2019 Honoree

Teresa L. White

President, Aflac U.S.

“I think, for women, self doubt becomes the biggest enemy that we have. In some ways it’s a positive, and, in other ways, it’s a negative. From a positive perspective, we are always looking at ourselves and how we can get better at what we do. But, then gone awry, then what happens is we, basically, don’t take the chance.”

What you’ve done is fantastic, because now they can feel that they can ask the right questions or never feel like they’re asking the wrong questions.

That is absolutely right, and, quite frankly, when we first started Bold Moves the biggest issue we had was that people would not ask questions, and if they did you had to ask them to speak up because we couldn’t hear them. So, the first thing that we had to do was create this fake environment for them to be able to express their feelings and thoughts, and we started out with a journal. Allowing them to journal their thoughts, but then we started asking them to read from their journal so that we can get additional insight into how they were thinking–what they thought about themselves, about the world around them, of their environment–and that helped us to get closer to them and understand what their needs were and to really look at each young lady as a different person, weeding something different from these sessions that we held during the summer.

So how many sessions are actually held? Is it over a six week period?

It’s over an eight week period during the summer. We hold eight sessions and we have one at the end of the summer when we have a dinner and a program that we do where we usually have the news cast come in and they televise a portion of it where we’re recognized asking all the young ladies. Last year we tried to improve our platform by allowing the girls to be a bigger part of the programming, so they did the prayer, the blessing, and the performances where one played a ukulele, the other did sign language, and another did the prayer. They were there with a parent or a guardian and we try and make sure that we show them love as well, because I grew up in a single parent home and a lot of times they are so heads down running the household that they don’t know how important it is for them to be a part of this type event for their child or their person that they’re the guardian of. So, it’s one of those programs they dress up for and we have it at a really nice venue. It’s probably the first time that many of them have sat down to a plated meal, and we serve them and treat them like royalty to show them that this is how you know if they’re in an interview process etc. We don’t want that to be the first time that they’re interacting with forks and knives, so in that setting we’re really trying to prepare them for what’s next.

So let’s talk a little bit about that. On CNN today they were saying that there are more women in the workforce than ever.

That’s so funny. At Aflac, 67% of our employees are women and I think a little over 60% of our leaders are women, so we are ahead of the country from that perspective, but it’s so exciting to see more women in that workplace. Although, I think there are a number of issues that plague women in the workplace, such as gender equality, pay equality, etc. But, I believe that the biggest thing, or the biggest issue, that women have in the workplace is really understanding their value, and what I spend a lot of time doing is talking with the women at Aflac about really reducing that self doubt and I try and give them mentors who they are maybe similar to, so they can understand that I didn’t just wake up one day and become president–there’s a journey of ups and downs and I think women need to understand what those journeys look like so they can stop periodically and say, “Okay, this is familiar. It may not be familiar to me, but this is something that happens, and here’s how I just pick myself up and keep moving.” So, I’m really excited about more women in the workplace because I think that drives more women in leadership positions and more women CEO’s.

How is it that women step out of that space that talks about the male hubris when women are the driving force of everything that happens?

You’re absolutely right. One of the realities that I’ve experienced is that women view the world differently, and, in a lot of cases, they attack problems differently than their male counterparts in the sense that women are a lot more thoughtful in trying to understand the “why” behind specific behaviors–the “why” behind specific activities that happen. Men deal with the activity as it is. Women are nurturing, so they try and find that seed that is growing and then they try and impact the seed. Where is this coming from? Why do people feel this way? Why is this happening? So, women ask a lot more questions about the “why” and men talk more about the “how.” How they’re going to make this change or how’re they’re going to make a difference, and I think if we utilize those talents together, we can become a very, very powerful organization because you can’t have one without the other.

Can you tell me about the career success center at Aflac that encourages employees to make changes in their life?

I’m going to talk about the why first and then I’ll go into the program. So, the problem that we’re trying to solve for is this problem, that most companies have, which is how do we continue to remain relevant in a society and an environment where innovations is exponential, technology is exponential, and you have to continue to reinvent yourself and reinvent your company to remain relevant. So, the one thing that I knew that we were going to have to do, because this company has been very successful over the years, is ask, “How do you foster a culture of innovation in a company that has been successful on its own right, by its own rise?” Well, you have to engage with the employees and you have to make sure that employees see innovation not as something scary, but as something that will help continue to drive relevance in what we do as an organization. So, they’re hearing terms like “robotics: or “AI” and “automatic systems” and when they hear those terms, they’re hearing the potential of a disruption in their jobs. So, in order to fix the issue of innovation and stay relevant, the career success center brick and motor operation allows us to provide counseling and helps the employees start to think about the roles that exist today and the roles that will exist in the future, and how they’re skill set may not fit for those roles in the future. The career success center was really a jumping off point to allow us to engage employees in accessing their skill sets against the roles of the future that will exist here at Aflac, and then it also allows us to then come back and offer specific opportunities for classes, for university, and colleges for our employees to be certified. And, we believe that this will help Aflac in the future and will help employees see a path for their success in the future, and some of the roles that we saw were like robot third party relationship management data analytics, various computer roles, technology, etc. As we starting thinking about the workforce of the future and how we engage the employees in a way so they don’t see themselves on the sidelines waiting on the organization to make a call; rather, they see themselves as a part of how to move into the future as one organization with all of the talent that we currently have here in Aflac.

Do you feel this is something that all fortune 500 companies should implement? What do you think the future of that is? I’m guessing that your results have been hugely positive.

