In celebration of International Women’s Day, Dean Maryam Alavi sat down for a virtual conversation with Teresa White, President Emeritus of Aflac U.S. In her role as president, White’s responsibilities included oversight of the company’s extensive distribution network of agents and brokers across the country, and she is responsible for creating the vision for Aflac U.S. and driving the execution of the long-term strategy while strengthening the low-cost model.
With White at the helm, 65 percent of Aflac’s 5,700 employees are women, and nearly 50 percent are people of color.
She is the recipient of several awards, including the 2022 Influential Leader Award from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB), Forbes’ 50 Over 50: Investment for 2021, Savoy’s ‘2020 Most Influential Black Executives in Corporate America, and New York Moves’ ‘2019 Power Women’ among others.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Arlington and a master’s degree in management from Troy University. In 2021, she served as Chair of the Georgia Chamber and as a business leader on the Georgia Chamber Executive Committee and Board of Governors in 2022. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of Synovus Financial Corp and Landstar System, Inc.
On Being a Leader
Inspiration comes from many places, said White when asked what influenced her to become a leader. Her influences include her mother and the knowledge she gained working various jobs as she climbed the corporate ladder.
“I never saw myself as president of a Fortune 200 company, but I always saw myself as being successful, whatever that meant. I knew I wanted a platform to help others,” she said.
She’s been at Aflac for 25 years in several capacities, even sitting with call center staff to learn how the customer felt. During the latter part of her career, she focused on developing a career program for employees and ensuring she could pass on her skills to others. She recalled that her most difficult challenge as a leader was during the pandemic when she had to figure out how to move 5,000 workers to their homes and learn how to ramp up technology solutions for over 30,000 to 35,000 brokerage firms.
She said the signs of a good leader are having empathy, being transparent, wanting to lead, and wanting to help people.
“If you don’t like connecting to people and engaging with them, you won’t like leadership,” she said. “Leadership has a tough task. It’s not just about being the boss or giving edicts from on high. It’s really about engaging people and doing things through other people.”
Advancements in the Workplace: A Place for DEI
For White, having a diverse workforce helps her understand the diversity of the market. She feels it’s important to allow people to work on diverse teams and states it’s not just good for the individual but also for business. White believes having open communication with employees is crucial for a successful workplace environment and said communication “is a lynchpin for everything.”
For leaders seeking to start a DEI program, she suggests creating a DEI council with representatives from various demographics. She said it’s important for leaders to speak often to groups to understand their concerns and to encourage employees to speak up if they have questions or concerns.
“If we don’t keep the score, DEI will go to the back of the line,” said White. “Some are doing it really well, not just from hiring and promoting but community development and investments.” The point of any DEI program is that the leaders and employees must be committed to it. It’s not just one group working towards DEI initiatives, but “everyone fighting for what’s right.”
Education and Learning
“The way to stay relevant is to continue to learn,” said White when asked about the importance of education and learning. She considers herself a life-long learner and discussed the importance for employees to continue learning new skills.
She described Alfac’s Career Success Center, which allows employees to learn new skills. The Center is in each property and helps employees understand what jobs may be going away and what jobs will be required in the future. The Center allows employees to learn new skills, so they can continue to grow their careers.
In her own experience with education, White engages with the Volunteers with Girls, Inc., in Columbus, Georgia. In fact, she created “Bold Moves” within the organization to help young adults envision and act on their next steps as they go through high school.
Advice to Women
White said one of the most important lessons she learned as she grew older is to look at feedback as a gift. She recalled her sense of dread at receiving feedback when younger because she saw it as a negative experience. Now she says her outlook is different.
“Look at feedback as a gift. Allow it to sink in, whether it’s a perception someone has or a reality, you can use it to better yourself,” she relayed.
Her last messages were for women who seek to gain access to the C-suite. Women only make up a small number of leaders in corporate America, and women of color make up an even smaller number. She provided three roadblocks that may keep women from obtaining their leadership dreams.
- Don’t create a battlefield in your own mind. See yourself as a leader. White said when women don’t see themselves as leaders, they generally won’t become one.
- Get feedback. Women don’t generally get actionable feedback, so she suggests they ask for it. If they feel like they’ve done a great job, ask why? If they feel they haven’t done a good job, ask what they can work on to improve.
- Don’t let family life keep you from obtaining your professional goals. Have children, she said, but keep moving forward. White described an instance where she had a new baby and was not allowed to participate in an overnight assignment. When asked why, she was told her supervisor didn’t think she wanted to be away from her family. She replied that while she appreciated him looking out for her welfare, she told him that she had plans for her life and needed these opportunities to realize those plans.
When asked what to do when encountering a roadblock, she offered how she’s dealt with them over the years.
“I look at it for what it is, and depending on what it is, I find a way to move past it. Some obstacles are self-inflicted wounds. Learn to forgive yourself. If there are situations where people don’t see my work or all I’ve done, I find another person who will,” she stated. “I will not be a victim, and I don’t tend to dwell on things I cannot control.”
The event was held virtually and ended with questions from the audience.