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Ledger Enquirer: Sunday Interview With Audrey Boone Tillman

Posted September 2, 2014    

 Audrey Boone Tillman stepped outside her comfort zone -- and it has turned out pretty well for her.

Working in the Aflac legal department in 2001, Tillman was asked by Chief Executive Officer Dan Amos to take over the Human Resources department.

"I didn't just go over there and start lighting it up day one, I made some mistakes," she said. "I learned a lot about our business. I would be different in that I would have stayed in my comfort zone and just have been the best lawyer I could be."

She is now the company's general counsel and one of its key leaders.

Recently, Tillman sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams for a wide-ranging interview.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

Home for you is Atlanta, right?

Yes, I'm from Atlanta.

How long have you been in Columbus?

We moved here in 1995, actually for my husband's job, and I began working for the company in 1996.

What is Chip's job?

He's a physician. He came here to work with Hughston Hospital in a speciality they were developing.

Is he still there?

He is. He spends roughly half of his day at Hughston Hospital, but he has his own internal medicine practice, too.

Where did y'all meet?

In Chapel Hill as undergrads.

You graduated from the University of North Carolina?

I did.

So, how do you get from Atlanta to Chapel Hill?

Well, my family, both of my parents, are from North Carolina. I had grandparents and extended family there at that time. They both went to college in North Carolina and met in college just like my husband and I did.

So, I had been to the campus and had cousins who had gone there and had always thought this would be a great place to go.

In my senior year I went on my official college tour and they gave me the big speech about it's almost impossible to get in from out-of-state. Here I am knowing so many cousins and family members who went there, and it was a little different for me coming from Atlanta trying to apply there. Things worked out. I persevered, applied and fortunately was accepted.

Talk a little bit about what led you to become a lawyer.

That's a funny story. I'm not the most traditional person. You can say happenstance, luck, or the hand of God -- what have you. My husband went to school knowing he was going to be a doctor and took all the courses to pursue that. Not so much for me. I've always taken what I enjoyed and pursued things that I was interested in, because I could never work somewhere or do something that I just hated. It is not in my makeup to do that. I would rebel against that.

Where does that come from?

I'm just kind of free-spirited. I love what I love, and what I don't like very much I just kind of move past or avoid. So as an undergrad, my major was political science. But I took courses across the spectrum. I may have taken a class just because I heard about the professor and wanted to see what he or she was like. So I took a number of courses in political science, and one of my professors said, "You have a lot of interest, you are not shy, you raise your hand, you don't mind getting into debate, have you ever thought about law school?" And I thought, "No, I haven't." I started looking into it and thought, well, this is something. It applies logic and there's a lot of reading -- which I loved -- research and argument, which I never shy away from. So I looked into it.

Funny story: My roommate, one of my best girlfriends who is a lawyer in Atlanta, she always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. So she took this class called the Kaplan course. I'm sure they still offer it. But at that time it was like $750, and it prepared you for the LSAT. I knew my dad would probably give me the money, but I better be darn serious about it if I asked him for $750. This was in 1985 or 1986. So I signed up to take the LSAT, read through the material -- they give you a pamphlet about the size of a comic book -- read it a couple of days before I took the exam, went in there cold. And I did really well. I did as well as my roommate who took the course and spent the money. So, I said, "All right, game on! I'm going to law school." I started applying and was fortunate to get into Georgia.

So, who do you root for in athletics, North Carolina or Georgia?

Both. Yeah, I'm really lucky because in football I claim Georgia. During basketball season, I flip over to North Carolina. But I guess that diehard, obnoxious, passionate fan activity -- probably more so for the Tar Heels.

You have a good reputation as a lawyer and as someone who is passionate about what you do. Where does the passion for this profession come from?

Well, I am very intrigued by the foundation of the profession, which is integrity and ethics. You are the advocate for someone's position. It's funny that people consider the profession now, and probably the first thing they joke about is lack of integrity with lawyers and things like that. But, at its base, the profession is founded in that. I've always wanted to and sought to do the right thing by people. So, that advocacy piece -- getting on the right side of something, advocating for that and giving it my all -- is very intriguing to me. Also, I'm a big reader. I like to analyze things. I like to take a problem and look at it, try to resolve it...

You came to Aflac and started in the general counsel's office, but you pretty quickly moved into the business side of the company. Why did you do that?

I was asked to.

Who asked you?

Dan Amos did.

When was that?

This was probably four years into my career here.

So, about 2000?

