429 | Learning to Lead by Leading Yourself First with Ron Williams

Learning to lead in today’s world is critical. We must let go of attempts to control our people if we want them to think for themselves. There is no micro-management in today’s fast pace of change for companies that are growing fast. Today’s guest is Ron Williams, author of Learning to Lead. Ron is the former chairman, president, and chief executive officer (CEO) of Aetna Inc., a diversified benefits company. We talk about the importance of learning to lead in today’s growth. You will discover the essentials in learning to lead.

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LITT 429 Featuring Ron Williams

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Target Audience: Ron is the chairman and CEO of RW2 Enterprises, LLC. He is active in private equity as well as a director on corporate, public sector and non-profit boards. The former chairman and CEO of health insurance giant Aetna Inc. devote his time and energy to helping future leaders with strategy, values-based leadership, and the continued transformation of the health care industry.


Ron Williams: The Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Listen to leaders in the trenches and your host today is Gene Hammett.

Gene Hammett: Hi, my name is Gene Hammett. I’m the host of leaders in the trenches. My big question this week is how do you lead yourself and what is leading yourself when you have a clear sense of who you are and how you’re showing up every day with work, the consistency of leading others, your managing your emotions, managing your beliefs and thoughts, understanding the vision. There’s a lot that goes into this and I’m just scratching the surface so I wanted to reach out to someone that I admire that has been able to organize this into a new book that’s coming out and it’s about learning to lead. Our guest today is Ron Williams. He’s a former CEO of Aetna. Aetna is a large company. He actually engineered a turnaround there. They were losing about a million dollars per day and they actually turned around when he retired, they did $2 billion with a B that year. So we talk about some of the core elements of shifting the leadership team and shifting the leaders inside the organization. So as a business owner and a founder, you’re probably wondering, what does this have to do with me? Well, I actually believe you have to lead yourself before you can lead others effectively. So we’re going to talk about what that means today. We’re going to talk about some of the details around leading others as well, but the focus today, ozone leading yourself. So here’s the interview with Ron Williams.

Gene Hammett: Hi Ron, how are you?

Ron Williams: I’m doing great. How are you today?

Gene Hammett: I am excited to talk to you because you’ve got a rich history and you’ve made some tremendous mark on the world today with your leadership. But I’d love for the audience to hear it in your own words. So tell us about you and who you serve.

Ron Williams: Well, thank you. I currently operate as a private equity advisor for a firm called Clayton Dubilier and rice, where I spend about a third of my time working with emerging companies who are kind of post to Ebitda and are looking to really build a strategic infrastructure. I also serve on corporate boards. I serve on the board of American Express, Johnson and Johnson and Boeing. And I spend a good deal of time doing Csuite coaching. Last year I coached well over 175 executives in different functions, in different types of businesses and most importantly in terms of who I serve, it really is about leadership and about developing the next generation of leaders and helping individuals at different levels of leadership develop a personal leadership style model and an understanding of what they have to do to be an effective leader.

Gene Hammett: Well, I can’t wait to talk about that, Ron. Yeah, do want to bring up the fact that you were one of a handful. You may know the exact number of African American CEOs of fortune 500 companies. Do you know the exact number?

Ron Williams: the number’s 15 there have been 15 and actually right now there are three, so, not all 15 were active at the same time. So it’s pretty small when you said that.

Gene Hammett: It has a very small club, so we’re glad to hear from your perspective, diversity is such a big issue right now with cultures and leadership. I’d love your take on why diversity is important in our companies.

Ron Williams: Well, I think diversity is fundamentally important because it’s vital to the success of the business. All businesses want to grow and prosper and the most important thing you can do is understand your customers so that you can serve them and most businesses have a broad dispersion of the population as potential customers and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in retail or whether you’re in selling B2b, your customer base is going to turn out to be diffused and diverse and the more your team really represents your customer base, the more effective you’re going to be.

Ron Williams: It’s also important to get different perspectives and different points of view because different experiences bring a different perspective to the table in terms of decision making, strategy, and planning, and I think diversity is beyond all of those. It’s the right thing to do.

Gene Hammett: Well, I appreciate you sharing that with our audience. We’re going to go deeper into the phases of leadership. I did want to mention here because I looked in the bio, there was something very interesting that stood out to me, which was when you took over at Aetna as the CEO, they were not making a lot of money. In fact, they were losing money, but you had a big turnaround there. Can you just give us briefly like what was going on and what you had to do and that turnaround?

Ron Williams: Sure. I would say that when I, when I joined that, and actually I was a join shortly became president and they look, get that at the company was losing $1 million a day. And so the first year we lost approximately $365 million. Needless to say, somewhere around day four or five, it gets to be extremely serious and the company had to go through a very dramatic and traumatic transformation in order to reposition itself and grow. When I became CEO and then after I retired from Aetna, my last year at an earned 2 billion with a B dollars that year. So it is one of the most successful transformations, not just financially but culturally, and we ended my period. They’re being voted by the readers of Fortune magazine as the most admired company in our sector running.

