The Turnaround King

By focusing on employees and customers,Ronald A. Williams has designed a culture at Aetna where workers thrive and shareholders have been rewarded by a five-year stock increase of 600%

option of seeing out-of-network doctors.

LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Williams, who holds a degree in psychology from Roosevelt University and a master’s from MIT Sloan School of Management, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. His mother, now deceased, was a part-time manicurist. His father worked as a parking lot attendant, bus driver, and transit union trustee. Both parents instilled in him strong values that remain part of his personal and professional code.

The other factor contributing to Williams’ success has been his willingness to make adjustments. “You have to be prepared to redefine your aspirations, your goals, [and] capabilities,” he says. “Some people are not willing to do that. You also have to be geographically flexible. I’ve lived lots of places and I think that if I were interested in being in one place forever, that I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have had. I’ve been willing to go where the opportunities are.”

Once he’s in a new organization, Williams is fully engaged. In fact, when he accepted the position at Aetna, he showed up for work the day after he left WellPoint. “If I didn’t show urgency in what I did,” he says, “why should anyone else?”

One of his most difficult decisions at Aetna was cutting more than 10,000 jobs. “The result was that we became a healthier or

ganization,” he says. Elease E. Wright, senior vice president of human resources
at Aetna, says Williams’ understanding of people greatly improved the corporate culture. “Before Jack and Ron, it was more [hierarchical], so a lot of direction came from the top,” she says. “When that happens, people are following directions, so accountability is not clear as you go down through the organization.”

Adds Bertolini, “It was a very poisonous environment. [It] had gone from internal sniping, politics, and self-promotion to one of a real team environment focused on getting things done.”

Walking through Aetna, one finds Williams’ guiding principles displayed on its walls: “Deliver bad news early and personally,” “Own your plan and, quickly, proactively, act on variances,” “Attack the issue, not the person,” and “Assume positive intent.” They’re not just mantras. They represent key elements of the company’s operational model. Most employees know them by heart. Williams lives by them.

To give employees a better understanding of the competitive landscape and how Aetna earns and spends money, Williams introduced a business literacy program. He also conducts a series of quarterly managers meetings, regular site visits, and town hall meetings. “We spent a lot of time educating employees about the condition of the business, what our plans were, and their roles in helping us be successful,” he says. “It’s really to create an environment in which people know its OK to ask the difficult, tough questions.”

Williams does quite a bit of listening as well. “We were in a quarterly business review,” says Bertolini. “There was a person who obviously didn’t understand all of the information. Everybody at the table knew that this person was clueless. And instead of going ‘You don’t know what you’re

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