As is the case with so many other residents of the Columbus-Phenix City area, if not for Fort Benning, Teresa White easily could have landed anywhere else in America and pursued a successful career.
Instead, her now-retired Army sergeant husband, James, was transferred here from Fort Wainwright, Alaska, in the mid-1990s. Teresa took a job with AT&T Universal Card Services, a credit-card statement fulfillment firm. She rose to site manager before a Citibank buyout and the relocation of jobs out West.
Some friends at Aflac let the company know about her availability and recruited her.
Roughly 16 years later, White looks back at a series of steady promotions up the Aflac ranks, rising last July to the position of executive vice president and chief operating officer in the U.S. She oversees about 4,500 employees in Columbus and 76,000 insurance policy distributors -- independent sales agents and brokers -- across the country. Not too bad for someone who once had been prepared to piece together a career during various stops in her husband's military career.
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But, even now, White, 47, acknowledges she has flown largely under the radar locally, although she was recently recognized by The Network Journal as one of the "25 Influential Black Women in Business" across the country. The Columbus resident, during a recent chat in her 12th-floor corner office at Aflac's corporate headquarters, discussed her job as chief operating officer, its demands and rewards, and her overall philosophy in keeping U.S. operations running smoothly and profitably.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you first came to Columbus, did you envision being here this long?
Not at all. I had in my mind this picture of me as a military wife. I've always had goals. I've always wanted to be in a business environment. But I really didn't see myself as a leader in an organization this high. I saw myself as managing. I saw myself as being a leader, but on a smaller scale. And, really I had come to that conclusion because I was a military wife and there was a sacrifice that all military wives have with the movement of your husband from one duty station to the next.
What was your first job at Aflac?
I started here in the service area, in what they called policyholder services. I started off as a second vice president (overseeing about 150 people). Really it was the first rank of the officer level here at Aflac ... We basically received new contracts and put your information in the system and anytime you had a change -- birth date or children -- updated your contract.
In rapid succession, they gave me payroll account services. About six months after that, they gave me the new business operation. Then I was over client services, which included new business policy service claims and all of the functions within the administrative area.
Were you ready for it all?
Yes, I believe I was. The culture here is one of really embracing people. As long as you're able to just listen to people and try to understand what we are trying to accomplish, people really want you to succeed here. That's what I have enjoyed here at Aflac is people setting me up for opportunity. Once you have the opportunity then, obviously, you have to perform and do well. I've always had very innovative ideas on how to do things, and they've always been really well received here.
Aflac is known for employing a high number of females and because of the community's demographics, a high percentage of African-Americans. Your thoughts on that?
I'll say this. I'm originally from Dallas, Texas. We were in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. When my husband said we were moving to Georgia, my 30-second commercial of Georgia and the South was everything that you hear about the South. You hear about prejudice. You hear about not having opportunity. So I was not very excited about coming to Georgia because I didn't know what it held, and I didn't want my children to be disadvantaged ... I have not found that to be the case.
What I found to be the case is, yes, there are, just like in all pockets of the world, people who don't want you to be successful. But if you stay focused on what your mission is, your vision is, your personal brand, all of those things, then you can kind of overcome a lot of that. So, have I experienced prejudice? Yeah. But, have I also experienced a lot of opportunity? I have. The key for me is just taking advantage of that opportunity when it presents itself, because there are no free rides from my perspective unless it's something that I'm building, I'm growing and I'm developing.
Have you seen yourself as a role model as you've advanced?
I absolutely enjoy mentoring. I absolutely enjoy sharing experiences. Because I think what it is for me, and for most people, is an equalizer. People see me where I am today and they say, 'Oh wow, she's an executive vice president of this Fortune 500 company.' But they don't realize, or sometimes I have to remind them, is that the same journey that they're on is the journey that I was on some years ago.Or sometimes we're in the same place today. Somebody was asking me about the 'Top 25 Influential Black Women' and they were like: Oh my god, you're so influential and this and that. And they were going on and on and on and I just smiled. And they said, why are you smiling, and I responded that I'm thinking about the number of people who influence me daily.
