Today, we are honored to introduce Susan Neely, President & CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI). Susan is our 2020 Luminary Award honoree and she has an impressive background which includes senior positions in the George W. Bush White House and the first U.S. Homeland Security Department, advising Members of Congress, and more recently at the helm of the American Beverage Association. She has also been recognized as the Trade Association CEO of the Year by CEO Update, one of Washingtonian’s 100 Most Powerful Women in Washington, Washington Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business, as well as the first woman president of the Washington Rotary Club and The University Club of Washington.
We are so excited to hear Susan’s insights and advice during her “fireside chat” with Manar Morales, and know that you’ll be inspired by Susan’s commitment to gender parity and diversity and inclusion.
Diversity & Flexibility Alliance: What was the most meaningful piece of leadership advice you have received? Who has had the most influence on your career?
Susan Neely: My dad always preached the benefit of taking calculated risks. From my own career experience, I can now attest that Dad was right. Usually the bigger the risk I’ve taken, the greater the success. That being said, I have never found it easy to make a decision to take a risk, particularly if the risk involved impact on my family. I’m satisfied that I have made the right choices for me, but none of them have been easy.
I am also thankful for trusted advisers who understood me and were wise about career paths. Different advisers with varied expertise have helped me at different points in the journey.
Always be on the lookout for who can be part of your own kitchen cabinet. These individuals should be champions and provocateurs who have your best interests at heart and aren’t afraid to challenge your thinking.
DFA: What have you learned during COVID that has changed your perspective?
SN: My first video-enabled speech via computer was in mid-March. I was able to share perspective with over 3,000 people without getting on an airplane or staying in a hotel. We don’t want to lose the opportunity for personal interaction, but the time savings that technology provides is powerful. How much easier would my life as a working mother have been if we had technological tools like this?
DFA: How do you recharge? Where and when are you most content?
SN: One of my favorite mantras is work hard, play hard. I’m energized by my work, but I’m also equally energized by taking time to recharge. My family is so important to me, so any time I spend with them – especially if we are experiencing new things together – I feel recharged. During the pandemic, my two young adult children have been back home for this season. We’ve been purposeful about doing things we would normally not made time to do … like bake dozens of cookies and deliver them to front doors of friends in the neighborhood. We cleaned closets and boxed up fun packages of outgrown toys, jewelry and hair bows to send to young families we know. We also did a 15 hour road trip to Iowa to pick up my 92-year old mother and bring her back with us.
DFA: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
SN: It’s taken me a long time to learn to be kinder to myself and cut myself some slack. In my zeal for making all aspects of life perfect, I too often would beat myself up about what wasn’t going as well and not savor the many things that were. Counting your blessings does not mean you don’t aspire to learn and grow. It just means valuing what you have.
DFA: How do you pay it forward?
SN: I believe the cycle of lifting others up is contagious. If you empower someone, they will empower someone else. I’ll share one story with you. I was well into my career and I held a role at the Department of Homeland Security. I was on a strategy call with a lot of top brass leaders, including Condoleezza Rice when she was National Security Advisor. I was the new member of the group, and when I offered a point of view, another leader who was an old timer in the group brushed me off. Secretary Rice jumped in, validated my point, and lifted up my voice. She didn’t have to do that. But that small action established my right to be in the group. It also inspired me to do the same for others. Now when I’m in the room, I always listen for the voices of others and look for ways I might be able to validate their right to be there. As leaders, it costs us nothing, but it can be a powerful way to ensure a diverse set of views and ideas are heard.
DFA: What can we be doing to create more inclusive organizations?
SN: When I became a senior executive and now a CEO for 16 years, I realized it was my responsibility to set the tone at the top. I believe we bring our whole selves to work. Achieving diversity is not enough. Belonging should be our goal, and people feel like they belong when they can be their whole selves at work. That’s when we are making progress. We can have a productive work environment that encourages and supports our employees in their personal priorities. A good leader must make this a priority.
DFA: How has flexibility impacted your life?
SN: Motherhood will always be the greatest privilege of my life and thus the role that is the most important to me. I have certainly made career decisions based on how it would affect my family and time with my children. At the same time I have done meaningful professional work and earned an impactful leadership platform that allows me to make a difference in the ways that are important to me. This has required calibration of my time more than sacrifice of opportunities. (Unless you count reduction in sleep as a sacrifice.)
Getting the work-life balance right has also required me to find employers that allow me the ability to calibrate. I never missed doing something that I thought was important for my children. Nor have I shirked professional responsibilities. Sometimes this means that I am answering emails early or late or catching a red eye flight from a meeting to get home in time. Flexibility allows people to include what matters most in their lives.
DFA: What book is on your nightstand?
SN: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I love beautiful writing and think we learn from stories like Gyasi’s about race in America. Gyasi is the award-winning author of Homegoing and was a student in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
Don’t miss your opportunity to hear more from Susan Neely and all of our dynamic and inspirational speakers on November 5.