Yes. Actually 2001, so almost five years into it. I came in as a staff attorney. There was no assistant staff attorney. That was the bottom in the pecking order, which was fine by me, although I considered myself quite accomplished when I came.

You had been a law school professor, you worked for a law firm in North Carolina ...

Clerked for a federal judge, all of that, but that was the position, so that's what I took. So I thought at the time, we haven't started a family but time's a-wastin', so we've got to get going with that, but I'll take it.

It's interesting, Chip is getting started with his practice, I don't have much to do. And, yeah, 18 years later, I'm still here. I loved that job. I loved working for Joey Loudermilk. I loved my colleagues. I was able to get back into the area of law that I really enjoyed, which was labor and employment law. So, HR was my customer. That's what I came in to do every day -- service them, advise them and handle the matters that arose. And then there was a reorg and I had the opportunity to go to HR, which at the time: "I don't want to do that."

For two reasons -- and I can look back and kind of laugh at my younger self then because I didn't want to go -- I thought being a lawyer was the epicenter of everything that was going on around here, this is where the action is and how could I leave this to go to HR? Out of ignorance, that's what I thought. Lawyers don't lack healthy self-esteem for sure.

Egos?

Otherwise known as egos, yes.

So, I was intrigued by the fact that there were issues and problems to be addressed in HR, which I was very familiar with because I worked with them every day. But as I began to talk to Dan -- and at that time Aki Kan was the president of Aflac Japan -- and they were both in there talking to me about it. Every single reason I gave him -- "I can't go because of this," "I can't go because they do that" -- he said, "OK, everything you just told me is yours to fix, and how can I help you?" At this time I had a toddler son and a baby probably 2 months old. And I said, "I can't. I've got little kids. My oldest goes to the Montessori School on St. Marys Road; they don't even open until 8:30. No way I'm ever going to be at work before 8:30, because I take them to school." And he said, "OK, I'll never call you before 9 a.m. unless it's an emergency." And true to his word, he never called me before 9. He gave me the opportunity to take them to school, unless there was an emergency.

When you take a job like that, you're in this position that you've trained for as a lawyer and your employer-boss Dan Amos comes to you and says, "OK, I want you to go in a different direction." How much trust do you have to have in that individual?

A lot. A lot, because it was pretty scary for me. Again, lawyers aren't trained to manage and lead people. They're just not. They're trained to manage this work and to advocate this cause. So, I went from one assistant that I was managing to 90 people in a day.

Now, the good news is that I'm pretty good with people. I always want to understand people and understand what motivates them, help them solve their issues. I love people and I think people love working with me. So, foundationally, I knew that I needed people to be successful and that I had as much to learn from them as I did to teach them. So, I came with a real humility in my leadership because they knew what they were doing and I didn't know what they were doing.

If you had not taken that job in 2001, would you be general counsel today?

I don't know, but I'll say this: If I hadn't taken it, I'd be a different kind of general counsel. I'd be different because my experience having to go through what were some hardships. ... I would be different in that I would have stayed in my comfort zone and just have been the best lawyer I could be. And what I think I'm bringing to the general counsel's office now is that I'm trying to be the best lawyer I can be, but I'm also a good leader and a good business person. That's different.

What is an example of a mistake that you made early in the transition?

One of the mistakes I made is a person that I worked with pretty closely when I was on the legal side, they were a go-to contact for me. I met with them probably at least every few days for years. Did exceptional work -- exceptional. Their product was exceptional. So, you grow to depend on the work. ... I started to discover that they were very difficult to work with. I don't know if you've heard of the term "scorch the earth," but that would be applicable.

That product that presented so beautifully, you really didn't want to see how they got there and the bodies that were in the wake of that. Well, that's contrary to my personal style of leadership. And it's contrary to Aflac's style, but I trusted and was so dependant on their work that I let that go on too long.

And I finally realized for the sake of my personal credibility as a leader and who we say we are at Aflac -- our culture, that starts in HR and it ends in HR, and we own it and we drive it, and to have someone in leadership that was counter to that, regardless of the work product -- I knew I had to make some changes. So, I did, and now I know that you can only take a person so far. They've go to do the rest on their own. At the time, I thought, "Let's try one more time. OK, let's have another talk. Let's try it another way." Somebody told me during that process -- it was invaluable information -- they said, "When you find yourself working harder for someone else's success than they are, it's time for you to step out."

So, working on the HR side definitely prepared you for where you are now?

Oh, no question. And most obviously was my introduction to the business units, to Aflac, how we make money, what our products are, how we're structured. I had to learn all of that in the way that it applied to my customers. If I am working with our chief accounting officer on an initiative or a project, I've got to know her business. I've got to know it so I can service her and provide her what she needs to be successful in that business. I would not have had that exposure had I not stepped outside of legal.