Absolutely. We’ve had very positive results in that we’ve had employee engagement and we measure that, but we also have had people who said, “It maybe time for me to retire,” and they’ve decided to leave the company and retire because they just don’t take that interest in learning something new, and we’re basically telling people that’s okay. It is perfectly okay to decide that you are ready to leave the organizations. I’ve gone to probably two or three retirements in the last 2-3 months where these people have trained me up in the organization, so I go and seek my experience with these people on their behalf during their retirement parties that we give them when they leave. But, at the end of the day, the question was in reference to all of the other organizations and here’s what I’ll say to that: Each organization has its own personality and its own engagement with its employees. Here at Aflac, we find that it is important to the stability of our service, and to our clients, how we treat our employees. We ultimately train them and they could go anywhere with this training, but we treat them well so that they’ll stay here with Aflac. In our environment, it takes a while to train people up on the culture, but we find that culture is a big part of why it’s important that we just don’t move people out of the organization and hire
new people–our goal is to keep the stable workforce that we have because we believe that they understand and know us, and they understand and know the customer better than someone new who will come in. Not that the new person won’t come in and understand, but we value the tenure of our employees and what that brings to the table as it relates to moving and staying relevant in a new environment. Time is a huge resource. Internally, we have these people who are so smart, and I think that any company should do this.
And, I am a believer of sprinkling in some new people so that you don’t get stale. The thought of growing up in the same household together and not having a perspective that is a broad perspective is not good, so you have to continue to sprinkle in new ideas. I even encourage our existing employees to get out and go to the conferences and understand the world around them and how that world will impact what we do here, from an insurance perspective. One example of that, from a technology standpoint, is how we laughs about the dominoes app or about the amazon experience–those experiences and those customer experiences change the way people interact with companies, not just pizza companies or retail companies, it changes the way people want to interact with every company, and you have got to look outside of the insurance industry to understand how consumers are interacting with other organizations and, more importantly, what interactions make sense to be a part of the experience–the Aflac experience.

So, you’re not feeling the pressure of where this will go, and this is all positive? You’re just improving the imprint of an organization?

I will say that is 95% true. The other 5% of the people are going to say you moved my chi and that they changed. There’s one group of people that did it logically, but they don’t want to move, so those people will probably be the ones that either you bring along and try to carry them, or they will end up leaving the organization. But, if they leave the organization I want them to understand that I still think transparency is the best thing that we can do, because if they leave I want them to understand, and I’ve explained this to people Aflac, that it is not the only company that is changing and transforming, there are other companies that are changing and transforming and if you’re leaving to retire then I get it, but if you’re leaving thinking you’re going to an organization that’s not changing then beware buyer beware because if the organization that you go to is not changing, then they’re destined to be extinct. So, this is not something that is just an Aflac thing–this is something that I’m trying to teach people when they’re going through career success, and it is really the idea of reinventing themselves. The idea of understanding the jobs that are coming down the pipeline and how their skillsets continue to evolve to fit with what’s coming down the pipeline. And, this is not a one and done; this is a once you’re in a career, you must continuously evolve in your career, otherwise you become stale and, I tell people that have been with the company for a long time, “Think about it this way: ask yourself why do people go outside of the company to hire new people?” And they say, “Well, they want new ideas,” and I said, “So, you have to ask yourself why wouldn’t they be able to give the new ideas from the people that exist within the company,” and if that’s not a motivator for the people who have been here for awhile to keep leaving, to keep engaging, to keep brining new ideas to the table, then that helps the organization to reduce people that we need to bring from the outside because we have the ideas inside and that’s all we need as an organization–bringing in new ideas and making sure that we are able to execute on those ideas to bring new capability to our clients. Also, staying relevant. There are some people that want to stay complacent, and what I tell the leaders is that, “You need to meet people where they are, you don’t need to walk in with one solution to an issue that may not resonate with everybody the same way.” At the end of the day, don’t get upset when someone goes out on social media…that’s how they receive that information and all we can do is prepare a platform that allows them to be successful without Aflac today and in the future. What we want to do is make sure that they understand that we care and we want to get better in helping them to be successful, and, at the end of the day, we believe that’s a winning formula for Aflac.

What is the defining moment in your life that led you to where you are today?

I don’t know that there was one defining experience in my life, I think it was in a culmination of my journey. I think I mentioned that my mother was a single parent and there were some Saturdays where I would go to work with my mother, and my sister and I would be in the breakroom, or in the file room, working on puzzles or reading while my mother would work a six hour day on a Saturday, and I think that’s one piece of my journey that I remember. She was really trying to work hard to support two young girls. I think the next part was when I decided to go into computer information systems, where I was going to be coding, and I think all of my family was like what are you talking about? Why are you doing that? And my mother encouraged me to go that route. During that journey I went to church on a Tuesday night with my mother when they were having choir rehearsals, and I went in tow with my program that I was trying to debug, and two ladies–who I did not know this time when I chose to go into coding–came up to me who had experience with coding. One worked for radio shack and other worked for mobile and that’s when I realized, “Oh my god, I have two people already who do this for a living that can help me to understand and debug my code,” so that’s an experience that helped me to gain a little more confidence in what I was doing at the time. The last thing was where here, at Aflac, when I came to work for an insurance company and the majority of the leadership was White males. I was talking to the CEO who had interest in making sure that was not the legacy that he left and he wanted to bring in very smart and talented people. He was very upfront and his commitment to that has just been uncanny. I’ve been witness to him basically pressing the envelope on saying, “no,” which, again, helped me to shape my journey of true disorganization in my career. It basically helped me to understand the value that I bring to the table. I certainly am different in a lot of ways: in how I think about things and how I approach situations, but different is not bad. Different is kind of a cherry on top. It’s additive to the equation and I think that’s not one thing, it’s just a number of things in the journey that have helped me to realize that.

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