Keeping Her Balance

Audrey Boone Tillman makes sure that HR at Aflac runs like a business—but that family still comes first.

By Ann Pomeroy Nov 1, 2005

HR Magazine, November 2005

“The engine of a company is the people,” says Aflac CEO Dan Amos. And because the Columbus, Ga.-based supplemental health and life insurance company is a service company, says Amos, “you need to put your strongest people in the HR department.” That’s why the CEO chose Audrey Boone Tillman to head Aflac’s HR operations in 2001. “There is no one better in our entire organization,” he says. “Audrey [packs] a one-two punch. She’s brilliant and capable in the technical [legal] area, plus she is a master at understanding people. She’s got a listening ear.”

From HR Lawyer to HR Leader

Tillman—who now serves as senior vice president and director of human resources, facilities and health services—came to Aflac as a staff attorney in the legal department in 1996, after she and her husband, Chip, a doctor, moved to Columbus. An academic at heart, she had been an associate professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham. Previously, she worked as an associate at the law firm of Smith, Helms, Mulliss and Moore in Greensboro, N.C. Joey Loudermilk, Aflac’s general counsel, corporate secretary and executive vice president, says his department didn’t have an opening when Tillman applied, but he had been urged to interview her by an Aflac board member (since retired) who had met her and been extremely impressed.

Loudermilk also was impressed. “It was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had,” he says. “She was engaging and articulate—she had charisma.” He hired her on a temporary contract at first because “we didn’t want her to go and work for somebody else.”

Tillman was quickly promoted to second vice president (1997) and then to vice president and senior associate counsel in the legal division (2000), where part of her job was to advise the HR department on legal matters. “HR was my client,” says Tillman, who considered herself a consultant to the department.

Her strong performance in that role convinced Amos that she was just the person he needed to head the HR department. When he offered her the job of senior vice president and director of human resources, Tillman was astonished—and reluctant. She asked for time to think it over.

“I tried to think of every reason not to take the job. I had never managed a large number of people. I had never managed a business—and I consider HR to be very much a part of the business.”

Tillman says she has had the benefit of good mentors throughout her career, so it was natural for her to discuss the job offer with a mentor. When she confided that she was concerned about jeopardizing the good work/life balance she had achieved in her present role, her mentor responded, “If that’s your top priority, then you should be the head of HR.”

And the CEO was persuasive. “I’ll support you,” Amos assured her. “I’m going to have your back.”

Tillman rose to the challenge. Four years later, she says it was a great decision. It expanded her horizons and “took me out of my comfort zone.

“I’ve never been reluctant to admit what I don’t know,” Tillman says. She began her new job by meeting individually with each of her employees. “I’m asking for [a] grace [period] while I get on top of the learning curve,” she told them. “I’m a quick study, and I will get there.”

One of the first steps she took in an effort to get up to speed in the HR profession was joining the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). (Editor’s note: Subsequent and unrelated to being interviewed for this article, Tillman was nominated this fall to serve on the 2006 SHRM Board of Directors.)

Stop Being a Lawyer!

Soon after moving to HR, Tillman met Cole Peterson, former head of HR at Wal-Mart, who has become a valued mentor. Peterson advised her that she needed to change her mind-set: “You’ve got to stop being a lawyer,” he said.

Indeed, Tillman found being a lawyer and being the head of HR “diametrically opposed in some ways.” Good lawyers, she says, are trained to be risk-avoiders. “They keep their clients out of trouble.” They also follow precedent. “The precedent part of lawyering really rubbed against my creative side,” she says. Some elements of being a lawyer can get in the way of doing the best thing for the HR business, she says.

When Tillman found herself telling her successor in Aflac’s legal department, “You’re getting in my way. I just want you to fix it and get out of the way,” she realized how her perspective had changed. Today, she says, “I don’t consider myself a lawyer anymore.”

Nevertheless, her legal expertise is invaluable. Tillman says it is not unusual for Aflac to have no pending employment lawsuits, and she works to keep it that way. Amos calls her the conscience of the company. “I have great confidence in Audrey’s ability to analyze a situation and determine if we are doing the right thing.” The right thing for Aflac, he says, needs to be right morally as well as legally.

From Adversary to Partner

Becky Davis, Aflac’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer, says Tillman “changed how the business units work with HR.” Today, HR is viewed as a partner rather than an adversary that tells them what they can’t do, she says. “Audrey is able to get people’s attention in such a way that they don’t get upset. She can make you think something is your own idea—and make you want to do it.”

Davis agrees with Loudermilk that Tillman has charisma, but she adds that it’s “charisma backed up by solid ability.” For example, Tillman raised corporate consciousness about the turnover problem at Aflac, Davis says, “and that’s [a] bottom-line [issue].”

The biggest problem, Davis says, was in the call center, where employee turnover had reached 40 percent. To get a handle on the situation, Tillman conducted a comprehensive turnover analysis and put together a “road show” for the executive team and the division managers.

“We presented the ‘practical case’—how turnover affects Aflac in dollars and cents and in lost productivity—and the ‘people case’—why our current and former employees say turnover is so high—and we were able to put in actual dollar amounts. The data was impeccable, the presentation was professional—I was about as proud as I have ever been in my career of that project,” says Tillman, who wanted to show the business units that HR could provide a valuable service.

