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%

talking about,’ which tends to be my style, [Williams] started asking questions and making suggestions and got the person through it. At the end of it, he said, ‘Now, what do you think you need to do next?’ He got them there by asking them questions and letting them answer. So now they own it. He did it very unthreatening and was tireless about it.”

Richard Cavanagh, president and CEO of the Conference Board, an organization of chief executives of which Williams is a member, has seen him use the same technique in board meetings. “He asks questions in order to constructively move things along rather than to show how smart he is.”

CHALLENGES OF BEING CHAIRMAN
As Williams moves into the chairman’s seat, some believe letting go of the reins will be difficult. He is undoubtedly a micromanager, involved in every minute detail of running the company. “At heart, he’s an engineer and mechanic and now he’s a pilot,” quips Bertolini. “He shouldn’t be screwing around with the engine.”

Rowe believes that “the Ron years are going to be marked by, I believe, true industry leadership” and a continued emphasis on customer service.

Williams, however, is not inclined to predict his own behavior. Since healthcare responsibilities will continue to shift to consumers, it will be Aetna’s duty to help them become aware of all their options. “The only thing you can count on is change,” says Williams of his transition. “What we do today won’t be successful tomorrow. There will be new requirements to reinvent ourselves. I think about it in the context of positioning the institution to be here another 150 years and also to create the next generation of executives who will be here to confront challenges I can’t even imagine.”

RONALD A. WILLIAMS, THE TURNAROUND KING

  • AGE: 57
  • TITLE: Chief Executive Officer and President, Aetna Inc.
  • NEXT APPOINTMENT: Chairman
  • EDUCATION: B.A., Roosevelt University in Chicago; M.S., Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • FAMILY: Married 26 years to wife, Cynthia. They have one son, Christopher, who is a sophomore in college.
  • BOARD AFFILIATIONS: Board of Directors, Lucent Technologies Inc.; Board of Trustees, The Conference Board; Dean’s Advisory Council and the Corporate Visiting Committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; member of MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan Management Society; Board of Trustees, The Connecticut Science Center
  • INTERESTS: Tech gadgets, reading, jazz, watching old films
  • WHAT HE HAS LEARNED: “Engagement and enthusiasm of the employees is absolutely essential to business success, and customers are at the center of what you do. We win or lose by our willingness to listen to what they tell us. Lots of companies listen but don’t do anything. If you listen and take action, then it could be extremely effective.”
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