So influence doesn't come with a title. There are people who don't have my title, but have a tremendous amount of positive influence on me. They were putting you on a pedestal?
They were putting me on a pedestal, and I'm a person who doesn't like to be on the pedestal, because I see myself as very human. I see myself as making mistakes. And I see myself as being accountable for my mistakes and just driving through those mistakes, trying to accomplish things. But perfection does not reside here, in this space right here. (laughs) I wish it did, but it doesn't.
You do seem more like a "we" person than an "I" person?
I am a 'we' person. I love building teams. When I first came to Aflac, there were a couple of young ladies I sat down and talked with, and they were showing me their jobs. I kind of like getting in there to understand their perspective and why they do what they do ... I remember one young lady saying to me, I never want to be (anything else). I said, 'What are your career goals? What do you want to do?' She said, 'This is all I want to do.' I looked at her and said, 'Gosh, that doesn't make sense to me because you just told me you were going to school. You were telling me how you aspire to lead. But you don't want to do anything but this? I don't believe you.' And she said to me, 'Well, I don't want to set myself up to fail. And I said, 'That's interesting you say that, because I've learned so much from you and I think you would be great at it. But, here's the reality, if you don't think you'll be great at it, you probably won't be great at it.' And now she's one of our leaders in our organization.
That to me is the type of mentoring that I do. I want to empower people ... Some people don't want to be in leadership roles. They are independent contributors and they feel great and safe in that arena. Well, that's OK, too. Because I think sometimes as leaders we make mistakes and we put people who are really good at this independent contribution over here, but move them into a leadership role and they fail miserably. They fail miserably because that's really not their bailiwick. Their bailiwick is really project management and getting things done. A lot of times as leaders we feel like everyone needs to slide over into the realm of leading people and that's where influence comes from, and it doesn't. You can influence someone over here, being an independent contributor, by doing analysis and showing people information that helps to drive the company. You've influenced me. It's just very interesting.
What does your job as chief operating officer entail?
I'm responsible for the (profit and loss) of the majority of the Columbus operations. I'm responsible for the facilities here in Columbus, Nebraska and New York. We also have a COO for Aflac Group, a company we purchased (in South Carolina). All of my areas include sales and marketing. It includes operational areas like the policy service, client services, all of those services. I have compliance that reports to me, human resources. What I don't have is legal. That reports into another chain. Business services report into another chain.
What's your day-to-day life like on the job?
Beginning at the end of the year, there's a tremendous amount of travel. I travel out to our field offices to assess the sales operations. I also go out to ensure that everybody's on the same page with where we're going directionally. So we talk about strategy. We talk about how those areas will impact the strategy.
Do you deal with the company's independent agents?
Yes, that's the majority of what I deal with is our independent agents.
What are the challenges you face?
I think the biggest challenge today is with health-care reform being on again, off again, and a lot of the starts and stops. It's keeping people focused on whether there's health-care reform or not. The Aflac product is there because of uncertainty and to deal with uncertainty. But the agents can get really tied up with: How do I inform my accounts of what's going on this week and what rules have changed? And at the end of the day, you forget the sale of our product.
Sales are your bread and butter?
Right. But even though they're your bread and butter, if you think about it from a consumer standpoint, whether I have major medical from the health-care website or whether I have major medical from my employer, I still have gaps. So our product basically is to fill in some of those gaps. It's really trying to make sure that we hone in on that message and get through all of the clutter and noise. I think that's the biggest challenge that we have right now. After that, it's really just staying very focused on executing our strategy.
How many hours a day do you put in and how many people do you interact with on average each day?
