“Begin with the end in mind”, Teresa White and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

The number one piece of advice I would give goes back to that idea of the male echo: Women need to support each other and pick each other up. Some of our male counterparts may not pick up on the need to point out women leaders who are doing a great job, so we need […]

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The number one piece of advice I would give goes back to that idea of the male echo: Women need to support each other and pick each other up. Some of our male counterparts may not pick up on the need to point out women leaders who are doing a great job, so we need to take some of that responsibility upon ourselves. If a woman puts a good idea out there in the space, jump in behind her and let her know you agree. And if that woman is you, don’t be afraid to speak up and get the credit you deserve. We need to bring the conversation to everyone, because some people are not being heard and their teams are suffering for it.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Teresa White.

Teresa White is a veteran in the financial services industry with two decades of experience, currently serving as president of Aflac U.S. Teresa drives business and leadership strategies across multiple organizations to achieve corporate targets and has extensive experience driving operational efficiency, enhancing customer experience and utilizing technology and strategic partnerships to enable growth. Teresa is passionate about employee development as she knows this is a cornerstone to her strategy for future growth, to maintain Aflac’s culture and drive the organization to become more agile and efficient in a digital future.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory,” what led you to this particular career path?

In two words: My mom. I grew up in a single-parent home in Dallas, Texas, where my mother raised my sister and me. She was always an inspiration because of how hard she worked, and she would often speak with me about what it meant to be successful. In particular, she stressed that success wasn’t something that was one size fits all. It could be defined differently for different people. This gave me the permission to define my own success where I could help other people reach their goals. That was a good place to start.

From there, I went to college at the University of Texas, where I studied business administration and met my now-husband of 32 years. After college, I started to make my way in the business world. I learned how to code, which taught me lessons about logical thinking and problem-solving that I use to this day. I built strong relationships, pursued new opportunities and eventually came to Aflac, in part because of the company’s strong reputation and diverse workforce. I worked hard and rose through the ranks, eventually reaching my current position as President of Aflac U.S. in 2015. My journey here has been fulfilling because I feel I’ve become part of something bigger than myself. I use my skillset to move our company forward and to help people along the way. And I continue to be thrilled each day about the opportunities that are still to come.

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

One thing that really sticks out actually happened a few years before I reached my current role, but it helped shape me into a leader who is now capable of taking on the challenges I deal with every day. I remember I was in a 360-degree feedback meeting. My bosses all complimented my work, but they told me the people under me had said I was “unapproachable.” At first, that was painful to hear, because I’ve always tried to connect with those who make up the heart of our company. But then, after a quick phone call with my mother, I found the way to move forward.

I held a meeting with my team and told them directly of my intention to work on my flaws — to become more approachable. I knew in my heart that their perceptions didn’t reflect the real me, but it was important to hear why they felt that way. Turns out, all the team wanted was for me to take some extra time to get to know them, whether through hallway greetings, during meetings or anywhere in between. After the meeting, they thanked me for my honesty, and I got to work on changing that perception. That was a huge turning point for me, because it taught me the importance of seeing other perspectives as a leader. It’s something I take with me to this day — I make sure I periodically schedule time to go through our offices and build connections with those who help make our company great.

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?

Even as I worked my way up and got experience with more pieces of the business, I never once saw myself as someone who would be involved with the sales or marketing departments at Aflac. I just felt I was too introverted — and to be frank, I had only ever seen white men lead those departments. At the time, I loved working in client services and business operations, and I just couldn’t imagine being in another role. So, when our CEO Dan Amos met with me and asked what I thought about moving into sales and marketing, I turned to him and said, “No, I think I’m good where I am.”

Turns out, after he and my direct superior had a bit of a laugh, I learned the truth: He wasn’t really asking. So, at the encouragement of my superiors, I took on that new role. And in the end, I achieved more success in that role than at any other position I’d held at Aflac. Looking back, that was a huge turning point for my career because it showed I had been putting guardrails on my success. I had never thought of myself as a sales expert, but what I didn’t yet understand was how I could redefine that role — or any role — to suit my talents. I don’t know if I would be where I am today if my superiors hadn’t encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone in that moment. It was funny at the time, but the experience ultimately helped me open up and say: “I can do that.”

