He Washed Cars Before ‘Elbowing’ His Way To The C-Suite: Ron Williams, Turnaround Artist, Former CEO Of Aetna

Kevin Mwanza
Written by Kevin Mwanza
Ron Williams
Aetna Inc chief executive officer Ron Williams gives insight into what he thinks needs to be done to improve the U.S. health care system. By Autumn Keiko

Before Ron Williams was the chairman and CEO of health insurance giant Aetna Inc., he washed about 900 cars during a cold California winter and listened to numerous MIT alumni who had gone on to become CEOs themselves.

Williams described his rise from humble beginnings as the son of a bus driver and a manicurist on the south side of Chicago to becoming the CEO of a $30-billion health company in an interview with Bloomberg Opinion columnist Barry Ritholtz.

“I was very fortunate in my life,” Williams said of his background.

Now a management consultant, Williams is chairman and CEO of RW2 Enterprises, LLC. He is active in private equity and sits on corporate, public sector and non-profit boards including American Express, The Boeing Company and Johnson & Johnson. He is credited with the turnaround of a struggling organization into the industry leader Aetna became, transforming the company’s culture, strategy, operating performance and financial results. 

Williams authored his first book, “Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization.” Released earlier this year, the book portrays the unique story of how Williams “elbowed” his way to the C-suite.

Ron Williams on health care

Williams gave insight into what he thinks needs to be done to improve the U.S. health care system.

He said making the physicians the center of personalized health care would improve the whole experience and restore the efficacy of the system.

“I think there is an opportunity to create much more value in health care and make health care more affordable,” he told Bloomberg.

“Can we make the personal physicians the quarterback of somebody’s health care? 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.”

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Williams said he had helped many American CEOs navigate transformation in their own companies. His experience with the same issues as a leader of a dynamic team helped him give good advice to these peers.

“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.”