As guest lecturer in our crisis communication graduate class at Georgetown University this year, Page Society President Roger Bolton underscored a basic tenet of leadership communication: corporate culture has the power to kill or to energize the execution of strategies.

Roger told students the story of transformation at Aetna in the early 2000s, when he was CCO, recalling a break-through moment. Aetna’s new CEO, John W. Rowe, M.D., undertook a personal campaign to align management’s vision and stakeholders’ values. Reinforcing a longtime strength that had eroded—employees’ personal pride in being part of a company like Aetna - Rowe engaged in a series of employee meetings.

Here’s Roger’s story:

“In one of these early meetings, after Jack Rowe had finished an articulate and compelling description of what came to be known as “the New Aetna”, he took questions from the audience. One of the questions came from an experienced, loyal and well-known Aetna employee named Jeannie, who asked, ‘… but what does it all mean for someone like me?’

“While the question was simple and to the point,” Roger recalls, “it was not an easy one to answer. Jack hesitated before answering. ‘Well, Jeannie,’ he then said, ‘I guess it is all about restoring the pride’.”

There was a pause, followed by an impromptu standing ovation.

“This simple phrase, restoring pride,” said Roger, “became the central theme of the turnaround. Restoring pride energized cultural support for the turnaround.”

An article in the current Harvard Business Review (Cultural Change That Sticks) by Booz & Company writers draws wisdom from Aetna’s culture transformation led by Dr. Rowe. It’s worth reading, especially to help CCO’s understand the power of honoring the strengths and working with the realities of the company’s existing culture.

As Arthur Page held, corporate vision has the best chance to turn into victory when it gets permission—which Roger in our Georgetown class updated to the levels of belief and advocacy—from the stakeholders, starting with those closest to the visionaries.

E. Bruce Harrison
EnviroComm International