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?

Certainly, a few people come to mind. I can still hear my mother’s sayings in the back of my mind when I’m breaking down problems. Aflac CEO Dan Amos and former EVP Becky Davis have also been incredible mentors to me throughout my career. Throughout my personal and professional journey, a number of people have pushed me to succeed and to become a better person. But what I’ve found is that it’s not just about the leaders and those who I work with most closely — it’s really about all the people who surround you.

I remember, early in my career, I often spoke with call center specialists or claims adjudicators to try to better understand our business. And I’ve continued that practice, because I’ve found that everyone has something to offer. No matter what someone’s position is or how well they know their role, there is always something they can teach me. I try to think of the sum of all my experiences as a cup — if I lend someone my ear, I know they can help me fill up my cup. And so, I never thirst for knowledge, because I know that I can always find someone new to learn from.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I have a long-standing tradition of hosting bible study before work with some fellow colleagues. We go through a devotion or read some scripture and ask each other: How would you approach these situations? It’s a great way to meditate on problems similar to those I’m facing at work.

I also know that there’s no substitute for preparation. Prior to a big meeting, I do as much preparation up-front as possible. I conduct scenario planning, where I anticipate what questions people may have for me in the meeting, and then I think through how I might respond in those situations. After that, it’s really about just being comfortable in my own skin, confident in the content I’m presenting and committed to delivering our message. The same rule applies when I’m about to go on stage at a big conference or in front of our employees. In those moments, I reach down, remember all my preparation and ask the Lord to help me understand that it’s not just about me: It’s about what we’re trying to accomplish. And that keeps me calm.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

If there is one thing I’ve taken away from what’s happening in the U.S. around racial inequality, it is that we have a dire need for conversation. There are just so many things that happen because of racism each day that we don’t talk about. In the past, when a situation like what happened to Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd occurred, too many people would just move on — they would never have a conversation about how pervasive racism can be in our lives.

As a Black woman in a leadership position, people have recently been asking me what they can do to help. They want to better understand why people are so upset and so angry, and they aren’t sure what actions they can take. The beauty of having a diverse executive team like we do at Aflac is that during times like this, we have people to call on who can kick start those conversations. And not just anyone: We can call on people we work with every day — people who we know beyond their race — to share their perspectives in a safe environment. These events are tragic, but they have given people of color the opportunity to share our perspective. When those conversations happen at the executive level, it gives everyone a better understanding of the challenges we face and the kind of support we need.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

First of all, it starts with education. People must be willing to understand that there are systemic forces in society that truly hold people back. These forces are reflected in the biases we all have and how they are hurting the people around us. I think of it like a backpack: Some people have spent their entire lives carrying around this heavy backpack that has slowed them down and limited their opportunities. And when we share our perspective with others and work together to resolve our differences, it unloads some of that backpack’s weight.

Regarding the importance of education, I remember picking up groceries for a company retreat with a Caucasian coworker some time ago. We had just left with our supplies when she remembered a few extra items that we had neglected to purchase. She started to turn the cart around and bring our purchased items back into the store to get the remaining supplies. But when she asked me to come with, I told her I would have to wait outside. Because if I were to go back into the store, add a few items to my cart and claim that everything else was already paid for, it would cause a commotion. From past experiences, I knew the store would almost certainly assume I was trying to steal the other items and would likely ask to itemize our previous receipt. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know — she had never experienced that level of skepticism. But informing her of my experiences, it helped her better understand where I come from and become more open to solving those problems.

