Former Aetna CEO: The Executive Assistant Is An Undertold Story

Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna

A colleague of mine recently posted an interview about me on social media. She was fascinated by the response, which featured an impassioned discussion among a group of executive assistants (EAs) who had worked together during my time at Aetna. They all emphasized the same themes: teamwork, leadership, excellence, and accountability. Of course, these are also some of the themes that get a lot of coverage in my book.

This story reminded me of an often-overlooked reality—that without the help of talented, dedicated EAs, many of the world’s most successful business leaders would be toast!

EAs fill a unique role. They understand their bosses’ responsibilities and goals, and they perform countless tasks every day—some small and some gargantuan—to ensure that everything that happens tracks to those responsibilities and goals. They often are viewed as a representative of their leader, internally and externally, and therefore set a tone for that person’s office. The result is a business environment that may appear seamless to the outside eye but couldn’t exist without many hours of hard work from the EAs. This is why a 2014 Harvard Business Review article that studied EAs from a return-on-investment standpoint found that well-trained assistants generally boost productivity, creating far more value than their cost would suggest.

When I was at Aetna, I had an EA that remained with me throughout my time there. She also held an informal role as leading the EA team that supported my management team. They were essential to my success and that of the organization. These individuals were talented, loyal to each other and to me and my management team, and they made me better. I can unequivocally say the same for my EA today. I won the EA lottery twice, which is more than most leaders can ask for.

At many companies, there’s a network of EAs that support each other, learning from one another how to help their bosses do a better job. They set master schedules, coordinate presentations, ensure that incoming requests are handled quickly and efficiently, follow up on meeting notes, and ensure that facts and details are run to ground and procured. They also form a powerful team, coaching and mentoring each other, and filling in for one another over lunch breaks or during vacations. They handle a bewildering amount of detail that often goes unnoticed by the executives they serve—whose work would stop in its tracks if the EAs weren’t around.

I know for a fact that the EAs at Aetna worked really hard. But I hope, and believe, that they felt valued, knew they were contributing to important work—including the Aetna turnaround—and were proud of what they accomplished together. What better compliment to an organization?

EAs now have their own membership groups, conferences, and even MeetUps. Many HR organizations carefully evaluate EAs and match them to appropriate leaders, knowing that new managers can benefit substantially from EAs who know the organization. The World 50, a members-only organization dedicated to the success of top executives, features a group for EAs, which includes yearly summits and quarterly phone calls, further underscoring the importance of these individuals and the work they do.

In addition to the respect that EAs have earned from executives, I would argue that they also need our help. They need us to provide clear input as to priorities, needs, and expectations. And they need our investment, including the time and resources needed for them to enjoy additional training and development. The role of the EA is central to the company’s success, and we need to help them build satisfying, empowered careers, both for their own benefit and for that of the businesses they serve and build.

Read more: Executive Assistant To The CEO: How To Effectively Use

" Ron Williams : Ron Williams was CEO and Chairman of Aetna from 2006 to 2010.He currently serves as the Chairman and CEO of RW2 Enterprises and is an Operating Advisor to private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice where he serves as Chairman of portfolio companies agilon health and naviHealth, and is a Director of American Express, Boeing, and Johnson & Johnson. He holds an M.S. in management from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served on President Obama’s President’s Management Advisory Board from 2011 to 2017. Black Enterprise Magazine has named him Executive of the Year and he appears in media including CNBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.."