So, you've worked with many, if not all, the middle and top managers in this company?

Probably everyone.

What is the common thread that runs through the good ones?

A desire to do the right thing by Aflac and by the Aflac family. That means the business decisions that are made that are going to make Aflac profitable and impact our policyholders and our brand, and also the way that you do that. You treat people with respect and decency. You have an open forum for people to come and give you input into their thoughts and their ideas.

I was very, very fortunate working with Joey (Loudermilk). He definitely reinforced that in the early part of my Aflac career. There was nothing that I brought him he wasn't willing to hear, even probably some crazy ideas. I'm full of ideas. I could probably sell Aflac after I left corporate. I have lots of ideas. But I would bring them to him. He would always give me an audience. Some of them he would act upon, and more than that, he would put me in a position -- and he didn't have to -- where I could present those ideas and usher those ideas through in front of very important audiences.

I was a staff attorney and I would present things to Dan Amos and to our board because he felt like it was your idea, you did the work, I will be with you, but you present it. And that lesson for me and just servant leadership. Because I have certainly worked for people that I could have done all of those things and I would never have seen the light of day. That information would have been taken and presented like I never existed. But that was not his way of leading and that has not been my way of leading. I'm pushing people forward once I recognize they can handle it, and giving them their spotlight and their exposure and their opportunity to do things.

Talk about Joey.

I feel like I'm following in huge footsteps, because Joey is the most ethical, forthright professional that I've worked with. His style is different than my style.

In what way?

Joey is reserved. He is quiet. I'm quiet to an extent. I'm not a big talker, but I'm direct. You don't really have to guess where I'm coming from. I'm going to tell you pretty quickly. My approach, my directness is different than Joey's, but fundamentally, our core, both of us are people of great faith who have a deep desire to do what's right, and who have a deep desire to see Aflac succeed doing things the right way. So, for that, the transition for the company won't be that difficult because Joey and I have a core. We are very, very similar.

And this isn't a takeover -- it's a hand off?

Absolutely. I couldn't replace Joey. And he's helping me. We meet every week to discuss issues I have. For me to bounce things off of him -- things I might not have bounced off of anybody else in this role.

Did you learn more from your good bosses coming up or more from your bad bosses?

That's tough because I learned from both.

Bad bosses can be just as valuable as good bosses?

Absolutely. Just like mistakes. Errors that I have made in judgment or things I wish I could do over, I will not let it go until I have drawn something from it. Then I'll put it away and move on. And the same thing working in an environment that is not ideal, or working with people who are not ideal. And I've certainly had that. I've learned something from it -- if nothing else, what I don't want to do and how I don't want to treat people.

But, fortunately at Aflac, I'll tell you that the bad folks get spit out. The culture will eventually get them. It just will. Sometimes it takes people longer than others to be spit out, but eventually it will surface and something will happen that will make the decision easier. Either for them to decide to leave or for us to invite them to leave.

As general counsel, your primary job is to advise Dan Amos and upper management, correct?

Yes.

Do you tell Dan what he wants to hear or do you tell Dan what he needs to hear?

What he needs to hear. And that thing right there I guess is a personality trait. I tell Dan what he needs to hear. That particular personality trait is what I attribute a lot of my success to. Dan requires that. And I've seen people reluctant to do that. I have to do it -- I have to do it. I have new employees who come and say, "Make sure and give me feedback." Oh, I will, I have to. I can't not let something be known that is going to be beneficial.

When you are delivering hard truths or bad news to people, what's the best way to do it?

Well, Dan for instance, I always tell him but if it's something in my area that I own -- like a mistake or bad news or numbers that aren't what he expected -- I bring that news coupled with a recommendation. I don't just drop the bomb and walk away. I'm going to give him the news. I'm going to say what the remediation steps are. I am going to say what I feel about success, going forward. But I'm going to couple it with both.

If it is an employee and I'm delivering some bad news -- some feedback that isn't positive -- I want to couple that with "this is what I think you can do to fix that, or to right that." Or, "If I were you, the next step I would take would be to reach out to them and fix that situation."

Where did you learn to do that?

Probably from my parents -- from my dad. Probably from them. I mean, they had that very fine balance between "You're awesome and wonderful, the sun rises and sets on you," but "Let me let you know exactly where you are messing up here." And it is a fine balance.

What do your parents do?

