The concept of “change” is incremental and limited. It’s an extrapolation of the present with some new stuff added and some current stuff extracted. By anchoring to “what was” as a starting point, it’s often insufficiently ambitious. “Transformation” on the other hand, begins with a vision of the future and an organization’s aspiration for its place in that future. It has to fuse practicality, ambition and aspiration. It also has to compel action that stretches people beyond what they previously thought possible, and compels them to WANT to do what needs to be done, rather than just TO DO what needs to be done.

Mark Bertolini is not a “changer;” he’s a “transformer.” He drives a Harley. His face sports a fashionable multi-day stubble. He wears malas (think Buddhist prayer beads) on his right wrist. He does yoga in the morning, along with Vedic chanting and mindfulness meditation. He flunked out of college twice and for a time worked in a Ford Motor Company plant. None of these attributes would be unusual if they were attached to most people. Mark isn’t most people; he’s the Chairman and CEO of Aetna. In brief, here’s his interesting story and how it informed his vision for healthcare and leadership.

In 2001, Mark’s son was diagnosed with T Cell Gamma Delta lymphoma. Mark quit his job as senior level healthcare executive to become the CEO of his son’s treatment. He experienced first hand the fact that the “healthcare system” was not, in fact, a system, but an aggregate of pieces in which the whole was most often less than the sum of the parts. Mark virtually lived in Boston Children’s Hospital with his son and met with the treatment team every morning to discuss that day’s actions. He also bathed and fed his son daily. To many people in the hospital, Mark was a pain in the ass. His son, however, is still the only patient who has EVER recovered fully from this disease. In this case, Mark made the whole GREATER than the sum of the parts. Healthcare, in this case, was a system because Mark made it so.

In 2004 Mark had a skiing accident – actually, the mother of skiing accidents. After hitting a tree and cascading into a ravine, he had broken several vertebrae and was knocked unconscious and partially paralyzed. The cold snow kept his spine from swelling, but he was given last rights. Shortly thereafter, he returned home in great pain to recover and to rehabilitate. He was given pain medication (vicodin and its brethren) and encouraged to retire into permanent disability. Not a bad financial outcome for him as he was a senior executive. After some time of reflection on his likely future as a disabled drug addict, however, Mark went on a quest to find alternative treatment for the chronic neuropathic nerve pain that he has to this day.

Fast forward!

Today Mark runs Aetna. This burly guy, who had been a weight lifter prior to his injuries, practices yoga, chanting, and meditation at 5:30 every morning. His team knows that he is TOTALLY unavailable during that time. Those practices ameliorate his chronic pain and enable him to stay grounded and “present” to lead his troops and tackle each day’s challenges; per Mark, no medication except the occasional Budweiser or Macallan single malt. As a result, Aetna now offers training in yoga and meditation to all of its employees AND CUSTOMERS for free.

After some early skepticism by their Chief Medical Officer, the data supporting the business case for doing that was compelling: stress levels (measured by before and after stress related chemicals in the blood) were reduced by 36%. Productivity improved by 69 minutes per employee per week. One employee said that these practices literally prevented her from committing suicide. Mark’s reaction: If we managed to save one life, it was worth the money with or without a compelling business case.

At a time when most companies’ missions and visions are generic philosophical pablum, Aetna’s is grounded in Mark’s personal experience with a so-called system that is broken from top-to-bottom and end-to-end. He’s committed to use his leverage, and that of his company, to rebuild healthcare in this country from the ground up. He believes that “health” should be the mission of the healthcare system, not making sick people well. He also believes that the role of healthcare companies must be to support individual people as they create happy, healthy, productive and dignified lives for themselves.

One more thing … last year Mark raised the minimum wage at Aetna to $16 an hour. He believed that to be the absolute minimum increase that the Company should implement. He not only talks it; he walks it.

Mark Bertolini is a leader with TRUE vision for the transformation of healthcare in the USA. Keep an eye on this guy; he’s just getting started.

My question for you: Is your vision for your organization that … or is it really a hallucination or a grandiose philosophical abstraction?

Copyright 2015 Rand Golletz. All rights reserved.

Author's Bio: 

Rand Golletz is the managing partner of Rand Golletz Performance Systems, a leadership development, executive coaching and consulting firm that works with senior corporate leaders and business owners on a wide range of issues, including interpersonal effectiveness, brand-building, sales management, strategy creation and implementation. For more information and to sign up for Rand's free newsletter, The Real Deal, visit