Once we’ve begun educating those who will listen, we can start pinpointing growth opportunities. Let’s diagnose our issues and then look at what we can do to relieve people of the systemic racism that exists in our society. Whether it’s inequality in housing, voting, banking or otherwise, we need to address specific issues through activism and legislation. We must do whatever it takes to allow people of color to participate in the same things their Caucasian counterparts can participate in, without fear of unjust outcomes. And to me, that all starts with a dialogue.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

As President of Aflac U.S., I think the most critical responsibility I have is to direct the vision for our organization. And the most challenging part of that responsibility is to account for the many different stakeholders that play into each decision. I have to engage, understand and remain relevant to not only our customers, but our distribution team, our employees and our shareholders. Aflac has made a series of promises to each of these groups and keeping each and every one of those promises is a daily balancing act that demands creativity and innovation. That is, I would say, the very core of my job: connecting the dots between all of those constituencies to make sure everyone understands our mission and how we plan to achieve it.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I try not to get too tied up in myths, because I believe it’s critical to stay grounded and understand why people believe what they believe. But if I were asked to pick one, I would say one myth might be that business leaders will always choose profitability over people. I can only speak for my experience at Aflac, but I can say that’s absolutely not true of our leaders. Certainly, we have to operate with profitability in mind — that’s one of our promises to shareholders — but we also place great importance on the health of the communities we serve, from policyholders to employees and more. Especially during this time of economic uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, you absolutely have to take every action with those groups in mind — or you won’t be a successful leader. That’s not to say you won’t ever impact people in the process of running the business. Change impacts people. However, my objective is to be thoughtful in my actions.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The most frustrating thing I’ve experienced as a woman in a leadership role is what I might call the “male echo.” Often in the past, I would make a comment or suggestion in a meeting to little acknowledgement. But when a man would make the same suggestion shortly after, everyone would jump on it and compliment him on a great idea. That sort of positive reinforcement in a high-level meeting can be a huge career-booster, but women are too often left out of the practice. Throughout my career, I’ve often been the only African American and the only woman in the room, so I can attest this is a pervasive issue throughout the business world.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

What I’ve found is that the job really comes down to what you make of it. In my previous positions at Aflac, I enjoyed being part of the fray, so to speak. It was relatively easy to have down-to-earth conversations with my colleagues and learn more about their work, and that in turn made me a better employee. But when I started in my current role, I was too concerned with doing things the same way as my predecessor, and I lost some of that connection to the heartbeat of our organization.

What I realized very quickly is that I needed to approach this job the same way I approached my other jobs. I need to make the time to get out and speak with call center specialist and others in the inner workings of our company. If I don’t make that time, I find myself stuck in meeting after meeting and losing my perspective. I’m someone who makes better decisions and represents our company better when I’m consistently making those connections. Now, the job is everything I thought it could be when I first started, but it takes consistent work on my part to ensure it stays that way.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I always say that there is more than one way to get at a problem, and the first step to solving a problem is getting everyone on your team to understand and agree on what that problem is. Once we agree on the problem, we can decide what success looks like and then bring our best ideas to the table.

It seems simple, but that kind of collaborative work is anything but easy at the highest level. A successful executive is someone who can understand a variety of perspectives and turn those opinions into a single, cohesive plan of action. It goes back to the idea of all the stakeholders we have to serve at the executive level — with so many promises to keep, you have to be willing to find solutions that don’t leave anyone out in the cold.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

The number one piece of advice I would give goes back to that idea of the male echo: Women need to support each other and pick each other up. Some of our male counterparts may not pick up on the need to point out women leaders who are doing a great job, so we need to take some of that responsibility upon ourselves. If a woman puts a good idea out there in the space, jump in behind her and let her know you agree. And if that woman is you, don’t be afraid to speak up and get the credit you deserve. We need to bring the conversation to everyone, because some people are not being heard and their teams are suffering for it.

The other thing I would say is something that comes from my mother. She would always tell me, “You are enough!” What she was saying is that women would benefit from a bit less self-doubt and a bit more self-confidence. Your way of doing things may not fit the mold of those who came before you, but that’s okay. It may not be the way others approach it, but it’s your way — you and your team can blaze your own trail. It’s okay for you to have unique ideas and to approach things differently. “You are enough.” That has always stuck with me.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Over the years, I’ve been in the role of executive sponsor, helping guide teams to success but what I really love is mentoring. Few things are more meaningful to me than using my platform to converse meaningfully with people and share some nuggets of wisdom. As you said, none of us is capable of success without some help along the way. Sometimes that means hearing harsh truths, and people who I have mentored will attest that I don’t sugarcoat anything. But I also work to build people up and give them the tools they need to be successful in their careers, however they define success for themselves.

