When Pam Alfrey Hernandez was named chief operating officer of Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society (now marketed as WoodmenLife) in 2008, she would represent the first woman to serve at the executive level in the industry granddaddy’s then-125-plus-year history. Though, she certainly didn’t set out to blaze trails in the industry, Hernandez did take the words of her father to heart throughout her career.
“My father gave me excellent advice: ‘Make yourself indispensable,’” she recalled.
This advice was first applied when starting out as a teacher at Burke High School in Omaha.
“It’s a lot harder to get rid of an English teacher who is also a coach, a club sponsor [and so on]. So, I coached volleyball, sponsored cheerleaders, was assistant athletic director …”
A few years later, Hernandez would have the opportunity to make herself indispensable yet again in a completely different role and industry.
“A parent of one my students offered me a job as a sales trainer at Woodmen Life,” she explained. “Normally, they hired sales agents to train other sales agents. But he took a chance on me.”
In fact, Hernandez had never sold anything. She didn’t know anything about insurance. Yet here she was: the first female instructor for an overwhelmingly male salesforce.
“There was no career path I could envision for myself,” she said. “What’s the saying? ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ In my case, I couldn’t even see anyone who looked like me in my current position, let alone up the ladder. But I pursued my father’s advice.”
Hernandez would find a problem that needed a solution. Or something that needed “doing.”
“I’d figure it out, start doing it, and my superiors would realize that whatever ‘it’ was, they needed someone to do it,” she said.
Most telling, Hernandez’s only positions that existed before she “inhabited” them were bookends of her 30-year Woodmen career: the first sales instructor role and the last COO position.
“Every other position was created because a problem needed solving and I was the one to do it,” she summed up.
Polishing Professional “DIAMONDS”
Fittingly, nowadays Hernandez can be found applying her experience and know-how to elevate others as the president and founder of The Right Reflection, an executive coaching and leadership development firm.
When asked about her proudest professional accomplishments, Hernandez is quick to point to her clients’ successes.
“When individuals tell me that I’ve made a positive difference in their lives, that I have created a safe, compassionate, accepting space where they can look at their life, decide what is working, what isn’t and see a path forward,” she explained.
Hernandez has also been told that she is inspiring, something that she credits to her authenticity, meeting people where they “are,” and her ability to see the “diamond in them that needs a bit of polishing.”
These qualities are reminiscent of a parting gift that the Woodmen Life VPs gave to her upon leaving the organization in 2015: a beautiful glass elephant.
“I must have looked puzzled, because they said, ‘You know why we got this for you, don’t you?’ I guessed, maybe, because I have a good memory?” she recalled.
“They said, ‘You have always been the one willing to call out the elephant in the room.’”
It is in that sense that Hernandez is agreeable to being called a “pioneer.”
History Informs Change
Time and again, Hernandez has carved new paths. She recalled how “lonely” it was to be a woman, and mother, in business in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. “Those were the days when you didn’t let anyone (even other women) know the struggle it took to work, rear children, manage a home, and counteract the biases that were implicit throughout society,” she said. “I remember when I was pregnant with my first daughter, I hid my condition as long as I could. I would even run to a different floor when I had morning sickness because I didn’t want anyone to suspect I was pregnant.”
As Hernandez moved up the ranks and gained visibility, women would come to her for advice.
“I was always amazed that these young, intelligent, ambitious women would feel so inadequate as if they were to blame for having difficulty meeting the impossible expectations that society placed on them,” she said.
For both women (and men) to receive the support that they need to navigate the challenges of work and life, Hernandez noted changes are needed: Affordable health care; paid family leave for parents; affordable, quality, safe and accessible child care; and flex work arrangements.
“As a society, we act as though rearing the next generation is an entirely personal responsibility, and more so for women, rather than a societal obligation,” she said. “But attitudes have been changing. And with the societal changes being brought about by the pandemic, organizations are going to find that they are not going to have a workforce if they don’t do their part to support individuals.”