Aflac’s Catherine Hernandez-Blades: Make people feel good about themselves; It’s not that difficult

Make people feel good about themselves. It’s not that difficult. For those of us who grew up in hypercritical environments, this takes a while to learn. Respectful dialogue, not criticism, is what is helpful. Why? Well, just trust me. As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the distinct pleasure to interview […]

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Make people feel good about themselves. It’s not that difficult. For those of us who grew up in hypercritical environments, this takes a while to learn. Respectful dialogue, not criticism, is what is helpful. Why? Well, just trust me.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the distinct pleasure to interview Catherine Hernandez-Blades, Chief ESG and Communications Officer at Aflac.

Thank you so much for joining us Catherine!Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I often say that this career found me rather than the other way around. Growing up, I always wanted to work in television news, and then I did. At 19 years old, while taking 21 hours a semester, I was fortunate to work on a local morning news and weather program called “Good Morning Acadiana,” waking up at 3 a.m. and quickly learning a great life lesson: Sometimes when you get what you think you want, and you find out it really isn’t what you expected, it’s okay to be disappointed, as long as you don’t become jaded. That drove me to my first corporate job as a copywriter for an in-house corporate communications shop. The rest, as it is often said, is history.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company/department?

Technology has changed everything. I’m currently working on something, and the premise is that if communications pros are doing our jobs the way we did five years ago, then we’re 25 years behind. I think the most interesting manifestation of this is what I’ll submit as the change from the 4 P’s to the 4 E’s of marketing. It used to be about price, promotion, placement and product. Today, in large part because of the intersection between consumer expectations and technology, if your brand isn’t creating an environment that drives engagement through an experience leading to an exchange, you’re missing the opportunity — and the fun!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I would really rather not. Just kidding — kind of. I truly dislike talking about myself, finding others much more interesting, but I agree that we all have to be able to have a sense of humor about ourselves. After all, it’s a long life and being able to not take yourself so seriously is a skill that serves us well.

I go back to “Good Morning Acadiana,” which featured news and weather segments in English and French. Apparently, in French the phrase “Il fait froid” means “It is cold.” And if you contract that to “Il froid,” you’re still talking about the weather. However, contracting “Il fait chaud,” which means “It is hot,” to “Il chaud” means — well, let’s just say you’re talking about a different kind of heat. Probably best to leave that one there. The lesson: Make sure your messages are pristine — in any language. Master it, whatever it is. Don’t be arrogant or naïve enough to fly by the seat of your pants — ever. Be prepared — always.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Finally, an easier question (smile). It’s brand authenticity. Aflac has had a 24-year partnership with the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in Atlanta, during which time we’ve donated more than $133 million to the research and treatment of pediatric cancer. Over the past three years, we’ve actually begun talking about it. Humility prevented the dialogue in the past, but data demonstrated the opportunity to elevate a national conversation on the topic in an authentic and necessary way that hopefully inspires others to engage. Of all the money the U.S. government earmarks for cancer research and treatment, less than 4% benefits children. We believe that 4% is not enough. Hopefully, because of our efforts, not only will recruitment and retention be enhanced, as data demonstrates, but other companies will also be inspired to step into areas where the government can’t or won’t and make a positive difference.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My current passion project is My Special Aflac Duck®. It’s a social robot designed to help children undergoing cancer treatment communicate their feelings and take back their power through medical play. It’s always risky to pivot a $20 billion asset with approximately 90% brand awareness. However, if you think about all we’ve discussed in terms of authenticity, Aflac’s commitment to pediatric cancer and the 4 E’s, to bring our Aflac Duck to life, as it were, well, is the only way to do it. It’s meaningful, and we’re committed to putting one into the hands of every child diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. who is age appropriate at absolutely no charge to the family.