“We’re not the police,” she says. “We’re here to help.” So HR didn’t walk away after identifying the problem areas. Instead, it worked with the business units to help them develop plans to address the problems. A follow-up study the next year revealed that turnover had gone down.

“We saved over a million dollars between 2002 and 2003,” she says, “just by reducing turnover by 1.5 percent.” In the call center, the change was dramatic: Employee turnover was cut in half.

Tillman says she has been able to take a holistic view of the organization and focus on strategy because she has the support of a strong HR staff. That’s important in an organization that doesn’t outsource anything, not even payroll. Customer service is very important at Aflac, she says, and the company believes “there’s a value in having Aflac employees service Aflac employees.” To facilitate this, they’ve invested in technology to help expedite the transactional activities.

“HR is so well-positioned to impact the bottom line,” maintains Tillman. She feels fortunate that “I always have the ear of my management. I’ve had to give Dan some tough advice over the years, and he has always accepted it and acted on it.” Some CEOs don’t want to hear, she says, or if they hear, they don’t want to act on difficult decisions.

“Dan wants you to come at him,” she says, and that meshes well with Tillman’s own style. “I’m from the school of candid advice—both giving it and accepting it.”

Amos, who says hiring Tillman to head the HR department was “as good a hiring choice as I have ever made,” puts it this way: “If Audrey tells me to do something, I usually do it.”

The Balancing Act

Tillman’s office door is covered with frequently changing artwork produced by her children: sons Wesley and Robert, ages 7 and 5, and 2-year-old daughter Barbara Joy. The colorful pictures are a constant reminder of the importance of finding a workable balance between her responsibilities to her family and her responsibilities to Aflac. “Aflac would be able to get along without me,” she says, “but my family can’t. My family needs the best of me.”

Before taking the HR job, Amos recalls, “Audrey told me, ‘I can stay as late as necessary, but I can’t come to work before 9 a.m.’ ” It was important to her to take her children to school and be available to meet with their teachers as necessary. “I promised not to call her before 9,” Amos says, “and I’ve kept that promise.”

Tillman believes she can meet the challenges of managing these multiple priorities because she grew up watching her mother—“my role model”—do it. A successful, college-educated professional, her mother worked at the Social Security Administration in Atlanta while raising a family.

It’s not easy, and it doesn’t just happen without effort on your part, Tillman says, but “I saw that you could do that and still have a healthy and whole family.”

Her parents instilled a work ethic in their children at an early age. Her father (now deceased), who was regional administrator for all Medicare-approved facilities within an eight-state region, expected that “every able body will have a job,” Tillman says.

A Family-Friendly Culture

Aflac, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has always been family-oriented. It’s even in the original name: American Family Life Assurance Co. Founded by brothers John, Paul and Bill Amos in 1955, the company, now known as Aflac, remains a family-run operation today. CEO Dan Amos is the son of Paul Amos; Dan’s son, also named Paul, is executive vice president of Aflac U.S. operations.

It’s a company that celebrates tenure, says Tillman, and there are many employees who have been there for 30 years or more. At the same time, there is “a doable blending of longtime employees and newcomers,” Tillman says. “We’re growing, so we can no longer find all our employees here in Columbus.”

With 4,400 U.S. employees (Aflac also has a thriving business in Japan, where it insures one in four Japanese households) and 65,000 U.S. agents working as independent contractors, the company operates on a lean head count model, Tillman says. Employees are urged to “work smarter, not harder.” The focus is on getting the job done, she says, and not on working long hours.

The company’s family-friendly approach has clearly contributed to its success.In addition to maintaining a healthy profit margin, Aflac regularly shows up on lists of great places to work. Aflac has been on Fortune magazine’s list of “The 100 Best Companies to Work For in America” seven years in a row and on its list of “America’s Most Admired Companies” for five consecutive years. Working Mother magazine named Aflac to its list of the “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers” four years in a row.

In addition, Aflac’s commitment to diversity is evidenced by the fact that it has appeared on Hispanic magazine’s annual “Corporate 100” list of companies providing the most opportunities to Hispanics since 1993; for the past six years, LATINA Style magazine has named Aflac one of the “50 Best Companies for Latinas” to work for in the United States. And this year, ESSENCE magazine ranked Aflac as one of the top three companies in America that is a “Great Place for African American Women” to work.

It’s also a company that values fun, says Tillman. “We work hard, but we have a lot of fun around here. Who else would have a duck as a mascot?” (The well-known Aflac duck made its first appearance in a television commercial on New Year’s Eve 1999.) Some days, she says, “it’s been so much fun I shouldn’t even have gotten paid!” (Tillman quickly adds that those days are balanced by “the days when you say, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to overcome this?’ ”)

Tillman has a suggestion for anyone in management—or anyone who aspires to management: “Do an HR rotation. Spending some time in HR gives you a whole view of the corporation that I’m not sure you could get anywhere else.”

Looking back, she smiles when she remembers her worry that “I’ll get over here [in the HR department], and I’ll be too far from what’s going on.

“I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Tillman says. “HR is right where everything is going on. I have input on everything.”

Ann Pomeroy is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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