I probably put in about nine to 10 hours a day, and that's here. Obviously, with an iPhone and the iPads, I'm very accessible. There are some days that I'm communicating with my counterparts in Japan, which means an early morning or late evening for me. As far as the number of people that I deal with daily, on average, I'm probably in front of 50 to 60 people. Some of that is meetings that I'm having. The most fun that I have, if I can bridge into that, is when I go to (Paul S. Amos campus in east Columbus). That's where we have most of our administrative functions. The most fun I have is going out and speaking to the new hires. They're in training class, brand new, coming from all walks of life. Some of them are coming from the military. Some of them are coming from employers here locally. It's just really understanding their expectations of Aflac and being able to impart my experiences with Aflac, what it is and what it's not ... It's very interesting to hear what they say about how Aflac is and how they're perceiving it. I enjoy that and I enjoy the questions that they ask, because they're not tempered with 'I've been here awhile."
It's really just an honest assessment of where they are at that point in time. I'll ask them, 'What are some of the challenges that you guys have? What do you like and what would you like us to change with your on-boarding process.' I enjoy engaging in that level of conversation. I find that in doing that, when I have to make decisions with regard to how we're going to move forward, or what we're not going to do now because we want to do other things, people are more open to hear me because they understand my heart. They know that I care about them, and they'll know that when I come to them asking very difficult questions. I enjoy being presented a problem and being able to work with people to collaborate and solve the problems
How often do you have to make a critical or significant decision? Daily or weekly?
I'm making decisions all the time. I'll make a decision to say we're not going to focus on that right now. We're going to focus on these things. So critical decisions, what I call major decisions, maybe once or twice a month. It just depends on perspective. There's a decision that I'll make that I wouldn't think is real critical, but our field force might think it's very critical. If I decide that I'm not going to continue selling a line of business, because I don't like what the profit margin looks like, but our field force says, 'Well, I can sell a lot of it,' that's a critical decision from their perspective
Who do you report to?
I report to Ken Janke. He's deputy CFO (chief financial officer) and president of Aflac. And he reports to (chairman and chief executive officer) Dan Amos.
How often do you interact with Dan?
That's daily. (laughs) Dan is very involved and very engaged in the operation. I learn a lot from Dan. There used to be this thing: What would Jesus do? We say: What would Dan do? That's because Dan has a very interesting perspective on our field force because he was one of our field force. And I don't have that perspective. I have the perspective based on me interacting with them. But he has something that I don't have. He's like, 'Teresa, they'll tell you this, but I'm going to tell you, here's what they're really thinking.' That's very important to me
It sounds like you learn from him?
I learn a tremendous amount from him. He's extremely focused. There's a book I'm getting everyone to read ("The 4 Disciplines of Execution) and we're rallying around. I don't get any royalties on the book, but after reading it, I told Dan, 'This book is absolutely the way you operate.' Those disciplines are to focus on the wildly important goal, act on lead measures, keep a compelling scorecard, and create a cadence of accountability. I say that because Dan will basically have two to three things that are the most important things for him at one time. If they're the most important things to him, every day or every week, that will be what he's talking to you about. He'll say, 'How's it going? How are the kids? What's going on here? Now tell me about this.' So he's very consistent.
That, no doubt, is an important quality?
One of the things that I think every organization struggles with is focus, because there's so much coming at you. There's so many things that happen, especially in the health-care arena. You could decide to move one way based on today's news, and move another way based on tomorrow's. You very quickly get a sense of why he has been very successful, and he's been very successful because he is laser-focused on those goals that we've set out. If they're the right goals, he's like, let's just stay on them.
Even with the noise that comes in, he's laser-focused. It's not that he's ignoring it; he sees it. But he's like: Is it going to impact this goal right here? Because if it's not, we're still moving. I learn a tremendous amount from Dan. He's not afraid to say that you're majoring in the minors, that, yeah, I hear you, but that doesn't matter. Here's what matters. I'm very, very straightforward. I like a person who's very straightforward with me. He doesn't mince words. If I'm wrong, he'll politely say: I don't believe that, but let me ask you to go look at this information over here and tell me if you still think that.
