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In the Nation's Interest

2018 Awards Dinner Spotlight: Ronald A. Williams

by CED September 18, 2018

Ronald A. Williams is the Chairman and CEO of RW2 Enterprises, LLC. At CED's 2018 Distinguished Performance Awards Dinner, he will introduce Emanuel "Manny" Chirico, Chairman and CEO of PVH Corp. You can read his bio here.

What advice do you have for those who aspire to careers in leadership, or have just started to serve in a leadership capacity?

One of the primary focuses of my consulting work is values-based leadership, so I spend as much time as I can meeting with young people to get a sense for what they’re doing and what they think about the business world. We talk about things like: what would happen if you viewed your first job as if you worked for yourself? If you are asking yourself “why would I do that, it’s not in my job description,” you might be asking the wrong question. Instead, ask what can I learn from this? How might this help my future career? Be willing to do the extra work and go the extra mile to gain additional experience that makes you more marketable.

The same is true when making career choices. If all things are equal, find the toughest job and go do it. Look for roles with clearly defined, measurable results. You will face more challenges when you choose the harder path, but you will learn much more from the experience and be better suited for your next opportunity.

Which aspects of business leadership attracted you to aspire to become a CEO?

I have always been fascinated with organizational dynamics (OD), which is the study of what makes organizations tick. The success of an organization can be a direct result of how culture and norms of behavior are shaped, enforced, and changed. 

Throughout my career, whether in a corporate setting or in a start-up, I have seen the results of organizational dynamics play out. Culture starts at the top, and I believe leaders must demonstrate – every day -- the values and culture they expect from their employees and leadership team.

Ultimately for me, OD was a conduit to making an impact on people’s lives. I wanted to be a leader that was effective at getting results WHILE helping to make the world a better place.  Think about it: you can build a culture in your company that is conducive to getting good results and making an impact on the world. When you create a culture where people want to come and work hard every day, be productive, and a good citizen, you get great results. You’re also helping to build the next generation of talent, because people want to come work for your company.

Which aspect of your company’s culture has made the biggest contribution to its success?

I arrived at Aetna at a difficult time for the company. We would shortly be restating earnings and then embarking on a massive corporate turnaround. The culture was poor, and employees from several different acquisitions were antagonistic toward one another.

I believe that the strongest results come from a positive, high-performance culture. We created Aetna’s Values and used them every day in every discussion. We were very clear on our expectations of all employees. To incent positive leadership behavior we based bonuses 50% on business results and 50% on leadership results. And importantly, we created Expectations of Leaders. Examples included: Challenge the issue, not the person; Assume positive intent; Make what you know accessible to others.

A positive, high-performance culture leads to financial success. The year I retired from Aetna, company revenues were $34 billion with full-year operating earnings of $2 billion ($5.17/share). Market capitalization grew from $4.7 billion in 2001 to $15.3 billion in 2011. Our employee survey results had improved dramatically, and we spent three years at the top of the Fortune Most Admired companies in our sector.