Gene Hammett: That’s fantastic. I wanted our audience to tune in to the level of work that you have and the kind of leadership you’re doing and I still think there’s a lot to learn. No matter where you are in leadership and you’ve written a new book and I always ask any author, the title of that book is learning to lead, leading yourself, leading others, and leading an organization. Why did this book has to be written run?

Ron Williams: Well, the reason I wrote the book is I got lots of questions from CEOs of mid-size companies, emerging companies who were trying to understand what was their role as the CEO, what should they do, what shouldn’t they do, and most importantly, how did they articulate their strategy, their mission, their values in a way that resonated and engage their workforce. I also got lots of comments from new entrants to the workforce who were trying to figure out how do they become successful in the way that they want to be successful. And so a big part of the book is really about leading yourself up to a point that you really begin to lead other people and leading other people represents a distinct set of skills and is something that the book goes into death in covering.

Ron Williams: One of the things I did find, which was really interesting is that as the CEO of the company, it turns out that it is extremely important how effective you are in leading yourself because you really don’t have the level of supervision and guidance that other executives often receive in their career. So those were things that motivated me to write the book.

Gene Hammett: It’s interesting you say that and I think that’s your first phase, right? If you, if we broke this down into three phases of leadership, leading yourself is number one.

Ron Williams: It’s actually in a way it’s number one and it’s number four. So it’s like leading yourself, leading others, leading organizations, and then leading yourself again because that’s really what happens.

Gene Hammett: I want to talk about that as we go through the rest of the interview. Do you know what is leading yourself?

Ron Williams: Well, leading yourself is really eliminating the preconceived notions that people have about what you are capable of and the preconceived notions that you yourself have about what you are capable of. You know, if you’re a woman, if someone who says you’re not good at this, you should do that, that’s not going to be successful. It really is starting with what I call reframing, which is the process of opening yourself up to really think about what you want to do and how you want to do it. You know, I have an expression which I picked up somewhere along the way that says you can’t win if you’re not at the table. And so if you’re someone who wants to be an actor, you have to act. If you want to write code, you’ve got to write code. If you want to run a business and build a successful business, you’ve got to get started and you have to recognize that success is based on the progressive elimination of failure. That failure isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually a good thing.

Ron Williams: And thinking through those failures really help you figure out the things that will be effective in helping you achieve what you want to do. So reframing is really a critical part of leading yourself.

Gene Hammett: Reframing is something I’m familiar with within the coaching work that I do with leaders and founders. Did it come from a coaching background or is it come from somewhere else in your work?

Ron Williams: Well, and my background, I actually started out studying psychology. I got a Ba in psychology and then went to graduate school in clinical psychology and studied that for two years. And then I got to the end of my program and discovered that I had to, in those days, I took almost a year of an internship in a facility and it was an unpaid internship. And I joke that that was a day I realized I was a capitalist because unpaid labor was not on my list of things to do.

Ron Williams: And so I migrated into business, uh, from their person to organizational development and then into an MBA program ultimately and into a technology company. So for me, this background in people behavior, understanding those dynamics was extremely important in my business career.

Gene Hammett: Is there anything specific you could tell us around a story or something around how you had to get someone to shift and knowing the power of leading themselves?

Ron Williams: Yes. Well, I think one of the things that in the book, I was fortunate, I interviewed a variety of executives. People like Pat Russo who was chairman and CEO of Lucent Technologies. At one point, Ursula Burns who ran Xerox can, Chennault, who ran American Express in Davis, was the leader of, of Mckinsey. And I saw, I’ve talked to a lot of people about that. And in most instances, none of them started out with the aspiration or goal of doing what they ended up doing.

Ron Williams: They started out, by and large, very modest backgrounds and they simply set a goal. And that goal was to be better at something. It was to increase their capability and exposure. And each of them in the stories they told hit those goals. And when they got to that goal, they looked around and said, what’s next? At each step, they reframed their aspirations, opening themselves up to new possibilities. So if they were running a business and they said, well, Gee, if I can only generate $1 million in revenue, I would be a success. And they get to a million and they look around at the market and how well they’re doing. And they say, Gee if I could get the 5 million, that would be even better. So this notion of reframing and when you get to one of the milestones you’ve said we opening up and thinking about what you want to do next and then we plotting that course is really extremely important.

Gene Hammett: Is there an exercise or a set of questions that you use and helping people understand this reframing?

