Growing up in a single-family home in south Dallas, I never imagined I'd one day run a major global company. But that's what I'm doing now as president of Aflac's U.S. operations.
I think back on my childhood. My mother created a warm and loving home for my sister and me. I did well in school. I had ambitions. But a career as a corporate executive seemed almost inconceivable.
Precious few people in my community grew up to take on such roles. Climbing the corporate ladder was as foreign to me as climbing the Eiffel Tower.
How did I get here? The usual reasons. I worked hard, earned the trust of my supervisors and made the most of each opportunity. But I also learned some hard lessons along the way. Now that I'm firmly established in my career, I sometimes fantasize about offering career advice to my younger self.
So, here is my counsel to that girl from Texas with big dreams and the will to build a future.
Find strong mentors
I can't stress enough how important this is. Role models like my grandmother, teachers and high school coaches helped set me on the right path. Along with my mother, they were my champions. I worked so hard not to disappoint them.
Never stop seeking mentors. Becky Davis, my company's former executive vice president, taught me how to focus and build my career. Having a female role model who faced similar challenges in a male-dominated industry was invaluable and helped me realize my full potential.
Commit to excellence
In business, doing good work often isn't enough. To truly move the needle, you must achieve excellence. It's what I expect out of myself as well as those I work with. How do you get there? Make sure someone on your team is pushing you to do your absolute best. Align yourself with people who care more about progress than pride. Make outcomes, not praise, the focus of your work.
Setbacks happen. But they also help you regroup. Early in my career, I was devastated by a 360-degree review in which my direct reports deemed me "unapproachable." That's not how I saw myself, and it's certainly not how I wanted others to view me. So, I worked diligently to change this perception by opening lines of communication and offering my team greater insights into the work we were doing. My team's performance improved and my career took off. Lesson learned: Don't be afraid of a negative review -- it could be your greatest opportunity for growth.
Focus on the wildly important
You're going to face many challenges over the course of your career. But time and experience have taught me that the best results come when you're able to focus intently on the most important tasks at hand. When Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were both asked what the secret was to their success, they gave the same one-word response: "focus." That's good enough for me.
This approach served me well last year, when I was put in charge of overhauling our U.S. sales operations. It was one of the biggest changes in the company's 60-year history, and we were able to make it happen in just two months.
Love what you do
Find your passion. If you don't like what you're doing, find something else. Use all of the resources available to you, even if it means admitting that you're afraid. In May 2014, our organization opened its first Career Success Center whose mission, in part, is to help people find their passion. Embrace those opportunities.
And one final note to that girl back in Dallas. No matter how far you go in your career, no matter how much you achieve, never stop working on your career. Consider it a work that's always in progress.
Asking questions about your career doesn't make you vulnerable -- it makes you smart. I'm still asking them every day.