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Corporate Culture Matters Most

Barry Ritholtz

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Turning around a health-care giant like Aetna is no easy task. When Ron Williams took over as chief executive, the company had been a perennial underperformer, with disappointed shareholders and a neglected staff.

Williams began his tenure at Aetna with a “listening tour” of all the company’s constituencies: doctors, patients, technical and clerical workers. When asked why anyone should believe he would be different from any of the previous five CEOs, it started an honest but painful discussion — one that Williams credits with helping to save the company. Aetna would go on to be named Fortune’s most admired health-care company three years in a row. Williams made it profitable, and eventually the firm was sold to CVS for $69 billion.

That is just one of the stories Williams, the author of Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization, relates in our Masters in Business conversation this week.

He notes that corporate culture, not the size of the company, is paramount — a lesson he learned from earlier experience at Control Data (70,000 employees), Blue Cross of California (5,000 employees) and a three-person startup. Williams says the dinners that Blue Cross held for senior executives, at which former CEOs explained their experiences and insights, helped him develop many of the skills he needed as a chief executive.

His favorite books are here; a transcript of our conversation is available here.

You can stream/download the full conversation, including the podcast extras on Apple iTunes, Overcast, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Bloomberg, and Stitcher. All of our earlier podcasts on your favorite pod hosts can be found here.

Next week, I’ll speak with Jay Bowen of Bowen, Hanes — the investment counseling firm that has managed the Tampa Firefighters’ and Police Officers’ Pension Fund for the past 44 years, significantly outperforming the markets during that period. The “Tampa Fund” has become shorthand for a simpler, cheaper and more effective way of managing capital in the public pension space.

To contact the author of this story: Barry Ritholtz at britholtz3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is chairman and chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management, and was previously chief market strategist at Maxim Group. He is the author of “Bailout Nation.”

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