Whether you’re starting a new career or working to transform your organization, you can’t do it alone. And why should you even try to drive solo—especially when seasoned pros are willing to suggest practices that can help you avoid unnecessary speed bumps?
One of those seasoned pros is Ron Williams.
In Learning to Lead, Williams shares the story of his own leadership journey. He was raised on the tough streets of Chicago’s south side, surrounded by violence and crime but few role models.
He refused to allow that beginning to be his end. He earned a masters degree at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Today he’s best known for his leadership at insurance giant Aetna, where he transformed a $292 million operating loss into $2 billion in annual earnings.
Williams is now chairman of RW2 Enterprises and serves on the boards of American Express, Boeing, and Johnson & Johnson.
I visited with Williams about his views on career development.
Rodger Dean Duncan: For someone who’s very early on a career path, what do you recommend as guiding principles in making the most of opportunities?
Ron Williams: I focus on three groups—young leaders trying to figure out their way forward, mid-career managers leading people, and c-suite executives leading organizations.
It’s important for young leaders not to feel like they need to know exactly where they’ll end up when they’re just starting out. I didn’t. For me, success was the progressive elimination of failure. I learned a lot about jobs I didn’t want on my way to finding jobs I did want. I also learned where my strengths were—passion for the science of designing organizations for success and the ability to fix troubled companies.
I tell people who are early in a career to take every opportunity to learn on the job, and to find jobs that will expand their knowledge base. Regardless of who employs you, remember you really work for yourself and you are the most important asset you have. Your job is to make that asset as valuable as possible. It’s hard to believe this, but it’s important to try not to be afraid to fail. Hard jobs are sometimes where you learn the most. If all things are equal, take the job with greater risk. You’ll learn more and the rewards will likely be greater.
Also, consider jobs in growing sectors such as health care or technology, and look for roles where results are measurable. Finally, be patient. Sometimes young people just need to grow in their jobs a little before their next career move shows itself. Don’t feel like you need to move too far too fast.
Duncan: What are some good ways to explore possibilities in developing a career?
Williams: I use a technique called reframing. It’s a way to look at an issue or a perceived problem in a different light to see if that helps you come up with ways to solve it.
For me, the most important reframing I ever did was to stop thinking that a poor black kid from Chicago who was introverted and occasionally stuttered could never be successful in business. Reach out to others and learn their paths and what steps they took that you can follow. My education, on-the-job learning, and success in a variety of roles helped me realize that I could be a successful leader by simply figuring out how to bring my skills to bear on problems I could help solve.
Other approaches to reframing include learning about new industries and checking out organizations in different sectors than yours. How do bookstores successfully handle inventory? How do theaters or coffee shops grow and retain customers? If you’re in business, go with your team to different businesses. Examine how they do things and discuss with your team whether any of these ideas apply to your own business or sector.
Duncan: For aspiring leaders, you suggest “make your enemies disappear.” We know what the Godfather meant when he said that, but your use of the term is much more user-friendly. What behaviors do you mean to imply?
Williams: I began developing something called Leadership Expectations while at Aetna. I shared them with my leadership team for input, then rolled them out to the enterprise. They are, quite simply, the expectations I have for leaders. One of my most often utilized is “Assume positive intent.” This one sometimes makes people roll their eyes at me, but it is incredibly powerful.
So often, things happen and we assume the worst of others. My point is a simple one: assume that no ill intent was intended, and then respond accordingly. So, rather than immediately getting angry and/or accusatory, be positive and thoughtful. First, the person might be pleasantly surprised and a potentially negative situation is avoided. Second, it might help you both think differently about each other the next time. And if the other person continues to show ill intent, then you’ll need to handle that differently and shift to how you manage “jerks” and other difficult people. It will be less often than you think
Duncan: As you note, Napoleon famously said the job of the leader is “to define reality and give hope.” How does that apply to 21st century leaders at every level and in every kind of organization?
Williams: Defining reality means having a strong grasp on the facts of your company’s (or department, job, segment) current and future situation, as well as the environment in which you do business.
This requires careful evaluation and assessment (ideally built on well-designed processes and procedures). When I arrived at Aetna, for example, as EVP of Health Operations, there was no way to quickly assess the data required for most effectively closing the corporate books each month with clear insight into each local market’s performance, or really understand what our biggest challenges were. So leaders were always making decisions with significant timing lag and without the most ideal information. I quickly put in place an information system to fix this problem.
But we also needed to understand what was happening with our customers, by customer segment, with brokers, members, participating providers in our networks, regulators who we needed to work with at the state and federal level, and more. Add to that a careful assessment of our sector in its current state as well as future expectations.
With an examination of all of these, and an educated perspective, we put in place a thorough approach to communicating our strategy, mission, vision, values and annual and future goals and business model. We spent a lot of time talking with employees about why we felt we could get there, and we provided updates along the way, including celebrating successes. We involved employees in our successes and our failures.
Finally, we created a program that helped every employee better understand our business model and how each and every role contributed to our success. Every employee went through it and it was a huge success.