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Health Care

Former Aetna CEO on Reframing Identity and Possibility in Leadership


According to Ron Williams, SF ’84, the former CEO and board chairperson of Aetna, culture is paramount to the success of any institution. He should know.

In the late 1990s, the health insurance giant was one of the most vilified companies in the country. By 2011, when Williams retired after a decade at Aetna—during which he served as president, CEO, and chairperson—Fortune had named the company its most admired healthcare organization for three consecutive years.

Ron Williams, SF ’84, former CEO and Board Chairperson of Aetna

Williams helped to completely revitalize Aetna’s culture for its customers, its shareholders, and its people. Yet as he explained to John C Head III Dean David Schmittlein and MIT Sloan students at the iLead Speaker Series in April, this successful turnaround could only be the result of a tremendous team effort.

“All companies are collaborative organisms,” he said, and this collaboration is what fosters a successful organizational culture.

“The culture is not what the CEO says it is. It’s what the employee on the front line tells their new coworker. That’s what the culture really is. Your job as a CEO, or as a leader, is to align those two as closely as you can.”

Reframing identity

Throughout the fireside chat, Williams, CEO and chairperson of RW2 Enterprises, spoke of his time at Aetna, his experience in the healthcare industry, and his 2019 book, Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization.

Much of the discussion revolved around the notion of “reframing,” which Williams writes about in Learning to Lead. As he explained to Dean Schmittlein and the audience in Wong Auditorium, reframing is a conscious act one must perform to reconsider or reevaluate themselves despite the assumptions and actions of others.

“People will have stereotypes about who and what you are, and whether we know it or not, they really do penetrate. So, you have to consciously work to reframe your sense of both who you are and what is possible, as well as what you have ruled out as a possibility because others have already framed you in a different box,” said Williams.

In terms of reframing oneself, Williams recalled an incident at a private jet terminal. He was dressed in a suit and tie, ready to board a plane to Washington, D.C., where he had been summoned by the president. Meanwhile, the gentleman next to him—who happened to be white—wore relaxed clothes and a backward baseball cap.

As they approached the terminal, the attendant at the door let the other man by and stopped Williams. He had assumed the well-dressed CEO of a Fortune 100 Company was a driver looking for the restroom.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to see the president. The first thing people see is the color of your skin,” said Williams. “I just had to do what I wanted to do and focus on results, culture, talent, and creating an organization where people are treated the right way. Those are the things that really matter.”

Reframing possibility

At the beginning of his career in health care management, Williams was one of a small group of Black executives in similar positions across corporate America.

“If you were lucky, you were in sales in what they called ‘special markets,’” said Williams.

This meant sales executives from particular racial groups were assigned accounts selling only to those specific groups. Serving as general manager or running the business, however, were seemingly out of the question.

Instead of becoming complacent with his position, Williams reframed the situation for himself by focusing on what was possible. Specifically, he concentrated on obtaining quantifiable results capable of providing him with opportunities to demonstrate his abilities and his detractors’ false assumptions.

After working at a car wash during high school for several winters in Chicago, Williams quickly determined it was not something he wanted to do for much longer. He graduated from high school, attended community college and earned a degree from Roosevelt University, and worked as a marketing executive before matriculating in the MIT Sloan Fellows MBA program.

“It all really started here at MIT Sloan, in a session like this,” Williams said while gesturing to himself and the students in Wong Auditorium. “One of the speakers, a CEO, was talking and I said to myself, ‘I could learn to do that. Can’t do it today, but I could learn to do it.’”

Not only did Williams learn how to be a good leader and how to advise others to do the same, but he has also given his considerable talent and time back to the Institute. He has been a member of the MIT Sloan Americas Board since 2015, and from 2014 to 2019, he served as a member of the MIT Corporation. More recently, Williams has worked with Joseph Doyle (Erwin H. Schell Professor of Management) at the MIT Sloan Health Systems Initiative.

“I’m working off my debt to the Institute. It was transformative for me in so many ways,” Williams smiled. “The least I can do is come back and share my perspective.”

iLead Speaker Series: Ronald A. Williams, SF ’84

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933