Interview with Lankford Wade of Aetna
Lankford Wade is the Vice President and CFO of Local and Regional Businesses at Aetna. He spoke with BT about his educational experience and work in the healthcare sector. BT: Could you provide a brief overview of your past experiences and career development? LW: I graduated from Princeton in ’99 with a degree in economics, although – you’ll notice a theme here – I also took my premed prerequisites and the MCATS. My family has a lot of ties to the healthcare industry: my older brother is an oncologist back in Virginia where I grew up; my father is an endodontist, which is a specialty of dentistry that performs root canals; and my grandfather is a neurosurgeon. Having watched them as I was growing up, I knew I wanted to be involved in the healthcare industry, one way or another, so I concentrated in healthcare economics in school as much as I could. BT: Did you ever question your studies at any point in your undergraduate experience? LW: I knew I wanted to fill my premed requirements to have the option to go to medical school. I did not know that I wanted to major in economics, but it was actually a freshman seminar about healthcare economics that sparked my interest in economics. It’s funny how something as innocuous as a freshman seminar can tip you in a certain direction, and looking back twenty years later, I see that maybe that class was the tipping point that pushed me in the direction I am in now. Having watched my brother go through medical school, I knew that it was a ton of work; it’s not the kind of thing you can dabble in. I decided that I wanted to try something else out for a while, before deciding if I wanted to go to med school. Graduating in ’99, the heyday of the Internet bubble, as an economics major, you either go into investment banking or management consulting. I decided to go into investment banking, and got a job at Morgan Stanley in the technology and investment banking group. It was the best finance training I could have hoped for – a lot of on the job training and the smaller office allowed me to have direct client exposure. I also realized I wanted to do something closer to actually working for a company for my career. I went on to work in private equity for a company that specialized in healthcare technology investment and then a healthcare company that offered plans for Medicare beneficiaries. In 2011, I jumped to a role at Aetna. My initial role was leading the corporate planning function for the organization, affording me huge opportunity to get to know the company and all of our products and services. Aetna is a very diversified health insurer, which was part of the job’s attractiveness. Aetna has a culture very focused in health development – and part of that is providing employees with different experiences. Having come from an organization with one line of business, I had the opportunity to do lots of different things and I’m trying to capitalize on that. I’m probably on my third iteration of a different job – but maybe it’s just because I can’t keep a job for very long – of increasing responsibility. Now, I am the CFO for institutional businesses, which is roughly two thirds of Aetna’s revenue and earnings. For me, it’s an exciting opportunity to be involved in a growing organization that has a bold vision to drive change in the healthcare industry. BT: What has been the biggest challenge of your job? LW: The biggest challenge is managing people and talent – constantly ensuring that we’re putting the right team on the field. Fundamentally, successful execution boils down to having the right people to execute a strategy. If you don’t have the right people, it’s the easiest predictor of failure. If you have the right people, it’s one of the best predictors of success. I’m constantly making sure that I’m using the resources I have on my team in the most efficient way – that I am giving them the right experiences and pushing them in the right directions to make sure that we’re getting the most out of their potential. BT: What are the most rewarding aspects of working in the healthcare industry? LW: Healthcare is very personal. As we think about our economy, it’s the industry everyone has to touch at some point. Being part of such a personal matter – if you do a good job you can truly enrich someone’s life – is highly rewarding. For people who suddenly have to access the healthcare system, particularly if they’re sick, the process can be daunting and frightening. I find helping them get the right care at the right time, or even working to keep them healthy, personally rewarding. I define success as giving our clients an experience where they feel the healthcare system is working for them, as opposed to working against them or making it difficult for them to get what they need. BT: What are some of the projects you are currently working on that are helping you carry out this objective? LW: Aetna is currently trying to change our relationship with healthcare providers, particularly doctors and hospitals. Historically, we’ve had an adversarial relationship based in negotiating prices. We’re trying to work more closely with provider partners, by providing them with information and tools to help them practice medicine. Our objective is to keep our members healthier as opposed to just treating them when they are sick or need a service. We call this value-based care – working with providers to engage with our clients across their whole wellness journey, as opposed to just their sickness journey. We have now formed joint ventures, which are new health plans with ownership split between our providing partner and us. Consequently, representatives from each organization work together and constructively converse. For me, it’s eye opening to educate the providers about what it means to own a health