The transcript from this week’s MIB, Ron Williams, Aetna CEO, is below.
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VOICE-OVER:This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: This week on the podcast, I have an extra special guest. His name is Ron Williams, and he is the former Chairman and CEO of health care giant, Aetna. He came in to turn the company around when it looked like it was sort of doing the circling-the-drain type of thing. Not only did he turn the company around, he — he made it extremely profitable and it soon thereafter got purchased by CVS. This was about a year ago, a few years after he left.
He has a — a really interesting new book out, and he is quite the expert on leadership and the proper ways to — to run a company and to really get buy-ins from all the constituencies that a big entity like a health care giant like Aetna has. So I think you’ll find this to be a fascinating conversation.
With no further ado, here’s my interview with Ron Williams.
VOICE-OVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: My special guest today is Ron Williams. He is the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Aetna Health Care, the giant company purchased last year by CVS. He is on the Board of Directors for such all those companies as American Express, Boeing and Johnson & Johnson. He received his MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and he is a newly published author. His book, “Learning to Lead by Leading Yourself, Others and an Organization” is just out recently.
Ron Williams, welcome to Bloomberg.
WILLIAMS: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s start with your background. You have kind of an interesting background. You grew up the son of a bus driver and a manicurist on the south side of Chicago. That’s not the typical background for a $30 billion company CEO, is it?
WILLIAMS: No, it’s not. I was very fortunate in my life. I went to public schools and went to a community college for two years, then went on to Roosevelt and started working and ultimately found my way to MILLION TONS.
RITHOLTZ: So in the book you tell this really interesting story in the beginning about working in the winters in a carwash in Chicago, and you found that to be quite an instructive experience. Tell us about that.
WILLIAMS: Well, it was highly instructive in the sense that, in Chicago, there’s snow and slush, and when there’s a sunny clear day in the dead of winter and it is colder than you can imagine, everyone decides it’s a great day to wash your car.
RITHOLTZ: Sure, you got to get the salt and the mud …
RITHOLTZ: … off the car. And …
WILLIAMS: And so …
RITHOLTZ: … and when you wash cars …
WILLIAMS: … and so …
RITHOLTZ: … you end up soaking wet, don’t you?
WILLIAMS: You end up soaking wet. And my job was to wash the cars as they pulled up. I would climb inside the car, clean the inside windows, wash the outside, then go down as the car moved to the line and drive the car off. On a very busy day I would do that 900 times.
WILLIAMS: And the one thing I learned from that experience was I did not want to do that for the rest of my life.
RITHOLTZ: That — that was the clear take-away, “Hey, there’s got to be a better way to earn a living than — than this.” So — so you go to eventually end up in MIT where you graduate with an MBA. How did you find your way into the health care sector?
WILLIAMS: You know, I — at MIT, there was a huge focus on entrepreneurial activity. And one of the areas I focused on was the operational management of services businesses, which was a completely new area because everything that had been done in marketing up to that point was all about products as opposed to services.
And in one of my entrepreneurial classes we had a gentleman come in name Mitch Kapor. Mitch was the Founder and Creator of Lotus 1-2-3, which was the original …
RITHOLTZ: Eventually bought by IBM.
WILLIAMS: Eventually bought by IBM. And he built Lotus 1-2-3 after he worked on the original spreadsheet called VisiCalc. And it was interesting to hear his story about how he created a company and ultimately was highly successful in selling the company, and so I became interested in entrepreneurial activity. So when I left MIT, I ended up joining some partners I met who were starting a health care company in California. I knew nothing about health care, but I knew a lot about the operational management and services businesses. And this was a services business that was bringing the treatment for chemical dependency and substance abuse out of the hospital into an ambulatory center where people who had good family support and were beginning to have problems could come in after work and get the care that they needed.
It was a huge cost savings to the companies. And for the families, it made care and treatment much more accessible. So that started me down the road of health care. And ultimately, we sold the company, and I looked around and I joined Blue Cross of California.
RITHOLTZ: So from entrepreneurship you now join a fairly large company. What was that transition like because it’s obviously very different when it’s just you and a handful of people running a start-up where there’s no entrance (ph) 00:05:45 way of doing things and a lot of freedom to experiment, suddenly you’re in a giant entity?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think the experience that — that I had actually before I went to graduate school was at a company called Control Data. Control Data had 70,000 employees, so I had been in a company with 70,000, then I started a company with three, then I went to Blue Cross that had about 5,000 employees. So I have to say the size didn’t worry me as much as the culture. I jokingly — and it was half humorous and half not — that the places I was interested in working at the bottom of the list was the federal government, state government and then Blue Cross because I actually had had some experience in state government as well.
