The Profile Dossier: Mark Bertolini, the Radical Capitalist
Former Aetna CEO Bertolini is known for sporting tattoos, leather jackets, and a large skull ring.
Mark Bertolini doesn't match the image you have of a buttoned-up, clean-cut Fortune 500 CEO.
Known for sporting tattoos, leather jackets, and a large skull ring, former Aetna chief Mark Bertolini is a self-described "radical capitalist."
Radical capitalism refers to the actions he took in the workplace before it was cool to do so. He raised the minimum wage, waived out-of-pocket costs, paid back student loans, and invested further in the development of his employees.
"Our employee engagement went up 1,200% in the whole company," he says. "What happened next was the most profound piece: Everybody started coming back to me with ways we could take care of each other."
But Bertolini wasn't always this empathetic, enlightened figure. Growing up in a blue-collar family in Detroit, he was determined to succeed. He graduated with a degree in accounting from Wayne State University (although it took him eight years because he flunked out twice), and then went on to get his MBA from Cornell.
In his early career, Bertolini was unapologetically competitive, aggressive, and at times, ruthless. He was so well known for his bare-knuckled, iron-fist leadership that his employees had given him the moniker, "Darth Vader."
"I was tough," he says. "People used to hum the Darth Vader tune when I walked around the office. It was like, ‘Here he comes.'”
By all measures, he had made it. He was making tons of money, living in a mansion, and earning respect in his field. But it came at a cost. He was spending more and more time away from his family, and inadvertently creating a work culture that didn't necessarily reflect his values.
Then came his first wake-up call.
In 2001, his son Eric was diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of lymphoma. Bertolini left his job as an executive at insurer Cigna to care for his son and donated one of his kidneys to him in 2007. Today, his son is the only known survivor of the disease.
"All of a sudden my son got sick and my money didn't matter, my position didn't matter," Bertolini says, adding that he realized that "who you spend your time with and how you spend it every day are the two most important decisions you will make."
Bertolini joined Aetna in 2003, and one year later, experienced his second life-altering moment.
Skiing in Vermont, he looked over his shoulder for a second when he hit a tree and dove headfirst into a river. He spent two hours in the icy water, having broken his spine in five places and ending up in coma.
The injury resulted in his left arm being permanently disabled with throbbing, shooting pain.
"During the recovery, I’m on seven different narcotics all at once," he says. "Fentanyl patches, Vicodin, OxyContin, Neurontin, Keppra. And liberal use of alcohol when I didn’t have to go anywhere. It was a mess."
To better manage his pain without the help of painkillers, Bertolini turned to yoga and mindfulness. He began reading the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, studying Sanskrit, attending yoga retreats, and learning chants.
"I started practicing every day because it made me feel better," he says. "And about two months into it I said, there’s more to this."
He said the two personal experiences made him realize the U.S. healthcare system isn't equipped to help patients recover properly after facing a major health issue. He began to define "health" broadly — a healthy individual is a productive individual, which in turn, is a happy individual.
"I had to reinvent everything, and in that reinvention come face-to-face with the narcissism, the lack of humility, all those other sorts of things," he says.
As the CEO of Aetna, Bertolini began making changes from within. While the company was thriving, its employees were not, many of them using Medicaid and food stamps. He revamped employee benefits that included a minimum wage increase to $16 an hour and implemented yoga and meditation classes.
During Bertolini's time as CEO, Aetna experienced an average of 20% annual growth of earnings per share, and the company’s revenue was up about 85%. Prior to leaving the top post, Bertolini shepherded a $69-billion sale of Aetna to CVS Health.
"I often say to people that I've been uniquely prepared to do the work I do given the personal experiences I've had and the things I've had to live with," he says.
Here's what we can learn from Bertolini about the paradoxical nature of success.
Editor’s Note: Bertolini was named co-CEO of Bridgewater on Jan. 3, 2022.
On mission-driven leadership: In his memoir, Bertolini weaves in tried-and-true leadership lessons with his personal revelations that helped him navigate his career. The book is almost a paradox — it's about how you can mix executive drive and competence with empathy and genuine humanity. As one reader put it: "It is not a book about capitalism’s survival based on many charts and graphs and opinions. It is not an academic study. It is personal story."