So Dan doesn't mind a chief operating officer giving him feedback, even a bit of debate?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, we've had some people come from other companies. We hired them for leadership roles and I always ask him after a meeting: Give me some feedback and what you liked about the meeting and what you didn't. Anytime we have somebody who wants to placate him, who's agreeable, he says that's not healthy for me. I don't need that. There have been times where he said, 'I think we should do this,' and I said, 'I don't agree with that. I think we should do this.' What I like is that he and I can have that type of conversation. But at the end of the day, he backs up and says, 'It's your decision.' And he means it. He's not standing there, waiting and hovering to see me fail. He's actually now asking how are we going to make sure we make this successful. That is extremely important to me.
What's the most difficult aspect of your job?
I think the most challenging part of the job is communication and alignment, because I can go to Texas and talk to our field force about our strategy and direction, and then I get on a plane and I come here. And something can happen to the health-care industry in Texas that gets them focused on something else. So it's making sure that not only am I communicating, but then all of those things that I'm expecting to get done, do I have the right metrics in place and measures to ensure what I'm trying to get done, will get done? And are my incentives from a field perspective, are they tied toward the behaviors that I want to see? Because I can't be there. I'm not managing them. They're independent contractors. So it makes it very difficult to make sure that everybody is aligned and going in the same direction. I think that's the most difficult. That's what I think about most often in my role.
Do you ever get overwhelmed by anything? Do chief operating officers experience that kind of emotion?
Sure. I can get overwhelmed. This morning I met with a group of people who gave me a deck (of information). I looked at it and I said, gosh, this is overwhelming. So I called them in and said, let me ask you if you can help me with something. They're very smart people. I said, you've given me competitive insight. You've given me information on how our products and activities are doing, how our campaigns are. Can I get you guys to work together to give me a holistic picture of what I'm trying to get at. So I started explaining to them how I'm using this information, and how I take information in. As I'm talking through it, they're all looking at me saying, 'Wow, I feel stupid to have given you ...' I said: No, no, no, because that wasn't the point. I wanted them to know how I consume the information so they can give me a better product. All of them said, Teresa, thank you so much. It's absolutely wonderful feedback.
So, am I overwhelmed at times? There are a lot of things that will overwhelm me. But a lot of it is about communication and how I take in information, and what's noise and what's something that's real and actionable that I need to do something with. Email invites people to talk to you all day. That's overwhelming to me. Do I need to respond to every single one of those? Probably not, but I do. I feel compelled to.
You answer every email?
Every single one of them. Let me take that back. Vendors who send me information, if it's not something that I'm interested in, I hit delete. But if they are field agents, people who work here, if they are people in the community ... I feel compelled to be human. I feel compelled to respond. I feel compelled not to put people through other people, my secretaries and all of that. However, as I move up in the organization, it's become very difficult for me to keep that cadence. So it makes my hours longer. I'm answering email on my couch at night sometimes. It's challenging, but I enjoy what I do.
What qualities are needed for a chief operating officer and what advice do you have for someone aspiring to get to your position or something similar?
I can speak from an Aflac standpoint. Aflac is a great place to get in and learn about the organization. We also are a fertile ground to look across the aisle and not only understand about what my role is, but what is your role, and what's this person's role?Some organizations are not like that. They're very, very 'siloed.' You stay in your space, somebody will hand you something over the wall and you hand something back, and never the two shall meet. We're more of a collaborative organization.That corporate culture has served you well? The things that I think made me successful in getting this role is being able to sit back and assess and problem solve, the ability to lead people, to drive people toward results. Obviously, (it's also) my education and understanding the dynamics of the way our model works from a financial standpoint, as well as how we motivate people from a human resource standpoint. And, then, just really my ability to be adaptable to various situations.