And — but I met the team, they were a really dynamic group of people who had a vision to transform the company. And I joined, and that’s really where I kind of did the apprenticeship of running all aspects of that company and ultimately really to develop the complete knowledge of the health care system.
RITHOLTZ: So did you aspire to the C-suite or were you more interested in looking at companies that were either in need of some assistance or, in Aetna’s case, a giant turnaround? What — what was the motivation when you left Blue Cross and joined Aetna?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think when I was at MIT, one of the unique things I think they did was they brought an alumni who were CEOs, and we would have dinners maybe once a month. There’d be 14 of us at a time that would sit down with the CEO and hear their story and hear their journey. And as I heard those stories and heard those journeys, somewhere in there the light went on and said, “You know, I think I could do that. I could learn to do that. I couldn’t do it today, but I could see a path where with the right experience and the right opportunities I could learn to be a CEO.” So for me that was kind of the beginning of a distant light on the horizon that said, “You know, I think maybe I could learn to do that.”
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the health care system in America. On the one hand, we have absolutely a fabulous level of medical care, just incredible innovations, incredible life-saving techniques. On the other hands, the business side of health care, you mentioned earlier it’s opaque, we have no idea about pricing, there’s no transparency. Americans seem to pay the most amount for procedures, for — for prescriptions, for drugs. Is the system broken and how can it be fixed if it is?
WILLIAMS: Well, I would say that the system is not broken, the system is not optimized, that if you need health care in America, if you have insurance, you get fabulous health care. But we do have a segment of the population that even today does not have insurance and where they’re not getting access to the services that those of us who are insured would be.
Now when you think about the cost of the U.S. health care system, it is more expensive and we spend more than other countries. But our system is uniquely American, and by that, I mean, one of the ways that other countries control the rate of increase is a set of budget. We don’t set a budget. They actually have, in many instances, a culture that accepts waiting …
WILLIAMS: … so if you need a hip replacement and you may be need it — you believe today in other countries — you might not get it for months or, in some places, years.
RITHOLTZ: Canada is probably the poster child.
WILLIAMS: It has — you have to wait for many, many services. You know, if someone were to be told to wait in the U.S., their answer would be, “You’re going to hear from me, you’re going to hear from my congressman, you’re going to hear from my attorney.” I — I want what I want.
The other issue is that other countries really do ration care in the sense it’s saying, you may be 80 years old, you may be extremely fit, you may be in great shape, but we think you’re too old for a hip replacement. And so that’s not something that we endorse and encourage.
I think there is an opportunity to create much more value in health care and make health care more affordable, and I think one of the secrets of that is to restore the primacy of the primary care physician as the person who really is the guide and coach to the patient to try to make certain that health care is looked at from end to end, and also that patient preferences are taken into account. So a patient can make an informed decision of is surgery better or should I try medication. What is the best course of action? And those are judgments that patients really need to make in consultation with their physician.
RITHOLTZ: Can we make the personal physicians the quarterback of somebody’s health care? It seems like the way the cost structure has changed, they’ve become under pressure to see a lot more patience in a shorter period of time.
I happen to be lucky, my personal physician coincidentally is a cardiac expert. And every time I have a physical with him, we sit down in the office and he spends 20 minutes going over everything. I think that sort of relationship is not the rule. That seems to be the exception. Most people aren’t fortunate enough to have that sort of primary care physician. It’s a much more assembly line type of situation. How can we create the financial incentives for those doctors to be focused on not just the billable procedure, but the overall health of the patient?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think one of the answers that we’re beginning to see is the use of what’s called integrated care systems. And in those systems, one of the things that many health plans are doing is to take the premium dollar that’s paid for insurance. And instead of paying the physician on a piece work or activity basis, to pay the — the — the system on a percentage of the premium and say 85 percent of the premium is going to go to health care services. You don’t have to try to figure out what’s the code to put this patient in a Uber or a Lyft to bring them in for a visit because if they can’t get to your office for care, then it’s going to be a lot more expensive.
WILLIAMS: And so getting away from the piecemeal a lot of the kind of activity-based care will pass those resources to the integrated delivery system, and they can use those resources in ways that really manage the patient outside of the office and outside of the hospital. If you think about health care, most of the things that impact health care actually happened in the home, in the community, at work. And so we have to think about getting the health care system much more involved in those spaces by working with the patient.
