Tips From The Top: One On One With Dr. Garth Graham

I spoke to Dr. Garth Graham, President of the Aetna Foundation, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Garth: Most people probably think that physicians don’t have challenges with diet and exercise. But just like everyone else, it’s always a challenge trying to keep a healthy diet, and I enjoy BBQ and sweets as much as the next person.

Adam: ​How did you get here? ​What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Garth: In my career, I’ve worked in academic medicine, philanthropy and health policy on the local and national level. For me, the challenge was always feeling that the work I do is changing people’s lives. We can always surround ourselves with activities that keep us busy, but the question is “how much do we translate the concept of being busy into something impactful that we individually or collectively gauge as important?” It’s easy to be busy, but challenging to translate it into change.

What I’ve found is that you have to let go of your own individual belief that you are the singular person that can impact change – and understand that most change comes through collective leadership and action. The degree to which you can inspire other people and build a leadership team relies on learning how to listen more and speak less, engage more and direct less.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Garth: As leaders, we need to think about what the end goal is, but more importantly engage with conflicting thoughts to get the best solutions. This means knowing and saying when your thoughts are incorrect – and acknowledging that another person’s may be better. And be willing to pursue another person’s idea because it benefits the organization more. Understanding the importance of the collective, as opposed to the individual, is critical to being an effective leader.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Garth: In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of different leadership styles. On a local level, which much of my work focuses on, it’s great to realize that there are a host of community solutions already present. It’s about finding them and supporting them, evaluating them to the point that they can propagate – there’s a significant value in helping local communities using local solutions. Think locally; think small before scaling anything – it will help us be that much more successful. When it comes to national issues, if we take a local approach, we can start to make a real difference.

Secondly, a valuable lesson I’ve embraced is the concept of multi-tasking and realizing that there can be very different issues within an hour period that are sometimes not even related. However, you must learn to treat every issue individually and give attention to what is in front of you at a given moment. Although there are different levels of importance involved in any issue, no matter the issue, you must remember your work makes a difference to someone, somewhere.

Lastly, an important lesson that my mother taught me is to have humility. This is what drives personal day-to-day work, personal leadership style, as well as what people understand and see about you.

Adam: What would you say to young aspiring leaders how to take their leadership skills to the next level?

Garth: Learn from the people around you and from the people who are where you want to be. While it might sound conflicting, I cannot overemphasize the importance of following your own individual path and being genuine to yourself. Be yourself in as many settings as possible that will allow you to be comfortable. Genuine leadership derives from genuinely being yourself.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Garth: As mentioned, my mother’s advice has always guided my leadership style and I keep humility at the forefront of what I do every day – it guides my work. Humility helps fuel empathy and allows me to put myself in other people’s shoes. When I can better understand what a given person is going through, the impact I can have on them is tremendously more powerful than if I view the situation from only my perspective.

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Garth: Give back to your community. It plays a larger role in your individual well-being than you may believe. Take a minute and look at the people that surround you, think of new ways to do little things that make a difference in their day. If we start small, we can make a huge impact on the collective.

Adam: ​What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Garth: Before children, I played soccer a lot more. In soccer, my position was always mid-field, so it connected me to both defense and offense. It taught me the role of collective effort. The ball goes from one end of the goal line to the next by touching many people – even the last person who moves forward is carrying it over the finish line. This taught me to truly understand and appreciate the role of each player on the team and learning how to bring everyone together to reach a common goal.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Garth: One thing that I learned throughout my career is that everyone from the CEO down to the most junior person on the team values their own time and their own life. I encourage people to recognize what inspires and motivates their team members. Their thoughts and ideas are as valuable as your own. This approach will allow a team to reach the end goal more effectively. 

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