Posted: November 13, 2014, 5:10 p.m.
by Brittany Downey.
Wendi Strong began her day Tuesday, Oct. 28, with a meeting. She sat down with one of her co-workers preparing for a future encounter with a highly influential board member at the USAA.
“[This employee] had never sat down with a person of this esteem before, so I helped coach her on the best approach and what to say, and other things like that,” Strong said.
Winner of the 2014 Milestones in Mentoring inaugural Corporate Award, Strong serves as the USAA executive vice president of Enterprise Affairs and chief communications officer. As a leader in one of the nation’s leading financial service companies, Strong is well-known in the world of mentoring as the one to push her employees to new heights. These actions as well as others in her position at USAA gained her recognition at the Milestones in Mentoring gala, hosted by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations in Chicago on Oct. 30.
“Wendi has an unwavering dedication to embracing diversity and inclusion and, with that as a priority, she focuses on mentoring and developing female leaders,” Harriet Dominique, head of corporate responsibility at USAA, said. “She reinforces the fact that the strongest teams are those that embrace a wide-variety of perspectives, the key to winning solutions. And, she does this not just with her words but with consistent actions – there is no disconnect between what she says and the “shadow that she casts.”
“When I found out about the award, I couldn’t believe that I would be considered as someone who was worthy of such a great award, considering who else was being honored,” Strong said. “The other people being honored are people I have admired and learned from. I think of them as being ‘the grown ups’ of our profession, and I think ‘Wow, did they make a mistake by picking me?’ It’s wild and I’m so flattered and humbled by the award. I love the opportunity I’m going to have to talk about and promote mentoring because I believe in it so deeply.”
Strong received her undergraduate degree at the University of North Texas in psychology and, after some soul searching, realized the degree would lead to a career path she wasn’t comfortable with. She applied to grad school and started her master’s in public relations. Her experience outside of the classroom, however, is where the real work began.
“During my first semester I took an internship so I could quickly decide if this was the right move for me,” Strong said. “In those days, you didn’t have any help finding an internship. You had to find it yourself. So I picked up a phone book, looked under public relations and started dialing.”
It’s this dialing that led Strong to, arguably, one of the most influential people she’s met along her career path. Her boss, the owner of a one-woman public relations shop, took Strong on as an intern and over the next five years taught Strong everything she needed to know to survive the public relations world.
“She took me under her wing and she taught me,” Strong said. “She allowed me to make mistakes and helped me learn from them. She coached me and gave me advice. And she believed in me. She, from the beginning, thought there wasn’t really anything I couldn’t do and that was such a blessing.”
Now, years later, Strong credits her first internship position to her love of mentoring today. Her focuses included servant leadership, delegating clearly and efficiently, and helping her employees be engaged in the work they do.
“The corporations that I’ve worked for have had a strong sense of purpose, and that’s something that’s really important to me,” said Strong. “It’s important for me to work for a company that has some kind of societal influence. Our job at USAA is to help the men and women who serve our country and that’s something I really enjoy.” *
Strong’s love for her profession as well as her passion for leading with integrity has gained her not only recognition, but also respect from those who work under, with and alongside her.
“When I was making a personal decision that I thought would affect how I was perceived at work,, Wendi was the first one to push me toward that decision and encouraged me to “just be me!!”,”Dominique said. “She has helped me tremendously in fully accepting and embracing who I am as a African American business woman. Without Wendi, my courage and confident-humility as a senior leader would not be what it is today.”