RITHOLTZ: What about cost of various drugs? You know, when we passed the — what is it Medicare Section D for prescription drug cost, there was a lot of lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry. And there is — not only is there no cap on cost, but there is a prohibition on the government negotiating prices on — on behalf of Medicaid/Medicare, which is just outrageous. It makes Medicaid cost more. That has to trickle down to what private insurers are paying for drugs.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think it does. I think we have to take a look at negotiating with the government is really not negotiating.
WILLIAMS: The government is not a negotiator, they are a price-setter.
RITHOLTZ: Well, certain countries they’re more aggressive price-setters than us and their drugs cost much less than ours.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think we have to look at the whole drug system on a global basis. And the one thing I believe is that the U.S. is, in fact, doing an enormous amount of research for all countries in the U.S. And — and it’s fair to say, I believe, that the U.S. patient population is, in fact, paying for the research, which is benefiting many countries who don’t make the investment in pharmaceutical research.
RITHOLTZ: That — that makes no sense, does it?
WILLIAMS: Well, it may not, but — but — but that’s what we’re doing.
Now, the other thing I would say is that the innovations that pharmaceutical companies create are really spectacular, and it is an extremely expensive undertaking. I’ve seen companies spend $2 billion, $3 billion on a drug, which cures a problem but creates a bigger problem …
WILLIAMS: … in which case, that money has just gone down into flames.
And so I think one of the things that we can do is to continue to emphasize generics, which is …
WILLIAMS: … which is really a much lower cost way.
RITHOLTZ: Is the patent system kind of making that more difficult? They make a slight change that’s irrelevant to a molecule and suddenly they add a few more years to a patent. How — how can we work around that?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I — I think that the — the — the whole question of making certain that drugs move through the proprietary patented process for a reasonable period of time for companies to recoup their cost and then generics should be available. We also have situations where drugs that have been in use for quite some time have been purchased and we’ve seen the prices go up dramatically.
RITHOLTZ: Three thousand, 4,000 percent.
WILLIAMS: Three thousand percent. And I think that that’s an example of something personally I think that’s inappropriate.
RITHOLTZ: We were talking earlier about your transition from an entrepreneurial background to a larger corporate entity. In your book, “Learning to Lead,” how did you come about the idea of leading yourself and then others and then the organization? I’m kind of fascinated by the way you structured this.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think it starts with the recognition that leadership is a journey and that that journey has different phases. And given my unique background as an individual who started out very meager circumstances, one of the first things I had to figure out how to do was to lead myself into a place where I could have a professional career and have aspirations for greater opportunity. And then in — then ultimately, I had the opportunity to lead people, I needed to learn how to do that and then ultimately lead organizations.
What I found was that after I cease to be CEO, I got an enormous number of phone calls from other CEOs who were confronting issues a transformational change, issues of team building, human capital — all of the issues I confronted as a CEO. I also had a lot of phone calls from aspiring leaders who really were at that stage where they had been a very strong individual contributor but were now asked to lead a team. And then I also found lots of inquiries from my peers and colleagues whose children were at that very early stage, so it really was born out of both my own experience and I decided that I would write the book and I would also interview other executives who are taking journeys similar to me.
And so I was able to interview Ken Chenault who ran American Express, Pat Russo who — she ran as CEO of Lucent and then CEO of Lucent-Alcatel, Ursula Burns who ran Xerox, and Ian Davis who was the person who ran McKinsey for quite some time, McKinsey Consulting. Their stories, my stories, their insight and the insights many people I work with are all in the book.
RITHOLTZ: So I was kind of fascinated by your discussion fairly early in the book about your background in psychology and how you came to recognize attribution theory as being very helpful in a leadership role in helping to figure out why people seem to blame others when it goes wrong, but they want to take credit for themselves not when it goes right, not the best attributes for a leader. Tell us a little bit about attribution theory.
WILLIAMS: Well, I would — would — would say that my initial undergraduate was psychology. I then decided to study clinical psychology at — at Roosevelt University and I found it very interesting. And I got — I had completed all my course work and then I had to do the internship. And I discovered that you had to work for a year for free, and I joke that that was the day I realized I was a capitalist.
