MIB: Turnaround Begins with Corporate Culture

Turning around a health care giant like Aetna is not an easy task. When Ron Williams took over as CEO, the company had been a perennial under-performer, with disappointed shareholders and a neglected and overlooked staff.

Williams began his tenure at Aetna with a “listening tour” of all the company’s constituencies. He spoke with doctors, patients, technical and clerical workers. When an employee doctor asked why anyone should believe he would be any different than the prior five CEOs who made the same claims, it was the start of an honest but painful discussion – one he credits with helping to save the company. The company eventually was named Fortune’s most admired health care company 3 years in a row. He not only turned around the company and made it profitable, but eventually, the firm was sold to CVS for $69 billion dollars.

That is just one of the stories Williams relates in our Masters in Business conversation this week. He is the author of Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization.

Williams notes it is not the size of the firm but rather the corporate culture that is paramount. His prior experience included Control Data (70,000 employees), Blue Cross of California (5,000 employees) and a 3-person start up. He explains the value of the corporate culture at Blue Cross, which held dinners for senior executives, bringing in former CEOs to explain their experiences and insights. Williams says these evenings helped him develop many of the skills he needed to as CEO.

His favorite books are here; A transcript of our conversation is available here.

You can stream/download the full conversation, including the podcast extras on Apple iTunesOvercastSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBloomberg, and Stitcher. All of our earlier podcasts on your favorite pod hosts can be found here.

Next week, we speak Jay Bowen of Bowen, Hanes. They hav been the sole manager of the Tampa Firefighters’ and Police Officers’ Pension Fund over the last 44 years, and have managed to significantly outperform the markets during that period. The “Tampa Fund” has become shorthand for a simpler, cheaper and more effective way of managing capital in the public pension space.

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