Wisdom//

Business Lessons From a Grown-Up Me

An Aflac executive shares her well-earned wisdom.


By Catherine Hernandez-Blades

I didn’t realize I had officially achieved grown-up status until recently when I returned to my alma mater, the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, to consult on a new strategic communications curriculum, meet with students and parents, and receive an award. The award had the word “distinguished” in it, and that was my first clue. They were clearly expecting an adult, and I would need to fill the role. Here are some of the highlights of the speech I gave to the students, faculty and parents — even though I still think of myself as being too young to address such an important group. You can let me know how well I did in your comments, and if you find it valuable enough to share with the young adults in your life, please let me know that, too.

In my day job, I’m responsible for managing the reputation of a $130 billion brand. And it only takes one bad decision by a single person to create irreparable damage — think of the person at Wells Fargo who decided to incentivize cross-selling in such a way that it got their whole organization into a lot of trouble. Or the person at United who decided to call security guards on a plane to remove a passenger, or even those security guards themselves, who I will generously refer to as being “overzealous.” Or Volkswagen … unfortunately, I could go on and on. But I won’t, because I want to get to the point about personal reputation. . .and it is this:

You may be familiar with the old adage, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” And I want you to know that I disagree with that premise. I personally believe, “It’s not who you know. It’s who knows you.” And that’s what I want to share with you today, and I want to do it through the lens of reputation — your reputation.

As the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet puts it so aptly: It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.

Reputation Institute defines the seven dimensions of reputation as Citizenship, Workplace, Governance, Products and Services, Innovation, Performance and Leadership. If you apply them to your own personal brand, it might look something like this:

  • Citizenship: It was Buddha who said, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.” Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, especially when it is the most difficult thing to do. One of the most powerful and positive influences on my life was a man I worked for long ago named Jon Jones. He made me not only a better leader, but a better person. All he asked of each member of his team was to be a little more extraordinary today than you were yesterday. After all, who wants to be merely good when you can be extraordinary?
  • Workplace: Now, to quote an unorthodox source for a business speech, it was Milton Berle who said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock — build a door.” Create your own opportunities. Volunteer for the most difficult projects you can. Solve the hard problems. Luck to me is an irrelevant concept unless you believe it to be something you create yourself through hard work and determination.
  • Governance: To again cite a much more traditional source from the world of business, Warren Buffet said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Play the long game and act accordingly. Governance is about ethics and management of personal and professional conduct. There are no worthy substitutes for character and integrity.
  • Products and Services: You are your greatest product. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you pale in comparison to what lies inside of you.” Who better to put your stock, energy and effort into than yourself, leveraging every opportunity to grow and learn, making yourself a highly valuable asset?
  • Innovation: To draw from a counterintuitive source, someone who lived centuries ago — and as a point of reference, that would be before the i-anything — St. Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then, do what’s possible; and suddenly, you are doing the impossible.” If you reflect on it, it’s true. Just remember, all the innovation in the world means nothing without performance, and in regards to that, Vince Lombardi said it best: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” Be able to recognize, understand and articulate what excellence is and then be excellent.
  • Leadership: The incomparable Maya Angelou once said, “My mission in life is not to merely survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style. All successful leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with displayed each in varying degrees and all were well served by those attributes. Display all of these qualities and you will today be the person people will want to work with — and someday the person that people will want to work for.

Finally, here’s a thought about gratitude from a true SHEro, Anne Frank, who noted that after we are gone, we often receive more flowers than when we are alive because regret is stronger than gratitude. My wish for you is that regardless of whether you are young like these newly minted graduates or have officially achieved grown-up status like me (ULL class of 1989 — Geaux Cajuns!), may regrets be nonexistent and gratitude always abundant.


Catherine Hernandez-Blades joined Aflac in 2014 as senior vice president of Corporate Communications where she oversees all of the company’s integrated corporate communications functions. Prior to coming to Aflac, she was chief communications and marketing officer at Flextronics, a multinational technological manufacturer. She also served as vice president of communications and public affairs at Raytheon Company’s Space and Airborne Systems business unit and held various international communications-related leadership positions at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

With more than two decades of leadership experience, Hernandez-Blades is an established thought leader on corporate reputation, corporate social responsibility and communications measurement. She is the 2017 World Communications Forum Davos “Relations of the Future” awardee; a 2017 PR-Week Hall of Femme inductee; and a recipient of the 2017 Gold Bulldog CSR/Sustainability Executive of the Year award. She was also named one of the Top 10 Corporate Executives of the Year by LATINA Style magazine; earned the Gold Bulldog Star of PR in the Corporate Communications category, as voted on by the press in 2015 and 2016; and received PR News’ awards for Top Women in PR and Diversity in PR in 2015 and 2016, as well as PR Team Leader of the Year in 2015. Hernandez-Blades received the 2016 Silver Stevie award for the Maverick of the Year category and the 2015 Bronze Stevie award for Woman of the Year in Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations from the American Business Association. She has also been recognized by the National Diversity Council with their Most Powerful and Influential Women Award.

Originally published at medium.com

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