WILLIAMS: But the benefit of that experience was exposure to social psychology and attribution theory, and it helped me begin to observe how people made decisions, how people made judgments about themselves and others. And I think the simplest way to think about it is that if people like you and things go wrong, they will very well blame the failure on external events. If they don’t like you and things go wrong, they blame the failure on you. Now that’s gross over simplification, but that’s the essence of it.
And what it caused me to ask myself was what would people have to believe in order to make those judgments. So it always cause me not to look for motivation, which a lot of people do, but to look for logic and thinking that makes that decision, makes sense to the individual doing it.
RITHOLTZ: Right, little cognitive dissonance goes a long way. You also referenced in the book the role of just chance and luck and how people so significantly underestimate how important just getting a little lucky every now and then is.
WILLIAMS: Well, there’s an expression which I learned early on, which is you can’t win if you’re not in the game.
WILLIAMS: And what that means is when you’re in the game, you expose yourself to more probability of luck. So if you want to be in business, you’ve got to get in business. It doesn’t mean you’ll be successful, but if you’re in business and you’re constantly working and broadening your contacts, you’ll make connections, things will happen. So luck — luck favors the prepared, luck favors those who are actually actively trying to accomplish the goals.
RITHOLTZ: Right. What’s the old joke? The harder I work, the luckier I get.
RITHOLTZ: Absolutely interesting. So — so let’s talk a little bit about Aetna before we talk about the rest of — of the Fortune 1000. You’re a CEO from 2006 to 2011. You come in a few years before that. Aetna was really in a mess. It was potentially looking down the road in insolvency. It had not been well-managed and well-run for a long time and you had to turn the company around. What was that experience like?
WILLIAMS: Well, it was really one of the most remarkable experiences that I’ve had was — was really helping that company regain its stature in the industry. And I contributed really to the employees, the staff, their commitment, their engagement and their desire to win. The company had been dramatically under-led for some time.
RITHOLTZ: That’s an interesting phrase.
WILLIAMS: And when I joined Aetna I expected that I would meet a lot of incompetent people. And I was shocked, and surprised, and pleased at the level of competence that the organization had. The company wasn’t well-organized. The company’s strategy was unclear. The culture had lost its way. And so the company had to be disassembled and reassembled in order to be effective and contemporary.
RITHOLTZ: So — so you’re coming into a — a situation that’s a little dysfunctional. How do you get buy-ins from the employees and the key management members when you’re basically saying, “Hey everything you’ve been doing is wrong. Let’s start over.”
WILLIAMS: You know, I am reminded of very early in my tenure there. I did a lot of town hall meetings to go out on a listening tour. And I remember explaining what I hope to do and what I accomplish. And one woman stood up; she happened to be a physician who works there. And she said, “You seem like a very nice man. I’m sure you hope you can do all this. You’re the fifth person we’ve seen in, you know, five years. So why should we listen and engage and do what you’re asking?”
And I paused for a minute and I looked around the room, and I said, “I want everyone in this room to stand up and give that woman a round of applause for asking the question that was on everyone’s mind, but only she had the courage to actually say.” And we did that. And I think that was a beginning turning point in people understanding that I wanted a different kind of culture and environment. And I then went on to stress that we have to have authentic conversations with each other. There’s no question you shouldn’t be able to ask me.
I’m going to give you a direct answer. You may like the answer. You may not like the answer, but I’m going to give you an honest answer. So changing the culture and changing the dynamic really started with that one conversation, which kind of spread across the organization that said this is really different.
RITHOLTZ: I can — I can imagine. And the turnaround was so successful that Aetna, during your tenure, gets named Fortune Magazine’s Most Admired Health Care Company in Insurance for — what — three consecutive years. So that is quite the turnaround both and how the company is perceived as well as the profitability of the company went from losing lots of money to being a — a billion plus profit maker. How much of this was changing the culture and how much of this was just the blocking and tackling nuts and bolts of reorganizing the company and focusing it on its core competencies?
WILLIAMS: Well, I would say I have an expression that great CEOs have their head in the clouds and feet on the ground. And head in the clouds means that you have a well-tuned sense of the external reality, spent a lot of time with customers, built a new strategy for the company and it was the leadership team that — that really helped build that strategy, then we look very deeply at the culture of the company and the values of the company, and we created something called the “Aetna Way.” And at the Aetna way we put the customer at the center of everything we do.
Now we did a slight twist on what people think of as customer. Customer was not simply the person who paid the bills. The customer was whoever you serviced. And so if it was a plan sponsor who was buying, that was a customer. When a — when a patient called or a member called the customer service, that was the customer.