On learning the value of a dollar: As a teenager, Bertolini worked at his dad’s auto shop. His responsibilities included cleaning the toilets, washing the floors, dusting the office, painting the walls, and cutting the lawn — all for $1.25 per hour. This is the job that forever shaped Bertolini's perspective on leadership and hard work.
On improving his mental frameworks: The biggest change that Bertolini has made in his time as a leader was improving his "mental heuristics," or the mental frameworks that allow people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. How? He improved the quality of his reading material, he reserved two nights per week to have dinner with people he didn't know, and he began learning about Eastern philosophy. "If you keep the heuristic current and expansive, you have an ability to contribute," he says.
On healthcare reform: Healthcare reform, Bertolini says, needs to be a bipartisan issue. In this interview, Yahoo Finance's Julia La Roche asks the million-dollar question: What are some common sense basic changes that can be made to our healthcare system that people on both sides of the aisle can agree on?
On reinventing the health insurance business: In this presentation from 2013, Bertolini describes how Aetna is actively reinventing itself against a backdrop to diversify its core business and transform the way it engages with customers. The session also explores the role that health-related information technology is playing in helping Aetna realize its new strategy.
On activist leadership: Bertolini began tweeting back in 2007 — way before corporate leaders used the tool for direct communication with the public. His daughter taught him that Twitter was about listening. "We have taken stances on social issues when most corporations wouldn't," he says. Here's why Bertolini considers himself an activist leader.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Conduct a calendar audit: Ten years ago, Bertolini wanted to implement a regular yoga and meditation practice, but claimed he had no free pockets of time in his schedule. So he conducted a calendar audit. "If you track your time — for just two weeks — and you keep track of what you're doing, you'll notice all sorts of points in your day where you're wasting time," Bertolini says. He determined that he had a pocket of time at 5:30 a.m. where he could do yoga uninterrupted. When's the last time you took stock of your time? Take an honest look at your calendar, and ask yourself: When do I actually work? How much time do I spend mindlessly scrolling through Twitter? Do I schedule too many meetings? Awareness is always the first step.
Understand your employees' needs: When Bertolini was 14, he worked at his dad's auto shop making $1.25 an hour. One day, he found out that his co-worker Jerry, who was in his 20s, was making $4.25 an hour. Bertolini confronted his dad, leading to the following exchange:
— "Dad, I’m making a buck and a quarter, Jerry’s making four and a quarter. I want a raise.”
— “If I don’t give you a raise, what are you going to do?”
— “I’ll quit.”
— “Do you have another job?”
— “Great, you’re fired. Go home.”
Afterward, his dad used the incident as a teaching moment. He asked Bertolini if he knew Jerry's story and then told him, “Well, Jerry’s never going to do anything more than he’s doing now. He’s got a wife and a daughter. I’m helping him support his family. You’re 14 years old, you’ve got a home, you’ve got food, you’re going to get an education, and you’re going to do better than Jerry’s going to ever do. Do you get it?” He added, “And the second thing is, never quit a job unless you have another one to go to. Don’t run from. Go to.” He asked Bertolini if he wanted his job back, and after he enthusiastically said yes, his dad said: "Great, you’re at a buck an hour,” cutting his salary by 25 cents. This experience taught Bertolini the value of earning a living, why entitlement will never get you anywhere, and how a true leader is intimately aware of his employee's needs.
Profit is not a goal: The employees of a company, Bertolini says, are not merely "a tool of capitalism." He's learned that they are the cornerstone of any organization, and without an engaged employee base, the company is bound to fail. As CEO, Bertolini offered yoga and meditation to employees; raised the minimum wage from $12 an hour to $16, and improved benefits. "Profit is the outcome of a mission-driven organization that delivers a consistent product to their customers," he says. "And you can't do that without investing in good employees."
Learn how to become an invisible leader: After Bertolini began studying Eastern religions, he was inspired by a passage from the foundational Taoist text, the "Tao Te Ching," which was attributed to philosopher Lao Tzu. It forced Bertolini to think about how he himself could apply it to business leadership. Bertolini coined a phrase called "The Four Levels of Taoist Leadership." He elaborates: "The first level is your employees hate you. The second level is your employees fear you. The third level is your employees praise you. The fourth level, you're invisible because your organization takes care of itself." Bertolini's final chapter at Aetna involved shepherding the sale of Aetna to CVS Health. As a leader, he says, your legacy should be to arm your people with the skills to propel an organization into the future — without you.
…Want more deep dives of interesting people?
The Profile is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.