Victor A. Terry, a 1997 graduate of Samford University's Brock School of Business, where he majored in management, has been appointed as State Farm's vice president of public affairs and the agency's very first chief diversity officer. Here he reflects on life-long relationships built at Samford and shares advice for students entering the workforce during unprecedented times.
How did Samford’s Brock School of Business prepare you for your career?
The small class size in the School of Business created the perfect atmosphere for engagement and for me to hone my leadership skills. I was a fan of the group projects and the resulting presentations required in my upper-level classes. Last, but not least, I still have a great appreciation for Samford’s focus on ethics and how its leadership philosophy is rooted in principled values.
Tell us a little bit about your career progression. What was your first role out of college and how have you progressed to where you are today?
I joined State Farm after graduation and started in the Birmingham Operations Center, just down the road from Samford. I was hired as an agency field specialist. The role provided in-the-field “how to” support for independent contractor State Farm agents on our business systems and business processes. When I completed training, I was assigned to an Agency Field Office in Columbus, Mississippi. A few years later, and a temporary move back to Birmingham, I eventually became a State Farm agent in Gautier, Mississippi in 2001.
It was not long after being an agent that I made the leap to start my leadership journey. I was in several roles coaching and consulting State Farm agents from Mobile, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia, to Miami, Florida. In 2009, I moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where our corporate headquarters is located. I participated in an “executive-in-training” program. I was not in that program long before being asked to be a vice president in our Corporate Agency department. In 2015, I relocated to Texas to be an area vice president overseeing production, retention, and profit of State Farm products offered by our agents in Dallas-Fort Worth, West Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.
Most recently, I was named vice president of public affairs and chief diversity officer in June of this year. I will soon be making my way back to Bloomington and will again work out of our corporate headquarters. It’s been 23 years and this will make my ninth relocation with State Farm.
What influential relationships do you look back on during your time at Samford? How has this relationship helped shape your career?
My relationship with Dr. Robert (Bill) Service was by far the most important relationship to me during my time at Samford. Dr. Service became a mentor and was the faculty adviser of the Business School’s professional business fraternity (Alpha Kappa Psi). He was the one who urged me to join AKPsi. The fraternity proved to be an excellent training ground for me to hone my leadership skills in a safe environment. Not long after joining, I was elected president. I became the first minority president in the chapter’s history and also the first president who was an underclassman. I don’t believe any of that would have happened without the mentorship of Dr. Service. During the spring semester of my senior year, I went to Dr. Service to get his advice about my upcoming job search. He was the one who introduced me to State Farm and helped me make the connection to two vice presidents who worked in the Birmingham Operations Center. My very first interaction with State Farm was with one of the vice presidents of agency in his executive suite. I later learned that was unheard of at the time. Again, that introduction would not have happened and I would not be where I am today without Dr. Service. He helped me unlock so many doors. I will always be grateful for his mentorship and guidance. Bill knows my wife and children very well and we remain friends to this day.
How did Samford University and its Brock School of Business instill in you ethical leadership and management skills? How have you used this in your career and how do you plan to use it in your new role?
In my experience, Samford and the School of Business have a Christian culture that permeates everything that takes place on campus. With that as a foundation, ethical leadership was always at the forefront of instruction within the School of Business. This values-based approach helped to further cement my perspective on doing what’s right as a business leader. It has been confirmed for me many times over during my career how ethical leadership better serves our customers, our employees and our independent contractor agents. A business built any other way is simply not sustainable.
In this unprecedented time of COVID-19, what advice do you have for students about to graduate from Samford as they prepare to enter the workforce?