If you were in human resources, the employees were the customer. If you were in proposal preparation, the sales team was your customer. And so it created a dynamic in which we were externally focused on meeting customer expectations. And the strategy really was linked to the culture, and we spent an enormous amount of time talking about the culture.
One year, I gave over 200 talks and presentations inside the company. I started each and every time with the values of the company, making sure that people understood. And my experience is that when the CEO has said it so much they could scream, they probably have reached about a third of the people.
RITHOLTZ: Amazing. You — you mentioned the customers. You described in the book early in your tenure as CEO taking the corporate jet and really flying around to visit the 200 top customers of Aetna. What was that experience like especially coming off a bad couple of years? How do you convince everybody, no, no, the turnaround is real and you’re going to really like what you see?
WILLIAMS: Well, it was a very revealing experience. Prior to my joining, Aetna had spent $12 billion on acquiring a large number of other health — health plans, but it failed to effectively integrate those plans either operationally from an I.T. perspective and from a employee culture perspective.
Customers were suffering as a result. Customer service was bad. Claim payments were bad. Information provided to patients — to customers were — were bad, too, people calling customer service. So when I visited those accounts who were Fortune 100 companies, Fortune 250 companies, Fortune 500 companies, I got an earful on what they expected and what they were getting.
The one thing that I was able to do was to ask for time, and I asked them also about their most important pain points. What did they want to see in new innovations, new products, new capabilities? And what made the difference really was a theme in the company of back to basics and defining very explicitly what we needed to do and getting the organization engaged so that the commitments I had made for improved service, improve responsiveness were being met and then the fact that we then simultaneously developed a strategy that represented a whole new generation of products and services.
RITHOLTZ: So you get all this feedback from these big customers and you promised, “Hey, give us six months to a year, I promise you’ll be happy with what you see.” How do you communicate the changes that are needed to a company the size of Aetna? You have thousands and thousands of employees. How do you make sure everybody’s on the same page and that not just culturally, but those specific pain points you mentioned. How does that reach the rank and file employees?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think what you have to do is you really have to be extremely visible. So I made it a goal to go to the customer service centers, to meet with the teams, to lay out the strategy, and to build a graphic model that define explicitly what back-to-basics meant. So if you were in claims, it said you’re going to pay claims accurately and timely. We’re going to measure you on that, we’re going to reward you on that, but we’re going to make certain you have the resources to be able to do it. And we’re going to listen to you in terms of what are the things the organization has to do to enable you to accomplish that, and we did that area by area by area. And so while we were under enormous financial strain, we did not underinvest and making certain that we got back to delivering the basic commitment for service.
RITHOLTZ: You — you mentioned the $12 billion in acquisitions that preceded your period of time as CEO. What were the I.T. challenges like to — because it sounded like you had a lot of technologies of — of all different sorts. They didn’t seem to communicate. You — you described in — in the book and elsewhere that it’s a bit of a challenge making all these disparate systems work together. How did you finally wrestle that into submission? How did you get again a giant company like Aetna with a modern cutting-edge technology infrastructure?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think it was a really critical component of our success. And as you mentioned, when I joined the company, I joined as — shortly after I became President and the CEO was Jack Rowe who was a great colleague and a friend. And one of things that we identified was we needed a new head of I.T., and there’s a story in the book where I had that epiphany after our planning process.
What we did was we actually went out and we retained a company, we retained IBM to completely update and retool the human capital. So we asked them on our behalf, evaluate all of the I.T. staff, help us determine which ones are people who really are contributing and can help us get to where we need to, and then help us replace the others with the highest caliber, greatest expertise we can find. That process took a while. At the end of it, information technology, digitalization, big data, analytics became a huge part of the competitive strategy to help the company win.
RITHOLTZ: We have been speaking to Ron Williams. He is the former CEO of Aetna and the author of “Learning to Read.” If you enjoy this conversation, well, be sure and stick around for the podcast extras where we keep the tape rolling and continue discussing all things health care-related. You can find that at iTunes, Overcast, SoundCloud, Stitcher, wherever your finer podcasts are found.
We love your comments, feedback and suggestions. Write to us at email@example.com. You can check out my daily column at bloomberg.com/opinion. Follow me on Twitter @ritholtz.
I’m Barry Ritholtz. You’re listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.