plan, and to have them educate us about providing incentives and the right level of care. It’s also satisfying to see this strategy plan play out on a day-to-day basis. BT: How – if at all – are millennials influencing the healthcare industry? LW: Healthcare is becoming more consumer-oriented. Much of that change is being demanded by the millennial generation. They want to be able to access the healthcare system when they want, where they want, and how they want. We’re also currently participating on the new healthcare exchanges that were introduced as part of the Affordable Care Act. In these exchanges, people can go out and sign up for health insurance, independent of their employers, as the government will subsidize it if they are at lower income levels. As we tap into this population, some of which are younger generations, we need to be able to engage them in new ways. One way we’re engaging with them is building tools they want to use. How do we build apps for smartphones and tablets that can allow them to access the healthcare system? Or engage with doctors when they want and how they want? These are things the healthcare industry hasn’t previously been willing to do, but we’re being forced to do it because of the millennial generation. And it’s the right thing to do. The tools are applicable to all individuals, not just the millennial generation, and provide transparency. For examples, users can find out how much a healthcare service will cost before going in. To provide this access, we need to build a workforce that represents this population to reflect the customers that we serve, so we’re hiring more folks out of undergraduate and graduate programs. Who’s better to know about what it takes to get a millennial to sign up for a health plan than an actual millennial? BT: What advice would you give to students who are interested in going into the healthcare industry, particularly on the business side? LW: First and foremost, follow your passion. Your probability of success is always greater if you’re doing something you love, or at least in an industry you’re interested in. It will spark your curiosity – you’ll want to do more and put in the extra effort because of that passion. To go into healthcare, take a course in school that has a healthcare aspect – maybe a healthcare economics course, or a science class, or something else that would show whether healthcare sparks an interest. Summer internships or externships could be a good way to experience the industry. As healthcare is growing faster than the rest of the economy, the opportunities are out there, and it’s one of the few industries that is hiring. If you’re interested in the business side of healthcare, take an economics or finance class. If you find one related to healthcare, all the better, but start with the basics and build your way up. As we go out to build the talent strategy and we recruit at college campuses, seeing somebody that has shown an interest in healthcare is great. Certainly we steer towards hiring folks that have a finance background and have taken finance courses or are economics majors. To choose a job, I evaluate where I want my career to go with a few criteria. First, the individual I am going to work for. Is it somebody who I can lean from? Is it someone who will mentor and develop me over time? I would say I’ve been lucky more than anything else that the folks I’ve worked for have filled all those roles. Another criteria is whether the company is growing and the opportunity to get new challenges over time. Lastly, are you going to be surrounded by folks who are going to challenge you? Thankfully, I would say that I’ve also gotten that from each of the organizations I’ve worked for. BT: Looking forward, how do you expect that the healthcare industry will evolve in the next 20 years or so? LW: I think this evolution towards a more retail-like healthcare experience will continue. The consumerist approach is definitely going to continue; it’s the way of the future. Today, employers provide the vast majority of health insurance, and are still offered as a benefit. My sense is in the future, an individual, rather than a company, will be making more of the decision-making. Or even if a company offers benefits, they’ll offer a master bay of options, and the individual will choose their coverage. I would say the evolution to value-based care will continue. Again, we need to figure out as a collective healthcare industry, how do we enable the healthcare system to engage with folks earlier on, before they have diseases manifested or need surgery. We need to keep patients well, rather than just treat them when they’re sick. We’re not there yet, and we need to figure out the tools and capabilities to allow doctors to engage more broadly with patients when they’re well. We’re hoping to leverage technology so doctors can provide more outreach, and patients can get more thorough care.

  • Richard

    I agree. A wise businessman in the Caribbean named Sir Kyffin Simpson always said that the key to success is progression and humility, and clearly he’s done very well for himself as a self made man!

  • John Andrews

    The Airgain IPO launches this week, and they’re a one-brand company.

    Some investors don’t think it’s a good stock though:

  • Cincinnati World Cinema

    Well said, Joe, and worth rereading on a regular basis! Another advantage of small-to-midsize city living is pace and competition. Living in NYC, LA and SF entailed a hectic pace, hallmarked by capital S striving, as one realized there were a ton of others doing what I do. Spending so much time in one’s car in SoCal meant much less time for quality pursuits and pleasures. A smaller pond with relaxed pace allows one to savor life and special moments.

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