The launch was at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2018. Taking the one thing that could not be purchased to the largest consumer electronics show in the world was risky. Granted, it was a calculated risk and it paid off, taking home Tech for a Better World, Best in Robotics, and Best Unexpected Product awards and doing 400 interviews in four days, followed by being named one of TIME Magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2018 and winning two SXSW 2019 awards. The strategy from Day One has been to make people aware of this effort through grassroots public relations and not advertising. To date, 15% of Americans have heard of My Special Aflac Duck, and of those 15%, 100% are more likely to purchase Aflac products. While that helps the business, which is great, clinicians are beginning to publish studies outlining the benefits to the children, which is even greater.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help them thrive?

It’s an interesting thing — advice. It’s so easy to give but not so easy to take ourselves. Self-care is critical. You’ve heard the adage about securing your own oxygen mask on an airplane before helping others. There is a reason for that. You can’t help anyone unless you are in a healthy position to do so. My recommendation to all leaders — male or female — is to get healthy. It’s important.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

It has been fascinating to me in recent years to learn that the farther you go up the corporate ladder, the farther away you get from the things you love. I spend much more time in budget meetings and doing other “corporate wonk” tasks than I do writing, which got me into this whole thing. The best advice I can give is to show up as a business leader first and a functional leader, albeit a passionate one, second. Then, remember to carve out time to still engage in what you are really passionate about, which for me means publishing at least one thought leadership piece every other month on LinkedIn, which I began doing late last year, so it’s early days. It’s interesting though. Every piece I’ve posted on my LinkedIn feed has been picked up by mainstream and industry media, which is great for my company’s brand while feeding my personal passion.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Other than my father, the person I admired most in this world is a former leader of mine by the name of Jon Jones. He was one of those leaders who not only made you a better business person, but his example made you a better person. Had he not passed away unexpectedly, almost a year to the day after my father, my career would likely have taken a much different path. Like my father, I miss the daily business lessons, yes, but more importantly, it’s the life lessons I miss.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I certainly hope I have. That would be for others to say. Volunteering, most often through board service, for causes that support military families like Operation Homefront or those that provide advocacy services for abused and neglected children like Court Appointed Special Advocates, is important to me. When on the Operation Homefront board, we provided over 500 mortgage-free homes to wounded warriors and their families, among other assistance programs. While on the board of CASA New Orleans, we opened the city’s first Child Advocacy Center for victims of sexual abuse. There are other examples, but those are two that are highly meaningful to me.

What are your “5 leadership lessons I learned from my experience” and why?

  1. Make people feel good about themselves. It’s not that difficult. For those of us who grew up in hypercritical environments, this takes a while to learn. Respectful dialogue, not criticism, is what is helpful. Why? Well, just trust me.
  2. Be the person that people want to work with and you will become the person that people want to work for. I just hired the same, extraordinarily talented person for the third time! And I and my company are all the better for it.
  3. Be curious. None of us has all of the answers. Others are far more interesting than I am.
  4. Be a problem solver. The more complex the better. Why? For me, it’s the fact that I thrive on it.
  5. Always do the right thing. Why? Well, just trust me on that one, too.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I heard the most interesting speaker just yesterday. She is a bold and brave young woman who, and I am paraphrasing, has a history of seeking out those in fringe groups to create understanding without judgment in order to proactively curtail polarization and ultimately violence. She does this by simply, or perhaps not so simply, creating a reasonable, rational and thoughtful dialogue with people who don’t necessarily look or think like her. Wouldn’t that be wonderful as a movement? Imagine the possibilities if everyone did just that.

Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Although I appreciate the value of unanimous opinions, I will continue to speak in dissent when important matters are at stake.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This speaks to me because it speaks to courage. Getting consensus is often easier than speaking difficult truth to those in power.

Some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to share a meal with so many incredible people, and I am grateful for it. Just last night at an event in New York City, I won the seating placement lottery and jackpot of a lifetime all rolled into one. I was seated between Aaron Sorkin and Dan Bartlett, the guy who created “The West Wing” and the guy who lived it as a counselor to George W. Bush. If only every Wednesday night could be that interesting! I’m a huge Condoleezza Rice fan and have had the pleasure of meeting her with a few others I admire at a small breakfast, and that is a great memory. That one truly stands out, and there are so many others. However, there is one person I have not yet met and know it would just be wonderful to do so because I admire her greatly: Ruth Bader Ginsburg!

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