Welcome to the podcast. Ron, thank you so much for doing this. I think you are the first Fortune 100 company CEO I’ve had on. And not only is Aetna the health care provider for my firm, but I was intrigued by your book and found it quite fascinating. And I have to ask you, how did you come up with the idea of putting very succinct take-aways of each chapter. It really — when I went back and — because I first went through the book on PDF, when I got the physical copy, I started going through it and I found it tremendously helpful to when I’m looking for something to say, “Oh, here are the Chapter 3 takeaways.” What — what was the thinking process behind — behind building the book that way?
WILLIAMS: Well, it — it goes back to one of the principles that I’ve always believed is that when you’re communicating, you have an obligation to make what, you know, accessible to others in a way that is easy for them to absorb. And I think that’s whether you’re in a business meeting or whether you’re writing or you’re doing a report that it’s not enough to just put it in there from your point of view. You want to make certain that you’ve done the absolute best to make it accessible.
And for many people, the — where the book is structured seems to be linear. First, you lead yourself, and you lead others and you lead organizations. The one thing I’ve learned in really talking about the book is that when you are leading an organization, the single most important thing turns out to be leading yourself. And so these types of summaries at the end led anyone at whatever level quickly revisit some of the key lessons that can help them be successful.
RITHOLTZ: And this is your first book. How did you find the — the writing process?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think I found it challenging. I found it trying to write a book in which you are pleased with everything you say is a huge challenge, particularly, if you are a bit of perfectionist …
WILLIAMS: … in what you do. I would say I am pleased with the experience.
RITHOLTZ: Right. So are we going to see another book from you anytime soon?
WILLIAMS: Well, that I’ll have to consider.
RITHOLTZ: I have to talk to the wife and see (inaudible) …
WILLIAMS: Absolutely, absolutely.
RITHOLTZ: … let do that. So there were a couple of questions we didn’t get to that I wanted to ask about — well, and they’re both sort of political, so I’ll — I’ll ask it in a — a delegate way.
So first — there’s actually a few questions we — we skipped. First, we were talking about Obamacare, which ended up providing health care for 35 million low-income people. How did that impact your business at Aetna? Was this a positive for the insurance business? Was it a negative? Was it mixed? What — what was the impact when you’re running a giant health care company?
WILLIAMS: Well, I would say that as the legislation was being prepared and there — I was very actively involved in it. And actually, the President was kind enough to send me a personally signed copy of the bill.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, that’s very nice.
WILLIAMS: So I was …
RITHOLTZ: You still have a copy of that.
WILLIAMS: I have it on my wall.
As — and — and like all legislation, it’s imperfect. I think in terms of the industry, it’s a mixed record. The — many parts of the — of the legislation, I’d say, create financial challenges for companies, but I think in terms of the overall good for society, I think it’s a real plus.
RITHOLTZ: And it — it was supposed to be a work in progress, but once President Obama left office, work seemed to have stopped on it. Is a bipartisan health care bill even possible despite how important it is?
WILLIAMS: You know, I — one of my regrets is that we couldn’t get the initial legislation to be bipartisan because having it passed by one party made it a bit of a grudge match from either side …
WILLIAMS: … of the perspective. And I think it does make it hard. And I think if we could get the kind of leadership I would like to see, we would come up with bipartisan fixes. No one side would win everything they wanted. But I just think as a country, we are better off with bipartisan solutions than we are with single-party solutions.
RITHOLTZ: And then the other question I didn’t get to, but I think it’s important to — to discuss, when you were running Aetna you were one of the few African-American CEOS in the S&P 500. Are we doing enough to improve diversity at the C-suite? And are we doing enough to make sure the pool of all — all employees are — are given a fair shake regardless of their background whatever it might be?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think there is a lot of work to be done. I think we’re doing better in terms of advancing women and making certain that we’re equalizing on a gender basis, and I think that is a real plus. Now we’re nowhere near where we need to be. But given where we were, we’ve made a lot of progress.
I think in terms of other minorities, whether it’s Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, whatever, I think we still have a lot of work to do. Most companies have one or two in the executive suite. And if you look at the next levels in the organization, often it’s pretty thin. And I believe that in order to win a — you have to be reflective of your customer base because you’ll make better decisions to serve that customer base. And two, there’s an enormous amount of talent that we aren’t tapping if we’re not doing a better job.
