, Cordani celebrated his 30th year of participating in triathlons. “Racing is a great metaphor for work and life,” he reflected. “In racing, you set a goal, you have a strategy attached to pursuing that goal, you prepare, then you get to the starting line and you execute. Some unintended things will happen. The ocean could be choppy, and you get physically beat up in the swim. Your bike could malfunction. You could have nutrition problems on the run. It could be unbelievably humid, and you have hydration problems. But you must adapt and adjust.”
Cordani co-authored a best-selling book on leadership based on his experiences with Achilles athletes titled “The Courage to Go Forward: The Power of Micro Communities.”
He hopes to pass on this perspective to the veterans he works with through Achilles, as well as to Cigna’s thousands of employees. In “The Courage to Go Forward,” Cordani lays out six steps he calls “The Recipe” that sum up the philosophy: define the vision, create a strategy, attract the right resources, execute the plan, overcome obstacles, then expand and grow. Whether you’re training for a marathon or steering a health care company through the uncharted waters of a pandemic, the recipe applies, he said.
Seeing this strategy transform lives has been rewarding for Cordani. “These veterans think, ‘There is no way I can run a half- or full marathon without two legs. I couldn’t run a half-marathon when I was able-bodied. How am I going to run it on prosthetics?’” Cordani and others work with veterans to set the goal, train and account for curveballs. “When we cross the finish line and that soldier says, ‘I achieved this,’ it’s an eye-opening moment. Then they can ask themselves, ‘What other goals do I want to set?’ knowing they can do just about anything.”
That confidence goes beyond the racecourse, he said, noting the personal and professional goals achieved by Achilles athletes. “Goal setting, peer support, goal pursuit and goal achievement is a powerful elixir for a lot of life.”
A Virtuous Cycle
Working with wounded veterans, Cordani has experienced firsthand how many who return home injured have lost more than a limb; oftentimes, their sense of self is forever altered. So much of a soldier’s identity is tied to physical capability, he explained. Injuries can be debilitating both physically and psychologically as the veteran is confronted with a new vision for their future.
Cordani works closely with Achilles’ Freedom Team, which serves wounded veterans predominantly of Iraq and Afghanistan. Training for and completing strenuous physical events and regaining a sense of physical capability is not just life changing. For some, it is lifesaving, as the rate of veteran suicide is twice as high as that of the civilian population. Connecting veterans with the right resources to restore mind and body can be a matter of life or death.
Cordani’s first real exposure to the military was through Texas A&M’s culture. His Aggie ring, with stars, stripes, eagle and shield, reminds him daily of that military history and the values of his alma mater. His passion for serving veterans has come full circle back to the university, where he has created two endowments for student veterans. The Sherry L. and David M. Cordani ’88 Aggie Veteran Freedom Scholarship supports Aggie veterans or their spouses attending Texas A&M. Similarly, the Student Aggie Veteran Enhancement Fund created through the Cordani Family Foundation with matching funds from Cigna is an emergency fund that assists student veterans in circumstances of outstanding financial need.
“These men and women served to protect the freedoms of our country,” Cordani said. “To me, it is a privilege and a responsibility to try to reciprocate some of that service. It’s a way of saying thank you.”
The Power of One
Cordani has led Cigna through significant shifts in health care, from the Great Recession and the introduction of the Affordable Care Act to the global COVID-19 pandemic. With each new challenge comes new opportunities to increase the organization’s impact. “The constant point across these challenges is a brutally clear focus on what’s most important. When faced with uncertainty, it’s important to rely upon the values system of the corporation,” he said. “We are guided by our mission. We exist to improve the health, well-being and peace of mind of those we serve.”
Under his leadership the last 12 years, Cigna has seen continuous growth, climbing the Fortune 500 to reach No. 13. The company has led the industry in addressing some of the most pressing health care concerns of the day, including the opioid crisis, lowering the cost of insulin and the loneliness epidemic.
Inspired by his time in Aggieland and his experiences with Achilles athletes, Cordani and his wife have created two gifts that benefit student veterans at Texas A&M University.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example. In March 2020, nobody knew what would transpire, but one thing was certain: It would have a significant impact on people’s health care needs. As chair of the board of directors of America’s Health Insurance Plans at that time, Cordani convened the board to take bold action. They coordinated with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and, within hours, developed a plan to ensure that every American, regardless of their health insurance provider, had access to COVID-19 diagnostic tests—at no cost.
Cordani sees Cigna’s willingness to embrace change in the dynamic and shifting marketplace as a key indicator of its strength and success. “We live in an environment of perpetual change,” he stated. “Our culture and our company come closer to thriving if we can embrace a change environment, rather than tolerating it or resisting it.”
While Cordani leads a huge and ever-expanding corporation, he stresses that a position like his isn’t necessary to change the world. “A lot of well-meaning people assume that the only way you can have an impact is to have a massive infrastructure,” he said, “but I believe you can turn that on its head and start from the power of one. All of us can make our business or our community a little bit better every day. Marginal improvements, compounded by time and teamwork, generate a flywheel effect that magnifies the action. So many times, we convince ourselves that it has to be big to matter. But harnessing the power of small—the power of one, the power of an individual—is just as important.”