At Aflac, my passion for teaching has manifested itself in our Career Success Center, which I helped found in 2014. Since then, we’ve had thousands of employees come through for career advice, and many of those people went on to advance or adjust their careers after our discussions. In 2015, I also helped create the Bold Moves program in Columbus, Georgia. It’s a summer program where teenage girls can learn about how successful businesswomen and leaders made their way in the world. When someone says they can’t do something and then they end up exceling at it — there’s just no better feeling than seeing that look on someone’s face.

I’m also a tough person in that I don’t sugarcoat it. If you don’t put in the work or you don’t have the skills, I’m not going to tell you that you do. I’ll give you the tools to develop a plan, but you have to be the person who actually gets it done. You probably don’t want to come back and talk to me if you don’t want to get it done, because I’m going to push you to be a better professional or to be the person that you say you want to be. I’m not going to do the work for you.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’d love to highlight a couple of things that have been immensely important to me in my career and that I’d have liked to understand earlier. The first thing I would say is that I wish more people had instilled confidence in me when I was first starting my career. What many young people don’t realize is that not every adult has everything completely figured out. What matters is not whether you make mistakes, but how you bounce back from failures and put yourself in a better position to succeed.

The other thing I want to stress is that there is no shortcut for putting in the work. As I said previously, I am not one to sugarcoat things: You cannot have success in this work if you don’t have the skills or you don’t put in the work. Mentoring is important to me because it creates a opportunity to provide young people with tools and help them develop a plan, but at some point, the rubber meets the road: You have to take the initiative and get things done. We need to instill the younger generation with confidence, yes. But we also need them to understand that nothing worth having comes easy.

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

Given our nationwide conversation about racial inequality over the past few months, a movement that helps address those systemic issues from a high level is sorely needed — but I already offered some thoughts on that earlier.

Putting that aside, the work we have done with the Aflac Career Success Center is something that I would love to see replicated at other companies around the world. It’s been more than five years since we created the program and at the time we anticipated the increasing importance of automating business processes and the need to help upskill and reskill our current employees to prepare for what will be required of them in the coming years.

Since then, we are still finding new ways to innovate further. There will always be a need for high-level emotional and rational decision-making in business, and helping our employees prepare for those elevated positions is one way Aflac can demonstrate that we will stand by them and continue to invest in the workforce of tomorrow.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes, from the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is: “Begin with the end in mind.” Whenever I find myself getting lost in the hectic nature of my work life, I try to remember this. It really pushes me to approach things with meaning and purpose, starting from the standpoint of our end goals and determining the creative solutions we need to get there. In my position, it can be difficult to take a step back and look at the top-down view of everything we’re dealing with, so I like to occasionally think about mantras like this to help me stay grounded.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention my mother. One thing she would often say is: “Don’t talk yourself out of doing something that’s challenging.” Women have a tendency to avoid engaging with things that are tricky because we don’t receive the same positive reassurances that men tend to. But just because something may be out of our wheelhouse doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it. Some of the insecurities I had as a teenager about whether I, as an African American woman, belonged in certain venues — whether it was coding classes or male-dominated leadership venues — led me to avoid pursuing some of those opportunities. I think my mom just wanted me to be comfortable enough to embrace what made me special, and I think that’s a message we can all benefit from.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US 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.

One of the qualities that I value most in people is an inherent curiosity about the world around them. So it makes sense that the person who’s always come to mind when I think about these questions is Oprah Winfrey. She has always seemed very inquisitive, whether it was during her talk show or standalone interviews, and I think we share a desire to learn as much as possible about other people’s journeys. Not only that, but Oprah tends to really dig into the why behind someone’s behaviors. The other person who comes to mind is Robin Roberts — also a great journalist herself. The opportunity to glean ideas from these two women would be an absolute privilege for a curious person such as myself.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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