Aflac CEO Dan Amos on diversity: ‘I already know how a 60-year-old white guy thinks’

Columbus State University communication students got a lesson in leadership, crisis management, business ethics and consistency on Tuesday night from a subject-matter expert.

Aflac Chairman and CEO Dan Amos addressed the students as part of the university’s Fall Speaker Series. Noting that he rarely speaks to such groups in Columbus because of his schedule, Amos spent almost an hour giving students life lessons on how to deal with critical business issues.

“My message to you as college students is to never underestimate the obvious,” Amos said.

And he pointed to a concrete example involving his uncle and principle Aflac founder, John Amos. His uncle was visiting the World Fair in Japan and noticed that many of the Japanese citizens were wearing surgical masks. John Amos asked why they were wearing the masks and he was told they had colds and did not want to spread the germs.

“He said at that moment any society that will wear surgical masks to avoid spreading colds will buy insurance,” Dan Amos told the students.

Aflac went to work to get licensed in Japan and today is the country’s largest medical and cancer insurance provider. About 80 percent of Aflac’s revenue comes from Japan, where it started doing business in 1974.

“That was there all along and nobody really picked up on it,” Amos said.

Amos leads a nearly $30 billion company whose stock was trading Wednesday morning at more than $73 per share, near an all-time high. He regularly speaks to college business students at universities like Stanford and the University of Georgia, his alma mater.

Amos also talked about the critical nature of communication and transparency. He used the example of the company’s reaction to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. Because of Aflac’s business holdings in Japan, the company’s top priority was to be proactive in getting out information.

“It is the right thing to do and it is the obvious one,” he told the students. “Over time it establishes credibility and consistency with our investors, employees, our customers and our sales agents.”

Another business crisis arose out of the natural disaster. Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of the iconic Aflac duck, tweeted derogatory comments about the tsunami. News organizations were inquiring about Gottfried’s remarks.

“The message there is you don’t understand how fast technology moves these days,” Amos said. “We were used to getting back to them the next day or whatever, you can’t do that anymore.”

Amos asked the reporters for a few minutes to assess the situation.

“Literally, I had 20 minutes to figure out what we were going to do,” he said. “If I had said, ‘I will give you an answer tomorrow,’ then the headlines would have been, ‘Aflac hasn’t decided what to do about Gilbert Gottfried,’ which means we have already lost before we started.”

Amos and Aflac made an instant decision.

“Within 15 minutes of learning that, we fired Gilbert Gottfried, we pulled every commercial we had in the United States and we immediately assembled a team that got to work on how to find a new voice for the Aflac duck,” Amos said.

Perhaps Amos’ most compelling message was about diversity and the role it has played in the company’s success. He went into great detail to explain the importance of diversity to the nearly 150 students.

“I believe in order to accomplish our goals, we must surround ourselves with a group of people who bring different life experiences and different ideas to the table,” Amos said. “As I look around in my meetings, I like to see a different group of people. I do not want to see a group of people who look like me. I already know how a 60-year-old white guy thinks. I want females. I want people of color. I want different people involved.”

It’s a business decision, as well as being the right thing to do, Amos said.

“It is a living, breathing philosophy that also makes good business sense,” he said. “We take great pride that two-thirds of our corporate workforce in the United States is comprised of women. Nearly half of Aflac employees are minorities, and perhaps most impressively, one third are minority women. I believe that makes us the most diverse company in the Fortune 500.”

You can read about it in a book, but it is important when you have hard examples.

“We’re in a position of such change,” Amos said.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams