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CareerBuilder Leadership Series: Spotlight on Ron Williams, CEO of Aetna

ronwilliamsCEOOur 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?

I’ve been fortunate because I’ve worked for a lot of great executives in my career. One of the things I’ve always done is learn from everyone. And you can learn from the people that you work for, you can learn from the people you work with, you can learn from the people who work for you, and you can learn from people who you run into in different walks of life. I think I have always been receptive to learning from others. And I’m fortunate in that I never believed that I had to make every mistake in order to learn. So I’ve been quite willing to take advice and counsel from others, and seek advice and counsel to help me solve important issues.

Do you have any sort of formal mechanism for exchanging dialogue with people of your organization?

I make it a point to send every person who reaches a certain milestone with the company a personal letter of appreciation. We also can find people who have done extraordinary things. Often, we will get letters from customers singling people out and expressing appreciation. Whenever possible, I pay them a visit at their desk and thank them for what they have done.

How do you convey your employment brand, and how attractive it is to be a member of your organization, to those people who aren’t yet members?

As a company, it is important to us to be viewed as a thought leader and organization that is both innovative as well as active in certain public policy debates. I think people want to join organizations they think are leaders, have good values, and value diversity. One of the things that we do as an organization is value diversity, both in the traditional sense of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, disability, et cetera, as well as diversity of ideas and approaches to solving problems. And I think that makes us an attractive destination for talent.

Aside from actively speaking about how you drive diversity home in all areas within your organization, how else are you getting that message out?

I think it starts with our own internal behavior. For example, we have a diversity committee within the company, and I chair that committee. And that [idea of] diversity is not only about the people who work here; it is about the business partnerships that we have, it’s about the health care delivery systems that we build, and it’s about the business professionals that we do business with, whether they are lawyers or other types of experts. Demonstrating, through the actions we take, that we are an organization that values diversity speaks infinitely louder than words.

Where do you think there is room to grow and improve your current diversity efforts or convey the benefits of your employment brand?

Like many companies, as we grow in different geographies, it is important that our recruitment is reflective of those communities. So as we grow in communities that perhaps have a larger Asian population, it’s important to make certain we are recruiting and developing talent from that community, and as we grow in communities that have more of a Hispanic presence, that we are reflective of those communities as well. Our goal is to be reflective of the communities that we serve at all levels of the organization. And to make certain that as we develop the next generation of leaders in the company, we continue to make progress on developing a very diverse group of executives.

Amy K. McDonnell

About Amy K. McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the editorial manager on the content services team and has been with both CareerBuilder and the city of Chicago for nearly a decade. She writes on a range of recruitment topics on The Hiring Site, striving to bring a dose of clarity and humor to sometimes complicated issues around employee attraction, engagement and retention. When she's not working, Amy spends as much time as possible reading, pretending to be a chef, writing short stories, eating Nutella out of the jar, waiting for CTA buses and trains, going to see her favorite bands live, and spending time with people who inspire and challenge her.
jim fennen
jim fennen

This is typical executive talk, which basically has not meaning at all.
What is he saying? It's like a vacuum surrounded with excellence you can't critique it because it is nonsense. I wonder if my comment will be considered inflammatory. I understand fully now why his compensation is so excellent, and wonder how many people would be getting the health care they needed using some of that $24,000,000 compensation Mr. Williams pockets instead.

jim fennen
jim fennen

This is typical executive talk, which basically has not meaning at all.
What is he saying? It's like a vacuum surrounded with excellence you can't critique it because it is nonsense. I wonder if my comment will be considered inflammatory. I understand fully now why his compensation is so excellent, and wonder how many people would be getting the health care they needed using some of that $24,000,000 compensation Mr. Williams pockets instead.


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