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“If we look at the current economy, clearly adaptability is required,” Aetna Chairman and CEO Ronald A. Williams told the graduates. “As leaders, make certain you have a well-rounded view of how forces are affecting your organization.”

Ronald Williams

Building a legacy of leadership

Commencement speaker Ronald A. Williams, chairman and CEO of Aetna, urges Executive MBA graduates to ‘demonstrate courage and values’

By Sara Langen

12/18/2009 -
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  Ronald A. Williams, chairman and CEO of Aetna
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 The warmth and joy within Northwestern University’s Alice Millar Chapel on Dec. 12 contrasted with the wintry weather outside, as family and friends cheered the graduates of the Executive MBA Program.

Nearly 700 people filled the chapel to witness the convocation ceremony, celebrating the 101 graduates of EMP-75 and 76. Bernadette Birt, director of the domestic Executive MBA Program, welcomed the graduates and their proud supporters, many of whom had traveled from across the country and as far away as Argentina and Chile to attend the event.

“You follow a long line of successful Kellogg graduates — business people carrying on leadership roles across all industries — and the legacy continues with you,” she said. “We’re counting on you to carry this on.”

Advancing that legacy is a big responsibility, Aetna Chairman and CEO Ronald A. Williams observed during his convocation address. Williams said he’s learned three leadership maxims over the course of his career, during which he has served as group president of the Large Group Division at WellPoint Health Networks Inc. and president of the company’s Blue Cross of California subsidiary. The first is the ability to adapt to change.

“If we look at the current economy, clearly adaptability is required,” he said. “Challenges often create opportunities. I think it’s important as a good first step to determine how your organization can adapt. As leaders, make certain you have a well-rounded view of how forces are affecting your organization.”

EMBA Graduation
Photo © Nathan Mandell
Good leadership also requires a commitment to developing talent within your business, ensuring that your workforce is diverse and representative of the communities you serve, Williams said. “Your job is not only to make sure they’re successful, you should know that you are contributing to shaping the next generation of leaders.”

Developing courage is the most important thing any leader can do, Williams added.

“You will face many difficult decisions — you may have to change your business model or reduce your work force — but it’s important that you demonstrate courage and values,” he said. “You must work to instill those values within your organization.”

With the values instilled in them by Kellogg, the graduates will be well-armed, said J. Anthony Beard, who gave the student address on behalf of the EMP-75 class. Beard, who serves as treasurer for Palm Beach County, Fla., said the quality of the program and the students made for an incredible experience.

“Like my classmates, I was looking for a world-class program,” he said. “I also needed to be surrounded by world-class students. [We have] accomplished leaders who have lived lives and tell stories. It is this character and experience that has enriched every class we’ve taken. I hope as graduates as we move along in our lives that we remember how we were stretched, how much we changed and who changed us.”

In addition to the students who walked beside them, the graduates owe a great deal to the family and friends whose support helped them achieve their goals, said Andrew Weitz, senior strategist at Public Strategies Inc. in Austin, Texas, who spoke on behalf of the EMP-76 class.

“None of us would have gotten here without the help of someone else,” he said, looking out at the crowd of supporters. “Everyone in this room gave up something to be here today. [These sacrifices] raise the stakes for us and the expectations we have for each other. It’s about what we do with [our degree] to change the lives of the people around us.”