Learning To Lead

Inspiring, humbling, motivating and instructional is how I describe the leadership book by Ron Williams, called, Learning To Lead: The Journey To Leading Yourself, Leading Others, And, Leading An Organization.

Williams tells his career journey from washing cars to reviving one of the nation’s largest health insurers, where as the former CEO he transformed Aetna from a $292 million operating loss into $2 billion in annual earnings.

Throughout the book, Williams provides detailed perspectives, tips, tools and practical advice to overcome the most typical challenges people encounter during the course of a career.

He reminds us that introverts can be successful leaders, you don’t need to always know exactly where you’re going when you start, and a degree in business is not necessarily a requirement for success.

By learning Williams’s approach to leadership, readers will discover how to:
  • Manage or adjust their career quest
  • Avoid professional pitfalls, wrong turns, and wasted effort
  • Nurture a positive, high-performance corporate culture
  • Convert rivals and adversaries into partners and allies
  • Discover ways to get an organization and its employees to follow your lead
  • Develop your leadership style and master the art of business communication
Ron Williams

Williams provides keen advice through his answers to these four questions:

Question: What is one thing a college graduate can do to jumpstart their leadership journey?

Williams: This may surprise some people, but I firmly believe that each person needs to recognize that he or she is their single most important asset. She needs to start the journey of making herself into the most valuable asset she owns – valuable in terms of money and in who they are as an individual.

People need to put themselves on a path of development, a path of getting better. No matter what job you take, you’re not just working for others. You are working for yourself – collecting expertise to make you ever more valuable in your career.

For example, when you get asked to do something you don’t want to do in a job, think about what you can learn from it that someone else will pay you more for in the future.

QuestionWhen should people start developing leadership skills?

Williams: People should start as soon as possible by assuming or taking on positions of leadership – in the community, in non-profits, in school, in volunteering. Whenever I went to class I sat in the front row. I wanted a front row seat to observe and learn whatever I could. In addition, the professor sees you and recognizes you. That can help you. 

The best piece of advice I received:  you can’t win if you’re not at the table.

It’s similar to the saying: The greatest risk in life is in not taking a risk. So ask a question, get out of your comfort zone. If you normally sit in the back, try sitting in the front. Attend company town hall meetings and ask questions. If you don’t go to after-school or before-school events, go to one and check it out. Ask questions, reach out to people who have achieved things you want to achieve and ask them what worked for them. Take a risk.

In my book (see Chapter 11), I recommend a two-up, two- down approach to learning. This is a way to get a better view of what leadership needs, so you can be more in tune with what your boss is asking for. And when you meet with people down in the organization, you get a better view of what’s happening and how the employee base is doing.

QuestionWhy is mentorship important and how do you find a mentor?

Williams: I write in my book – Chapter 3 – about official and unofficial mentors. Mentorship creates new models of achievement. It helps align aspiration with reality. You will learn about your mentor’s reality, not necessarily yours. But that helps you align your aspirations to make yours a reality too.

And, how do you find a mentor? Some companies have formal mentoring programs you can apply for. If not, in many ways the mentor finds you. If you expose yourself to people who are where you want to go, you will find that some of those people will have an affinity for your aspiration, will see you in themselves and will help you along your journey.

QuestionHow can aspiring leaders take their skills to the next level?

Williams: You have to have really good feedback mechanisms, so you can understand what you’re good at, not good at, and what you’re terrible at. Self-awareness is extremely important to achieve self-development.

Once you have self awareness, and have accurate feedback and assessment, you have to commit to developing a meaningful plan of action to develop in those areas you’ve found out about.

If you have people who work for you or that you work for, ask them every time you meet with them how you can improve the success of the organization. If they say more celebration or successes, more time with customers/getting an outside-in view, take all those ideas seriously.

Some of my favorite chapter takeaways from the book include:
  • In every life situation, look for opportunities to learn. You may discover personal talents you never knew you had…or at least develop a stronger sense of the kinds of work you don’t want to spend your life doing.
  • The best job, especially early in your career, is often one that provides tough, unpredictable challenges and unexpected opportunities to learn valuable life lessons. The tougher the challenge, the bigger the opportunity.
  • Everyone you work with can be a mentor—because you can learn from them all, whether or not they consciously intend to teach you.
  • The biggest challenge any leader faces is the difficulty of changing people’s perceptions of what is possible.
  • Polite, probing questions are a powerful tool in the quest for hard facts. Be persistent—keep asking questions until the underlying reality emerges. In most cases the real problem that keeps a team mired in underachievement is hidden under layers of misunderstandings and false beliefs.
  • We sometimes assume that the leader in a group is the person who knows the most. It’s not always true! Sometimes the most effective leader is one who knows what he doesn’t know—and uses well-crafted questions to uncover hidden realities that make innovations possible.
Finally, here is Williams’ advice for three questions to ask to focus the conversation on the existing roadblocks to achievement:
  • What are the barriers that are stopping us from achieving our goals?
  • Can you help me understand the difficulties that are in our way?
  • What methods have we already tried to alleviate the problem, and what specifically happened that caused those efforts to fail?


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