Our latest CareerBuilder Leadership Series spotlight is on Ron Williams, chairman and chief executive officer of Aetna, one of the nation’s leading diversified health care benefits companies.
A strong proponent of meaningful health care reform, Mr. Williams has championed specific solutions in op-ed articles featured in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The Financial Times, and he lends his time and expertise to a number of organizations, including the Business Council as vice chairman and the Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare, which he currently chairs. Ron talks to CareerBuilder about the power of employee suggestions, how leaders play a critical role in employee engagement, how he focuses on driving home diversity in the organization, and more.
What is your philosophy as far as the role people play in your organization?
At Aetna, we have a set of values we call The Aetna Way. The values really start with putting the people who use our services at the center of what we do. We maintain an intense focus on employee engagement because it is so fundamental and critical to our success. As a service business, we are what our employees do. You cannot go into any store in America, and buy one Aetna off the shelf – it doesn’t exist. So our employees have to internalize the importance of their role in living our values and meeting our customers’ needs. One way we measure how we’re doing in this area is through an annual employee survey. This year, 94 percent of our 36,000 employees completed the survey, which is an extraordinary response rate. Through the survey they are able to tell us what they think is working well and where there is room for improvement.
Can you give an example of an instance where an employee suggested an improvement for the company that you implemented and some effects you saw from that?
One great example is that employees felt we should have company-wide recognition events. So we established The Aetna Way Excellence Awards to recognize employee excellence in living our values and meeting the needs of our customers. The awards are especially meaningful, because winners are nominated by their peers. Last year we had nearly 4,000 employees nominated for silver awards, the first level of awards. From that group of winners, we selected about 35 to 40 gold award winners, who went onto the Platinum awards or highest level of award, where roughly 10 individuals were recognized as the very best examples of the values of the company. That whole program came about as a result of employees suggestions that came through the survey.
How do you ensure that employee engagement starts from day one and continues through the 10, 15, 20 years they might spend with your company?
Our leaders play a critical role in employee engagement. We have a set of leadership expectations that lays out core behaviors, including the expectation that leaders will communicate, communicate, communicate. A big part of their regular communication is to help transmit the culture and the values of the company. For example, we put new leaders through a first impressions orientation program where a senior officer, like myself, the president of the company, the CFO or our head of human resources, will go in and talk with them to make certain that they understand the culture at Aetna, how seriously we take our values, and the expectations we have for them as leaders in fostering employee engagement.
What is your set of values composed of?
It has four values. The first is integrity, which is about both what you do and what you don’t do. And we talk a lot about how we honor our commitments, behave ethically and do the right thing for the right reasons.. The second value is employee engagement, which we describe as leading people to success, valuing diversity and building confidence and pride in our company. The third value is excellence and accountability. It is doing what we say we are going to do when we say we are going to do it. The final value is really about quality service and value. Quality is so important in health care because most members presume that they are going to receive quality, but in reality, they may or may not. So we focus a lot on quality as one of the core values in our organization.
How do you engage different members of your organization?
One of the goals of an executive is to define reality for the organization, and to help the organization confront that reality quickly and effectively, and at the same time inspire managers and employees that these challenges can, in fact, be addressed. To give you an example, as I moved around the business community in the last half of 2008, it became clear that businesses were facing very substantial economic challenges. When our service team met with the benefit executives in our client organizations, they were not yet feeling a lot of that tension in their organization at that level. But when you talk to many executive leaders, they were clearly sharing their anxiety about how they saw the second half shaping up. So as the leader of the organization it is my job to define that reality, bring that reality back into the organization and say, “You may not yet be seeing what will be happening, but it is going to happen. We have to prepare for it happening,” and develop the next set of products that will be responsive to where our customers are going as opposed to where they are today.
Who or what has made the biggest impact in how you lead or interact with people?