My dad, he passed away in 2003, but he was an executive with the federal government -- Health Care Financing Administration. And my mom worked for Social Security for some years and was home with us for some years.

What are your parents' names?

Clarence Boone and Barbara Boone. I get so much of my core personality and decency and responsibility from my parents and my family, my aunts and uncles.

Large family?

Yeah. And my cousins. And that's one reason I always include Boone in my name because that's important to me -- the Boones are important.

You've got to be one of the very few black female general counsels of a Fortune 150 company, and reading your bio, you were one of the first African-American attorneys at your firm in North Carolina. Do you like being a pioneer?

Well, I don't covet it. It's not something that scares me, but I've never been afraid of anything. Again, back to being raised the way I was, I'm not fearful of much of anything -- God, I fear God. That's about it. So, the fact that going into that large firm and being the first African-American ...

What firm was it?

It was Smith, Helms, Mulliss and Moore.

In Charlotte?

In Greensboro. They had offices all over the place. It has busted up since then; I don't know what they are now, but that's what it was then. I wasn't fearful of it. I did feel a greater sense of responsibility, as I did here when I started at Aflac, because I was the first, to make sure I was bringing a solid A-game, that I would do things that would represent the categories that make up Audrey, that I would represent those very well. I do take that very seriously.

And Delmar Edwards, he was on our board here, he was the person who introduced me to Aflac. He was a family friend of my husband. So, when we moved here, Chip's father introduced us to Dr. Edwards, and he was just so very helpful and kind to us. We started talking about backgrounds and he said, "I'm on Aflac's board, I think they need to meet you. I want to get your materials and take it to them." I said, "Well, our house is full of boxes, I don't even have a resume. Give me a while and I'll uncover it and I'll give it to you." So, in a few weeks I did that. He asked if he could take it to Joey Loudermilk. He did, and the next day Joey called me. The day after that I had a job offer.

I had not planned to go to work that quickly after I got here, although I do love being a professional. I love working and getting out and mixing with colleagues. So I knew I wanted to work; I was just not prepared to go that quickly. But Dr. Edwards said, "Now, you've got to do this, you've got to do this. I mean, I'm out here now and you're out here now. You've got to do it; you've got to do it well."

When you talk about pioneers, Dr. Edwards was certainly a pioneer in this community.

Absolutely, and I didn't know that until later. All I knew was that he was a physician here in this town, long time. My husband's father, same position in High Point. They went to medical school together.

So, there was a family connection?

Yes. And I found out later, actually when I started working here, that he was Delmar Edwards. And was even more appreciative that he would consider me somebody he wanted to advance in terms of introduction to the company. He didn't know me, but he put his name behind me and that was really so special.

It was a pretty good person to have pushing you, too. Wasn't it?

Yes. I've been so fortunate. Dr. Robert Wright lived down the street from us. He and his wife June, so lovely, so kind to us. He ended up getting on Aflac's board and has been such a great mentor and role model in business and in the community. I couldn't have been more fortunate to have associated with those two gentlemen and had no idea that they would be able to assist me at Aflac.

Who have been some of your other mentors?

(Dan's wife) Kathelen Amos -- Spencer at that time when she was here. When Kathelen was here, she was invaluable to me. She had been in the legal division. At that time she had transitioned to advertising and broadcasting. But she took an interest in what I did. She took an interest in me personally. She was always available for questions. She had worked with the same people that I was working with. Always gave me great advise and counsel. She still does, but as an Aflac mentor, she was awesome.

Dan has been great. He has given me some of the best advice I've ever gotten in business. I can credit Daddy for the advice he gave me in life and forming and shaping my persona and my personal character. But I give Dan a lot of credit for shaping my professional outlook and perspective in business.

I'll give you an example. We talked about blind spots, the concept of blind spots. There was an executive here who was acting in a way that was contrary to their normal personality. Dan said, "Audrey, it's because they have a blind spot. It's just their blind spot. On this particular issue, they don't act like we know them to act." I said, "Well, gosh, I hope I don't have anything like that." And he said, "Well, you do. We all do. Everybody has a blind spot." And I said, "How will I know that?" He said, "You won't, because it's blind. So, what you have to do is to make sure you have people around you who will tell you. That's the only way you'll know."

What's your blind spot?

I have an affinity for people. I have let my affinity for people, my appreciation, my affection for people, sometimes blind me to reality. If you've done a great service, if you've done a great thing for me, I have a tendency to attribute everything good to you and little of the bad.

But isn't part of that loyalty?