The companies that I work with are all highly focused on the issue. And what they find is when they broaden the candidate slate to reflect candidates from the full spectrum and they picked the best person, often they end up picking a woman, they may pick a — a — a person of color or they may pick someone else. The object isn’t to force a solution. The object is to broaden the field, and companies need to invest much more earlier in the — in the talent pipeline to make certain that people are coming into the company and moving through the assignments and producing great results.
RITHOLTZ: You know, I work in finance and it is a notorious lack of diversity sort of industry. It’s gotten much better, but your point about the pipeline is well-taken. You can’t hire somebody at the C-suite level if there aren’t a lot of people working at — at different stages below. I think — I think Wall Street has improved in many ways, but like the rest of the country, it still has a lot of work to do.
So — so let’s jump to my favorite questions. These are the ones we ask all of our guests and — and they’re the ones that I think people are — are most excited about. Let’s — let’s jump right into it.
You mentioned you worked in — in the carwash. What was the first car you ever owned, year, make and model?
WILLIAMS: The first car I owned was a 1968 Chevrolet. And it was — it had no air-conditioning …
WILLIAMS: … which was not good, and it was a horrible green, but it was the cheapest car on the lot.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Well, Chevrolet. What — what was it, a Nova, an Impala?
WILLIAMS: It was a Nova.
RITHOLTZ: Because when you said cheapest on the lot — now in later years, those Novas became muscle cars.
WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah.
RITHOLTZ: And u could get those with big fat tires and a lot of horsepower.
WILLIAMS: No, I think this was the smallest engine they had.
RITHOLTZ: So what’s the most important thing we don’t know about Ron Williams?
WILLIAMS: You know, I would say probably the — well, the — the most important is makes it a difficult question. Probably one of the things you probably don’t know is I’m actually a movie buff. I’m a cinema fan.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, really?
WILLIAMS: And I enjoy actually all movies. And I actually am now building a — a collection of African-American movies that were made in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s which many people don’t know about.
RITHOLTZ: Really? I’m a film buff. I had no idea. What — what are some of the movies we might have heard of …
RITHOLTZ: … from that era?
WILLIAMS: Well, you — you probably wouldn’t have heard many of them. They were — a lot of them were westerns that had all black cast.
WILLIAMS: And were very similar to the westerns that were made in the …
RITHOLTZ: The John Ford type of big …
WILLIAMS: John Ford type, you know, budgets weren’t as big but the themes were the same. So I would say cinema is — is an area of interest for me.
RITHOLTZ: So out of curiosity, who is funding those? Was this through the studios? Was this independent?
WILLIAMS: They were independent films that — that a — a company carved out the segment and recognize there was a business opportunity, and put together cast and you see a lot of the same people participating in — in the movies. And one of the gifts that I — I got recently was a poster from one of those original movies that hangs in my home.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. So who were your early mentors? Who helped shape your career?
WILLIAMS: You know, I — I had — clearly my parents were — were — were instrumental. I had a lot of professors in school who — and particularly in college. And in high school, it was very challenging. They had just begun to desegregate Chicago, and I went to a school where we were the really, really truly minority, and there was — no one ever talked to me about going to college. All the college conversations were held with other students.
RITHOLTZ: Yeah, you — you mentioned that in the book that was like, yeah, okay, when you’re done …
RITHOLTZ: … back to the carwash with you — with you was the attitude.
WILLIAMS: Exactly, exactly. And so — but in college I met really great faculties who’s had great experience at Roosevelt, great experience at MIT. And then I’ve worked with some really great executives, Lynn Schaefer (ph) at Blue Cross I would give high marks to, and then Jack Rowe was just a great, great colleague, great partner.
And I’ve — the other thing I would stress is I learned a lot from everyone. You know, you don’t have to be a professional, you don’t have to be a CEO. Every person you meet you can learn something from.
RITHOLTZ: You mentioned — so this is everybody’s favorite question, what are some of your favorite books? And I have to mention that in the — your book you referenced you’re a sci-fi fan.
RITHOLTZ: So — so tell us some of your favorite books be they fiction, nonfiction, science fiction or otherwise.
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I — I — I read a lot of biographies, you know, books or the books on Lincoln that historian …
RITHOLTZ: Which author most recently …
WILLIAMS: Delores Kerwin (ph), I like her books. I — sci-fi actually, Isaac Asimov was great. I love his whole collection. One of the ones I read very early which I was fascinated with was the Foundation trilogy, which is a whole series on both combination psychology and — and science fiction.
And then I read a lot of Jim Collins in the business. Very early I focused a lot on management books, Trucker, I read everything he ever wrote …
WILLIAMS: … and a lot on leadership.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from the experience.
WILLIAMS: Well, I — I — my first business failed miserably. And what I learned there is that I was a great salesman, but I knew absolutely nothing about running a business, and that prompted me to go seek what I’ll call a business apprenticeship where you could learn, and that’s when I joined Control Data. And that took me from understanding how you sell things to actually learning how you actually run a business.
RITHOLTZ: And what do you do outside of the office for fun? You mentioned film, what …
WILLIAMS: Film and I love jazz. I visit New York and great — enjoy all the great jazz clubs here.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, really? Tell us somebody you — you saw recently, who — who you’re enjoying.
WILLIAMS: Well, I would say recently I saw Herbie Hancock who was just great, Chick Corea. I’m kind of a 60’s, 70’s, 80’s jazz fan for probably …
WILLIAMS: … obvious reasons.
RITHOLTZ: Well, 50’s and 60’s for sure.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah.
RITHOLTZ: Have you followed any of the Herbie Hancock albums where he takes like a pop artist then reworks one of their — their albums? I — the last one I think that’s sort of his was Joni Mitchell. They’re really quite, quite fascinating.
WILLIAMS: No, actually I have not heard that one. I’ll have to pick that one.
RITHOLTZ: He — he does some — some really interesting — really interesting work.
WILLIAMS: Very good.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, so what are you most excited about within the health care industry today? What — what changes are teed up that you think really are going to be impactful?
WILLIAMS: Well, the — the changes that I’m most excited about center on a couple of the companies I’m involved with, one called Agilon and another one called naviHealth.
Agilon is a company that partners with primary care physicians who are interested in serving the Medicare advantage population. And what Agilon does is it brings a technical platform to support the physicians in terms of data analytics, the clinical indicators, and it also then goes out and negotiates with health plans directly to shift those physicians from being paid on activity to receiving a capitated amount to take care of those patients.
It’s about $1 billion company. We have about 100,000 Medicare advantage members.
WILLIAMS: And we handle the business, the doctors handle the medicine. And we give them the data, the analytics, the decision support to really look at their population and figure out how do we make certain every person is coming in and getting assessed and — and getting the right preventive care throughout the year. And so it’s really been a great partnership and it’s growing about 30 percent a year. We’re very excited about it.
RITHOLTZ: Well, that — that’s quite interesting. So if a millennial came to you and said they were interested in a career in health care, what sort of advice might you give them?
WILLIAMS: You know, I would give them the — the advice to look at emerging companies that are finding new solutions, some are empowering consumers and supporting consumer engagement, some are shifting care from the hospital setting into the outpatient setting. I would say look for companies that are inventing the future. There are many of them, some are backed by hospital systems, some are private equities, some are venture, but I would look into that space.
RITHOLTZ: And our final question, what is it that you know about leadership and running a company today that you wish you knew 20 years ago when you were first moving up the corporate ladder?
WILLIAMS: Listen, that’s — that’s where it is. When you — when you’re starting out, the mixture of talking to listening is not quite right for me at least. And I think one of the most important things is really listening to what people are telling you, being in the moment, absorbing it, digesting it and figuring out how does it impact your customers, how does it impact what — what you’re doing.
I’ll give you just a quick example, which I learned. I learn more about what we should be investing in by listening to our frontline customer service people than all the strategists in the world because when you sit down with someone who’s on the phone interacting with the customer you telling them to give that customer the best experience they’ve had and the best service, and yet they don’t have the tools, they don’t have the capabilities, so systems get in the way.
When you really listen to them, it changes your priorities and you focus on giving them the capability to create a real service experience. And I think what we see great companies are doing that using now data algorithms and analysis.
RITHOLTZ: Quite, quite interesting. We have been speaking to Ron Williams. He is the former CEO and Chairman of Aetna and author of a new book, “Learning to Lead.” If you enjoy this conversation, well, be sure and look up an inch or down an inch on Apple iTunes or any of the other places where these podcasts are found, and you could see the rest of the 250 or so such interviews that we’ve done over the past five years.
We love your comments, feedback and suggestions. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to iTunes and give us a — a review. Be sure and check out my daily column at bloomberg.com.
I would be remiss, if I did not thank the crack staff that helps put together this conversation each week. Michael Boyle is our Booker. Atika Valbrun, Michael Batnick is my head of research.
I’m Barry Ritholtz. You’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.