Ron Williams: Well, I think there are exercise and a set of activities. I think one of the most important activities is to reach out to people who are where you want to be. And I have an expression two up, two down and the notion is wherever you are, whether you’re in your organization or leading a business, if, if you’re, if you’re $1 million business, you want to talk to the person who’s got a $10 million business and you want to understand what did they do, how did they get there, what is it that they’ve learned in their journey? And so I think that’s one exercise and I think what you’ll find, people are often hesitant to reach out. What you’ll find is people by and large are very generous. They didn’t get where they are now without a lot of help from others and once they understand you’re serious and you’re earnest and you’ve had some level of success, they often see in you where they were a number of years ago and want to reach out and help.

Ron Williams: Now the two down on part of that phrase is really, don’t forget there’s someone who’s at a $100,000 in revenue who wants to get where you are today. And so you really have to make time be available, be accessible to people who are earlier in the journey than you are and to reach down and help them understand what you did to get where you are.

Gene Hammett: I was just having a conversation with my team about accountability and there’s a lot of accountability, not and just working with people that you admire so that those at the higher level, but also at the lower level like you don’t, you want to support them, but you also don’t want to let them down in any way. Do you know what I mean by that?

Ron Williams: Well, I think I do that. Leadership is an obligation. And you know, we think about leading, we think about having more income and nicer cars and bigger offices and bigger titles, etc. But there’s an obligation that comes with that leadership. There are people who work for you. There are people who are counting on that paycheck and they don’t show up every day because they want to grow earnings 15% or 20% or three x or 10 x. They show up by and large because they want to make the world a better place. And I think one of the things that leaders have to do is to connect the mission of the business in ways that the employees can really feel good about their contribution. You know, and you are not selling cars. You’re giving people a way to get to and from work to earn a living. Or are you helping people improve the quality of life because they can do things with transportation that they weren’t able to do? And so thinking about what you do in a way that escalates it and elevates it for the workforce is really important.

Gene Hammett: Yeah, there’s a lot of work I have around the need for purpose and mission, vision inside of businesses. A lot of people think that that just fluffy words, but you’re not the only one who thinks that they’re very important in this journey of leadership. I want to switch gears, Ron, we talked about leading yourself and how important that was and what it is. The next phase behind this, tell us what that is and why it’s important.

Ron Williams: Well, the next phase is really leading other people, which is a distinctly different skill set than leading yourself and I think one of the most important things in leading other people is to recognize that in your goal oriented and activity and focusing on achieving the business results, the consideration you show to your workforce and the people who work with you and for you has to be greater than your focus on the goals.

Ron Williams: Now, some people think you do that by lowering the goals and having less accountability, less discipline. That’s not the answer. The answer is simply to show greater consideration for the people who work for you and I’ll give you just a specific example. If you’re on a big project that has to be done by a certain time and let’s say there have to be teleconferences or phone calls in the evening in order for the work team to get clarity and assess progress taking into account the needs of the workforce. It says, look, I’ve got to go home. I’ve got to fix dinner. I’ve got to put my kids to bed. Can we pick up the call at eight o’clock as opposed to working straight through from six to eight can we do it from eight to 10 and that kind of consideration results in a getting the work done on time and effectively, but also builds loyalty and gives your workforce a sense that you are trying to accommodate their particular circumstances and needs.

Ron Williams: It doesn’t always work, but the fact that you’re open to making it work buys you an enormous amount of goodwill and makes you an employer of choice as opposed to an employer who has a lot of turnovers that could be avoided.

Gene Hammett: You’re probably not that familiar with my work. I’ve, I’ve interviewed over 300 a fast growing company and I asked them this question, and you probably won’t be surprised by this, but I asked the leaders and founders of this company, what’s more important, your customers or your employees?

Ron Williams: Now we answer, go ahead. Well, the answer has to be its employees. They don’t have any employees. They don’t have any customers.

Gene Hammett: Well, 94.1% of the companies I’ve interviewed and these fast-growing companies will adamantly say it’s employee first. There are still a few people that are, have this mindset on marketing and sales will say customer first and they’ll, you know, they’ll try to say that it’s, you have to have boats and understand you have to have both. But I still believe that it’s employee-first every time.

Ron Williams: Absolutely. And the other thing that we haven’t talked about is the consistency that is required in leading people. And by that I mean people want to know who is going to show up to manage every day. And so when you’re leading people and you treat them one way, Monday a different way, Tuesday and a third way Wednesday, people are confused and then make some also reticent to report bad news to communicate candidly. And so you really have to figure out who you are as a leader and then try to operate within that zone on a consistent basis. People can adapt within a certain number of degrees, but they really don’t want to wake up and say, well gee, I wanted, did he or she get out of the wrong side of the bed today or not?

Ron Williams: And so a level of consistency is really important. And the other thing is really treating everyone equally. And I kind of joked that I am an equal opportunity curmudgeon, which means everybody’s held accountable, everybody is expected to deliver it. There are no favorites and everyone’s going to be treated to say.

