The Secret to Building Resilience: An Interview with Pat Teague

Pat Teague, who leads USAA’s human resources team, talks to The HR Digest about the company’s leadership development programs that has helped attract the industry’s most driven workers and how tough times can have a motivational impact on the workforce.

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The HR Digest: How is USAA responding to COVID-19?  How are you coping?

Pat Teague: From the beginning, USAA’s priority has been the safety and health of our employees. Along with the guidance of local health officials, these have played major roles in the decisions of our leaders during this time and will continue to play a role moving forward. From transitioning most of our employees to work from home in March of 2020 to offering enhanced employee benefits such as additional Covid-related time off (3-weeks), two $1,000 bonuses to all non-executive employees with base salaries under $100,000, discounted take-home food programs and extended bereavement leave, we want to take care of our employees. We knew it was important to help our employees through this difficult time even if it could not be in person.

The past year has been filled with change and opportunity for me personally. It also has placed the HR organization front and center, ensuring our employees remain safe and have access to our wellness benefits. We have delivered many alternative ways to support employees’ emotional well-being and resiliency while quickly adapting to the changing environment and meeting business needs. I have had to remind myself to create space to re-charge. I use the analogy of when you’re flying, and the flight attendant tells us to place the oxygen mask on yourself first so you can be there to help others.

To make a success of digital transformation, effective leadership and a mature organization culture is required. What is the mindset that leaders require in order to succeed in a digital world?

At USAA, we have a standard for how we work which includes being innovative and building for the future. We have a member-first mindset that informs everything we do.

Leaders must be able to respond to evolving member and employee needs and experiment with bold, creative ideas and get comfortable with failing fast to continuously improve and move forward quickly. Digital capabilities are advancing at a rapid pace, and our leaders have to focus on trying new things to discover the art of the possible and not get stuck in a mindset of what worked in the past. This means taking informed risks to improve competitiveness and deliver value. At USAA we do this by empowering employees who are closest to the work to make decisions, ensuring we are creating space for alternative perspectives and encouraging respectful, fact-based debate and healthy challenge to get to the best outcomes.

USAA takes great pride in its leadership development programs. In building a reliable pipeline of leadership talent, how do these programs help deliver on your objectives?

This last year has only reinforced the importance of agile leaders and a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m a strong believer in creating a sense of belonging for all employees and creating an environment of psychological safety at work in the face of the many issues we are all facing today. In the face of COVID-19, our employees led the way regardless of title or role ensuring that everyone had the opportunity to contribute to our purpose-driven mission, by respecting and listening to others, and creating an environment where they could be their authentic selves. These leadership traits are valuable in meeting our members’ needs not just for today but for the future. USAA has a long history of innovative programs that champion this philosophy such as Manager Candidate School, Leadership Development School, and Vets Lead (a military focused leadership network). Learning programs, though, are only part of the solution. The most meaningful lessons and teachings come from experience. That’s why I’ve asked some of our best leaders to teach and coach on topics critical for the years to come – leading a remote workforce, building diverse and inclusive teams, being authentic, and ensuring the well-being of our greatest asset: our employees. 

What is your personal approach to decision-making? Would you call it more analytical or intuitive?

I would say it’s a combination of both and depends on the situation since we cannot always expect to have data for all decisions. I tend to lead with intuition and utilize readily available data. The most important component of decision making for me is to have diverse perspectives at the table to reach the optimal solution. For example, throughout 2020, most decisions focused on keeping everyone safe while serving members with excellence. Those critical decisions were made rapidly, with very little data and collaboratively ensuring we included many voices around the table.

What has been the most challenging decision you’ve ever had to take in your career?

The most challenging decision had to be leaving the finance organization to accept a position to lead a newly formed enterprise operational function. Finance was my “comfort zone” and my team and I had created strong relationships with each other. It took me a few days to reach my decision as I thought about the impact to my family, leaving my current team and the possibility of failure. Ultimately, I said yes to the new opportunity because it would build my business acumen and provide me with the opportunity to serve the company in a larger role.

In hindsight, although it was a risky decision for me professionally, it ended up being the best decision of my career. With a background in Finance and Operations, it gave me the opportunity to compete and be selected for the CHRO role.

The leader who provided me with the opportunity to continue to learn and grow was Wayne Peacock who is now our CEO.

Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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