The career of Ron Williams is an all-American rags to riches story. Raised in a tough neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, he earned a masters degree at MIT, then later led an amazing resurgence for insurance giant Aetna and was an advisor to President Barack Obama.
His book Learning to Lead provides good advice on building a career.
Do you sometimes have self-doubts? Do you sometimes stub your toe? Williams has been there, done that.
In the first part of this conversation (see “Tips From A Pro On Building Your Career”) Williams talked about using “reframing” to explore opportunities. He also explained how to “make your enemies disappear.”
In this second part of the conversation, he explains how to discover and fill your knowledge gap.
Duncan: Good decisions require reliable facts. What fact-finding habits do you suggest?
Williams: At the enterprise level, you need process and infrastructure. It’s important that people be in charge of the process and that the process not be in charge of the people.
You have to make sure a good system is in place to provide a solid set of facts. I recommend creating a operating model to make sure the fact-finding mission is routine and systematic, such as regularly scheduled meetings to review, understand and assess the facts including where your current results differ from expected. Very often, these processes need to be backed up with a rigorous approach to accurately and clearly presenting data.
It’s important to strip away unnecessary barriers to finding facts and to get to the truth. As I mentioned before, creating expectations of leaders is helpful here. At Aetna, we needed hard discussions to really get at the facts. We needed to be sure we were arguing over facts and not whose facts they were. This helped us solve problems rather than attack people.
You also need to get beyond the numbers. In my case, I instituted practices where I could monitor customer service metrics from my office. I could listen in on phone calls. Few would argue that there are more strenuous phone calls than customer service calls with your health insurer. I wanted to be able to get at the basis for problems. Listening to calls was one way to do that.
Duncan: Did you solicit ideas from rank-and-file employees?
Williams: Absolutely. Another way was to get input from the front lines when we were creating improvements to our customer and provider service programs. I took recommendations and guidance from the leaders, but also asked for help from the front lines. They knew where the most acute problems were.
One example, we were using the same phone teams for providers as we were for customers. So anytime a doctor’s office called, they could get someone from anywhere in the country who didn’t know them or any details about them. We instituted provider service centers so that doctors’ offices could get their problems answered from someone who knew them, knew the products in that area and could make things go more smoothly.
Duncan: Confidence is fine. But, as you note, sometimes the most effective leader is one who knows what he doesn’t know. What practices can help a leader fill his knowledge and understanding gap so he can reach solid conclusions?
Williams: To name just a few—
- Listen to many different people.
- Create a clear, simple decision framework that works well for you. And use it.
- Know the value/importance of the information that you don’t currently have access to.
- Avoid recency bias (e.g. last person you spoke to).
- Take the level of risk into account, and protect your future flexibility in case the answer needs to change based on emerging facts.
- Disagree but commit (leaders can disagree, but once a decision has been made, the team has to agree to commit and move forward together).
- Don’t dither needlessly. Make the decision when you need to.
- Heed your inner voice.
Duncan: Candid, unvarnished communication is of course critical in any organization that is serious about high performance. What can a leader do to encourage and empower people to speak up?
Williams: Three examples of mantras I regularly used at Aetna, and are relevant here:
- make what you know accessible to others;
- question the issue, not the person;
- deliver bad news early and personally.
Share as much information as you reasonably can with your team or staff and seek their input in return. When asking about a problem or issue, direct your questions at finding solutions to the problem itself. Always be prepared to share bad news with your boss, do it thoughtfully and try to have a reasonable solution prepared.
Also, ask questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no. Encourage people to provide explanations and recommendations with their answers. Never respond in anger to an answer you get, or people will no longer tell you the truth. If you are treated disrespectfully, deal with that appropriately. But don’t be angry just because you don’t like the answer. Take a moment, take a deep breath and ask for additional information. Ask if you were queen or king for the day what would you do to improve service for customers or make us a better employer? What would your two suggestions be?