It is. But, loyalty to the point that it doesn't hurt or cause harm. And sometimes it can, especially if you've got people where it's their personality to use a relationship with you to their advantage and someone's disadvantage. Now, I detest that. I detest it, and now in my maturity in my professional life, I see it quickly, I call it quickly, and I stop it quickly. But earlier, it would go on and on until there was no other choice.

You are a direct report to Dan. Dan is very well known in this community, basically was raised here. What's something about Dan that people don't know?

Wow. That's tough, because he is a pretty open book. What you see is what you get. Dan is very funny. He cracks me up, and he's not trying to be funny, it's just some of his ways. I was in here a while ago and I keep candy in my candy dish. He loves candy.

What kind of candy do you keep in there?

Jelly beans, taffy, things like that. Seldom chocolate because I'm not a big chocolate fan. I keep candy that I like, which may or may not be the kind of candy Dan likes.

I'm in here conducting an interview and he knocks on my door. He knocks and comes in. His knock is not "Can I come in?" His knock is "I'm coming." So, he knocks and comes in at the same time while this gentlemen is in here. He comes over to the candy dish and said, "Hey, just here for some candy; looks like y'all are busy. I'll see you later." So, he leaves and I said, "I'm so sorry, that's our CEO." And he said, "Yeah, I recognized him from the pictures." But to him, "Just wanted candy, coming in, don't let me bother you."

He's just funny. His observations are funny. He's just really comical to me, and he has a good time. And that makes it better for us, because we deal with some difficult issues and difficult people. We have had some tough days and some tough times. But if you enjoy each other, enjoy your work, and you know ultimately that you are appreciated and valued as a person, not just as an employee, a lawyer, a general counsel, head of HR. But I feel like here, me, Audrey, the wife, the mother, the daughter, the person who loves to read, who loves to shop -- that person -- is valued. And that's really important.

Growing up in Atlanta, what did you know about Columbus? Anything?

Not much. If you're from Atlanta, that's Georgia. The rest of Georgia is, you know, just out there.

I'll argue that that's our problem.

You know what? I say that now. And when I moved to Columbus, I thought initially I'll be going home to my old dentist and my old hairstylist, I'll just run up and down the road to all the things I used to do. I never do that. I found everything that I need right here. When I go to Atlanta for a meeting or some seminar or something, I'll quickly go to my traditional jaunts, then I come on back home, and I don't feel like I'm missing anything.

What has been the best part of living in Columbus?

I love our neighbors. This is the only place we've ever lived where people came to our house to introduce themselves to us, and everybody did.

What neighborhood?

In Green Island. People came and brought things: Cokes on ice, brownies. It's been really nice -- and we've only been in the South, so it's not the lack of Southern hospitality. We've only lived in the South and this is the only place where people have gone out of their way to introduce themselves. And when it first happened, it was kind of like "Thank you, is this for real? Wow, this is interesting." And now we do it. That's really special. I love our neighbors. I love that it is neighborly in Columbus. I love that the city is moving and progressing in a way that it's being developed more extensively, but yet we're still neighborly.

What kind of role is Aflac playing in the progression and in the growth of the city?

A lot. We are right there at the center of it, helping to apply the pressure and move it forward. One of the things I'm most proud of in my entire career is going to the Chamber with the request that we've got to form something for our young people who are not from here. It's a huge void.

And Young Professionals was born out of that, right?

Yes it was.

And you were one of the pushers?

The pusher. I met with Mike Thomason and at that time I think it was Mr. (Jimmy) Yancey who was over the development committee. We were having an easy time attracting people to Aflac, but if you were 29 and single, a more difficult time attracting people to Columbus. But I knew enough from just my network in the rest of the country that there are organizations that speak to that need. So I brought that to them. They, to their credit, jumped all over it. Aflac gave the original seed money, got some other corporations onboard, and what the Chamber and those young people have done, just an idea -- I only had the idea -- the greatness that you see that they do now, hundreds of them and they're doing great things in the community, and networking, they did that.

They're active socially. They're active politically. They're active across the spectrum.

They sure are. And they have done all of that. I brought the need to the city and helped them to shape what it would look like, and then it took on a life of its own. And kudos to them. I'm very proud of that, and that's one of the ways we have helped move the city forward in a direction that's positive and progressive in terms of the city's development.

What's your most important core value?

Honesty. Honesty. Always stick with the truth. You never have to figure out what you said, what you didn't say, what you might have deviated. If you stick with the truth, the truth will set you free.

Check out the full interview here


Read more here: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2014/08/30/3275038/sunday-interview-with-audrey-boone.html#storylink=cpy

 

 

 

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