I’d give students about to graduate from Samford the same advice Dr. Service gave me: you have to willingly experiment and try something unexpected. I did not plan to go into the insurance and financial services industry. I didn’t plan on relocating six months after starting a new job. I did not know ultimately what my capabilities would be. However, I was willing to say yes to the possibility. I knew I could explore any opportunity and be committed to it at least for a couple of years. I knew I could live anywhere for a little while. I figured if it did not work out I would try something different. I had no connection to State Farm. I was not from a “State Farm family.” I was not even a customer in the beginning. I did not assume State Farm was a long term opportunity for me, but it turned out that it was. Everything happened for me because I was willing to take a risk and say "yes." That willingness combined with being open to mentorship, advice and counsel has paid dividends for me. I’d also say it’s not enough to simply receive advice. You have to execute on it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of your mentor’s time and yours. I’d also tell graduates to focus on their own path. Don’t get caught looking sideways and attempting to compare yourself to your peers. Everyone has their own race to run. You may not come out of the starting blocks as fast as others, but if you focus on what is in front of you and maximize the opportunity where you are, you might catch the kind of momentum that can slingshot you into new opportunities that exceed your expectations.
How should a business evolve rapidly as the pandemic is still unfolding before us? Similarly, how should an employee adapt to our rapidly changing workforce?
I believe a crystal clear business observation during the pandemic has been the need to have a technology platform that allows a company to take care of customers when brick and mortar operations are compromised. This is especially true for entrepreneurs and small business owners. I also believe businesses, small and large, need to be prepared in advance for disruption by having a comprehensive and well thought out continuity plan. Many factors can disrupt business operations. When that happens you don’t want to waste precious time in a panic and determining what to do next. A continuity plan will help a business remain calm and execute on their plan while keeping the specifics of what is unfolding in mind. There are more people working from home during the pandemic. This has blurred the lines and removed the separation between work and home for a lot of people. I believe that has brought an even sharper focus on the need for work-life balance. If employees are over-indexed one way or another it will eventually become problematic. I sense that a lot of people are getting a stark reminder of creating balance in their lives in a way that is personal and meaningful to them. I also believe this has been a time for employees to refocus on their personal learning and development journey. The future is always a bit unpredictable and employees have to be prepared for the next shift in skills needed to be successful. I hear about a lot of workers who are carving out time for personal development. Taking that time is both enriching and smart.
What changes in the workforce do you foresee when the pandemic is behind us?
My sense is work from home will become the norm for more people. However, I am not sure that having all employees working from home is the best course. As I mentioned earlier, for most people I believe there is a benefit to having a separation between work and home. I also believe that over time culture can erode if people are not connecting, building and maintaining relationships. No matter how much technology we have or how much contactless business we might be able to transact, people have a fundamental need to connect with others in a traditional sense.
I also believe the development and expert proficiency of specific skills will become more valuable. Education, general experience and references will remain important. However, a skills-based approach to managing your career will continue to grow. It’s ok to become an expert and create the biggest lever possible for yourself.
How is the unprecedented Black Lives Matter movement impacting the way State Farm approaches diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives?
The recent unfortunate events created a defining moment for our country, for our communities and for corporations like ours who serve those communities. Interestingly enough, months before the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest driven by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, State Farm started in-person and online discussion sessions with our employees on the topics of race, unconscious bias and allyship. In doing so, our goal was, and is, to provide opportunities for employees to have open, honest and empathetic conversations to build more trusting, collaborative and productive relationships within our company and communities.
Since the tragedies, we have taken several unprecedented steps to effect positive change in the communities we serve. One of those steps has been a $1 million donation to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund that goes toward education and research around social injustice and its impact to our communities. Another step was formalizing my position as chief diversity officer. In stepping into this role, I am now leading a well-established team of diversity and inclusion professionals as we further define and advance our diversity and inclusion efforts. Moving forward, we will continue our listening sessions. These conversations have not only provided our employees at all levels with a platform to share their experiences, challenges and frustrations related to the inequalities they have faced in society, but also granted them an opportunity to share solutions and educate others. This has been invaluable to us.
What goals do you have as State Farm’s first chief diversity officer?
State Farm has a well-established Diversity & Inclusion department that works diligently to curate a workforce that closely mirrors many of the communities we serve, from entry-level up through senior leadership positions. My top goals are to work with that department to help our internal and external business partners embed diversity and inclusion into all aspects of the business and model organizational inclusion in everything we do. We hope to do this by establishing and using a governance council of leaders within our company who will encourage our employees within their respective departments to adopt the diversity and inclusion tools and learning paths available to them. Through these actions we hope to build a greater sense of belonging for all employees, especially those with diverse backgrounds.