Gene Hammett: Oh, that’s pretty funny that I talk about you being a curmudgeon and treating everyone the same. When you think about leading others, is there anything that you know, meth that you feel like we need to let go of leaders that wouldn’t allow us to improve as leaders?

Ron Williams: Well, I think one of the myths is that leaders are born that people either have leadership ability or they don’t. And the reality is people can learn to be leaders. And whether you’re introvert and extrovert, gregarious or not, you can learn to lead people effectively. And you can do that by really observing and studying. As I talked about people who are effective leaders and really benefiting from their console. You know, one of the things that can help you is to have what I’ll call a personal board of advisors, which can be people who are where you want to be and who you can touch base with and ask questions to help you address particular issues and problems that you have. And so one of the biggest myths is just a notion that leaders are born. You have to be a certain type of person to be a leader. The reality is what it takes is a desire and a willingness to recognize that along the way you’re going to do some things well, you’re going to do some things not so well, but you won’t do them. Not well repetitively, that you will get better and better and better at it.

Gene Hammett: Fantastic.

Ron Williams: The other, the other point I would make, which is really important is feedback. You have to be open and prepared to receive feedback. And I know one of the things that many of the executives I talk to always did was asked their team what they could do better. And so as part of a one on one session, they would often close every session with what can I do to make the organization more effective to make it a better place. And when you ask it over and over, people get the sense that it’s real and you really aren’t interested in that level of feedback.

Gene Hammett: You also mentioned that there was phase to this and you threw in the fourth phase, but what’s the third phase here?

Ron Williams: Well, the third phase is really recognizing the necessity as a rising person to not just lead other people but to lead the organization. And what that means is that as the CEO or chairman or executive director, whatever your title is, that your horizon has just increased substantially. Most people in business are worried about doing today’s work today, delivering for the week, the quarter, the month, the year. When you lead the business, your horizon is where will we be in the next five years? And Are we doing the things that will make us a successful business? Most importantly, do we have the human capital? Do we have the team we need? And this is really a tough issue for a lot of people because often the people who got you where you are will not get you to where you want to go. Now, that’s not always true. Some people will scale along with the business so they can handle inventory management at a million. They can handle inventory management at 2 million and they keep figuring it out and learning.

Ron Williams: But other people are frozen in place. Now, that doesn’t mean they have to lead the organization, but it has to mean that you have to step up to the human capital that’s necessary to support the future growth of the business. And so that’s probably one of the most important things. The other thing that’s really critical is leading the organization is this focus, which we talked about what I call the culture of the organization. Now I’m often asked what is culture me and culture is really the way things work around here. And often CEOs have a statement of a culture of vision and values and what they’re going to do and that’s their vision. But if you were a new employee and you join that company and you went to lunch with an old hand and you ask them how does it really work around here, whatever they tell you is the culture of that organization.

Ron Williams: And the CEO’s job is to align the culture, people experience with the culture that they want the company to have. And that’s one of the requirements of leading the organization.

Gene Hammett: Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. Is there something else that I didn’t ask you about in this journey of learning to lead that we need to cover before we wrap up?

Ron Williams: Yeah. I think the final point I would make is to take seriously the obligation to be better. Every year, and I saw always set a goal to say each year I’m going to be at least 15% better. Now people say, why 15% is that possible or not? The notion is we all can convince ourselves that will be a little bit better, 3% 4% five, six, seven but when you start thinking about what you have to do to be materially and significantly better in leading the business or in managing people or in leading yourself, it requires you to think boldly to think imaginatively to set really significant goals. So I think the final message I would live, I would want to leave the audience with is really the requirement to commit to being significantly and substantially better every year.

Gene Hammett: Ron, thank you so much for that. I admire your success. I admire what you’ve done to organize this, to put it into a book. Again, that book is learning to lead, leading yourself, leading others, and leading an organization. Ron, you’ve shared with us some insights of details. Hopefully, it sparked an interest and make people want to go out, not only by the book, because that’s not enough. Actually, read the book and apply what comes out of this so that they can get the benefit of becoming a better leader.

Ron Williams: Thank you.

Gene Hammett: Well, thanks for being here at leaders in the trenches.

Ron Williams: My pleasure.

Gene Hammett: Fantastic. Love this interview so much in there to be gleaned, to be a better leader, to be more effective, to impact others in your life by impacting yourself first. So if you are having any questions around this conversation, around what you do next to grow your business, then make sure you reach out to me. I’d love to interact with you. All you have to do is email me [email protected] and we can get a chance to talk about it. Maybe I’m sharing your resources or maybe I can just help you through something you’re challenged with right now. As always, lead with courage and I’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

In this episode we’ll cover:

  • Helping People Understand Reframing in Business
  • Leading Yourself
  • Power of Leading
  • Leading People and how to Treat Them
  • Dramatic and Traumatic Transformation on the Company



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