The 'Wright' Stuff

Always looking for a challenge, Elease Wright stepped to the helm of Aetna's HR 13 years ago and has been transforming and perfecting the customer-focused function ever since.

Friday, October 2, 2009
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It's not often that someone ascends to the top of the HR profession after starting at a place as curious -- and dangerous -- as a maximum-security men's prison. But at the tender age of 21, after graduating with a degree in education from the University of Connecticut, Elease Wright worked at Somers State Prison using data from psychiatrists and psychologists to help determine which jobs the inmates would take within the facility.

While working there, she took an approach to her job that has carried her through her entire career -- go out of your way to make sure you're challenged.

"I look for things ... where I can grow and learn, but I also look for things where I can bring something to the table," she says.

Well, if she was looking for a challenge, her 27 years at Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna -- including 13 as its top HR leader -- surely haven't disappointed. Nor have her contributions to the company and to the HR profession gone unnoticed, as her ability to embrace intense challenges at the helm of Aetna's HR -- overseeing 295 workers that manage HR for 35,000 employees -- have earned her a spot on HRE's 2009 HR Honor Roll.

Massive Changes

In 2001, Aetna was forced to change CEOs and had a strained relationship with its constituents, which caused the company to lose money at a rapid pace.

"We were losing, on average, a million dollars a day," says Wright.

With the company struggling so mightily, retaining talent and enhancing performance became serious problems. So Wright instilled a "back to basics" program, with aspects as simple as making sure every supervisor knew exactly how the company defined performance management. She also created a development plan for every employee, requiring that each manager meet with his or her workers at least twice a year to discuss performance.

"You were not only rated and evaluated on what you did, but how you did it," says Wright.

She also helped redefine Aetna's values. To do so, she solicited opinions of employees at all levels of the organization -- not just senior managers -- through a series of town-hall meetings, focus groups and e-mail messages.

What emerged was a plan called The Aetna Way. It stated that the company should place customers at the center of everything it does, that its employees should focus on excellence and accountability, that Aetna should strive to become an example for others in the industry, that it conduct itself with ethics and integrity, and that it clearly tell employees its methods for running the business.

A video message from the CEO served as the first communication of the initiative to employees. In addition, banners were hung at offices and The Aetna Way was embedded in the executive leadership's talking points and communications.

To determine if the values were beginning to take hold, the company conducted a baseline employee-engagement survey in 2002, finding that 42 percent of workers were engaged. Since then, the results have clearly indicated a more committed and engaged workforce -- as that number has climbed steadily, reaching 80 percent in 2009, she says.

"We knew that if [we] wanted to retain people, then [we'd] have to create a culture and environment where people want to be here," says Wright. "The best way you can do it is to help people understand what we're trying to achieve, and that every employee in the organization understands how he or she contributes to the success of the organization."

Wright was also instrumental in rolling out a new corporate wellness program for Aetna customers -- but she first piloted the idea on her own workers.

"We set as our goal that we would be the beta site for the programs and services that we offer," she says.

Wright created the Get Active Aetna, a 16-week competition in which employees earn points for exercising and can redeem them for prizes and money toward healthcare expenses. She also created programs for smoking cessation, biometric screenings and financial education. Those programs were subsequently made available to Aetna customers.

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"It was important to demonstrate that, as a healthcare company, we care about the health of our employees," says Wright. "That's why we invested in developing programs that help employees achieve their optimal health."

Her career-long efforts earned Aetna the Platinum Award for Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles from the National Business Group on Health and Institute for Effects on Obesity. She also serves on the advisory board for Cornell University's Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies and was inducted into the National Academy of Human Resources 2007 Class of Fellows as well as the University of Connecticut School of Business Hall of Fame in 2008.

Ron Williams, Aetna's chairman and CEO, says Wright's strategic vision was integral in helping Aetna emerge from it's struggling years in the early 2000s.

"Elease approaches HR from a strategic position, often providing valuable insights on issues we discuss as a senior team," says Williams. "During the years when the company was struggling, Elease recognized how critical Aetna's human capital is to achieving our goals and building a strong culture. She continues to advance our HR strategy to ensure we are ready for the future. She is both a talented HR executive and a talented senior executive who contributes to the effective leadership and governance of the entire enterprise."

Wright believes her success over time is due mostly to her ability to ask questions and listen to other people.

"If you run an organization, you can't be an expert on everything, so I try to learn from [my employees]. I always think, irrespective of where a person sits in the organization, there is always something you can learn," she says. "There have been mentors in my career who have been more senior to me but there have been many, many mentors -- I like to think of them as pure mentors -- who are people who reported to me."

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