Do I always agree with people? No. But what I have to do is understand perspective. ... Some people get angry about somebody's perspective, and I don't get angry about much, certainly not about somebody's perspective. I try to understand people's perspective, because in understanding that, I use it as a baseline to then help them see mine. That, to me, has been invaluable in my experience. ... To me, it's all about communication and communicating effectively. I think that's what has made me successful.
A final question on the community and your involvement in it. Your thoughts on that and it's importance for you as an executive?
It's certainly important. I had reached out to a couple of friends of mine and said I need to be more active in the community. When I started off, I was on the board of United Way. And then as I started traveling a good bit, so I came off the board. I knew Cathy Williams, so I was on the board of NeighborWorks Columbus, and I could call into certain meetings and still actively, effectively be on that board. That was a lot of fun. Then I came off the board of NeighborWorks because I started traveling even more.
It's a balancing act?
It's a huge balance for me, because when I'm in town I also want to engage in my family life and being in church in the community. So it became a challenge for me. This year, though, I basically made some personal commitments to engage again on one of the boards in the community. What I found is that I was well known probably moreso outside of this community than in this community. When I go to Dallas, Texas, or when I go to Wisconsin, I have a huge following of people. I would have accolades from people in New York or various other areas. But in Columbus I would walk into the store with my ball cap on and I was just like a regular Joe.
I remember being at my church one time. I was on the finance committee and I was doing some activity in the finance office, and a young lady turns to me and says, 'Hey, I just wanted to let you know that TSYS is hiring.' And I said, 'Oh, really.' And she said, 'I don't know where you work and I don't know what you do, but TSYS is a really good job. You might want to go over to TSYS.' I said, 'TSYS is a great job and let me know how it works out for you.' She was being very nice and just letting me know, a heads up, there's some job openings over there. I say that to just say sometimes being anonymous and just kind of being a part of the activities that go on in the community is fine with me. I'm OK with that. I don't need to be the person, where (they say), 'Don't talk to her, she's Teresa White.' So I actually enjoy kind of not being the person that everybody knows.
And not having the big head?
I don't have one. I just don't. (laughs)
It seems like you're a happy person at this point in your life and career?
I'm absolutely a happy person. I feel I'm fulfilled every day. Spiritually, I go to church here in Columbus; I enjoy interacting in my church. There are other things that I want to do in the community that I'm pursuing, with helping young girls, helping empower people in the community. I do a lot of mentoring. Most of it is here at Aflac. We have a tremendous community of people who are from all walks of life, who have all sorts of activities. When I said I was part of the NeighborWorks Columbus board, a lot of what we did was help anybody get a home. But we have a large population of African-American women who aren't homeowners.
One of the things that I enjoyed is Aflac actually sponsored and gave dollars to NeighborWorks so that if someone did want to get a home, we paid $1,000 or something for them to be able to get a home. But the great part about it is they had to go through Consumer Credit Counseling to do it. So it's not just getting a home, it's owning a home and sustainable loans for the community, giving them tools to manage and understand how owning a home impacts your life. It's the upkeep and all of the other pieces.
I think what gives me the most joy is when I'm on a committee and I go out to (Paul S. Amos campus), somebody in the call center who's on the phone (will motion me over). I walk over to them and, after they finish taking the call, they say, 'Hey, I was able to get a house and do this.' I say, 'That is great and are you ready for this?' ... We're speaking the same language. They're enjoying that this is something they've done on their own and they've got children and this is the first home for their children.
What makes that so special for me is my mother was a single parent and I remember when we got our first house. My mother said we are moving into a house. We had lived in low-income apartments for a large part of my very young childhood. I remember going into this house and her saying, 'Now it's a lot of responsibility owning a house and anything that breaks we've got to fix it.' To me, every time that would happen where somebody else would get a house, I would go back to my childhood and me being in a house and being raised there. My grandfather was really my father figure. My grandmother would come over and tell us, 'You don't want to do this. Don't become a statistic. We need to make sure that you're doing these things.' It just brings back the memories.