Why should corporate leaders learn to think like diplomats?

Brad Knox, Vice President and Counselor for Federal Affairs at Aflac, participates in Meridian's Corporate Diplomacy Training program.


Meridian International Center has launched its Corporate Diplomacy Training program where we equip corporate leaders across industries and sectors with the diplomatic tactics, strategy and insights to succeed in a competitive global business environment while enhancing leadership skills and advancing multilateral cooperation. We sat down with Brad Knox, Vice President and Counselor for Federal Affairs at Aflac, to get his feedback on the program.

Meridian International Center: Six months ago you and fellow members of Aflac’s federal relations team participated in a four-part corporate diplomacy training at Meridian. How was the experience?

Brad Knox: When you tell your team you’re going to have four half-days of being out of the office – where you’re not going to be doing the things that are demanded of you, but you’re going to do something else – eyes can role and they wonder if it’s going to be worthwhile. Our trainer, Betsy Whitaker, was so awesome after the first session that everyone’s attitudes changed and they realized this training is really valuable. What people most got out of the training was insight into how our diplomatic corps is trained and learning more about that world, which was probably just as enjoyable for my team as taking the lessons from the training and applying them to our work. It’s one of those experiences that you don’t have a textbook for, but it was good learning how to work together as a team with these scenarios that are new to you, and role playing – all of those things are helpful incrementally. As a leader, being able to combine something that is enjoyable, educational, team-building and, frankly, has a return on investment of a better professional, I think that’s a good combination.

MIC: What has been the initial return on investment of this corporate diplomacy training for Aflac?

BK: I already have a team of very talented people but I think the investment in them, and exposing them to a different way of thinking, will all be positive. The biggest takeaway from an ROI standpoint is the shared experience that your team has by participating in this training. If you’re building a team of lobbyists, you want to create some cohesion. Inherently built in to this training is a sense of camaraderie and, to me, that will be a huge ROI.

MIC: What other benefits has the training offered you, your team or Aflac at large?

BK: I’ve shared our team’s experience with other heads of offices at Aflac, mostly in passing telling them about my experience and that they should look at the training. It triggers in them a response like, “Oh! Wow, I haven’t thought about that connection. I haven’t thought about that overlay of experiences.” To me, it has been about the camaraderie, the team building, the shared experiences and being able to expand your thinking outside of our day to day. I think so many of us are grounded into this daily work that we do, and I think there is a hunger for people to want to do something outside of it that is still intellectually stimulating and yet applicable.

MIC: There is a myriad of conferences and professional development opportunities in Washington, D.C. When you describe Meridian’s corporate diplomacy training, what stands out? Why should corporate leaders participate in this one?

BK: There is already this concept of corporate diplomacy that the training was utilizing, and that I had already been talking about. I went to a program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania several years ago, and they had a professor that taught a session on corporate diplomacy. The way he looks at is more geopolitical as opposed to making sure you know what is happening in the world. Corporations have to be diplomatic more so as lobbyists and activists. We really are corporate diplomats, especially corporate government relations shops, which are always trying to express and explain why they should exist and not just be a budget center. If you think about being a diplomat for a company in the terms of being with the U.S. State Department, the notion of corporate diplomacy begins to come into focus for people who don’t really understand what we do as lobbyists or they, miscalculate what we do. There is not another conference that people can come to in Washington, D.C. that is designed to teach them how to be a diplomat. There is no other place in DC that is tied to the State Department and has this rich history of educating diplomats from around the world on how to deal with incredibly complex situations with incredibly complex people and get peaceful results. That’s what Meridian’s spotlight is. That is your sweet spot. So why this place and why this program? Because you can’t get it anywhere else in DC, and I don’t know that you can get it anywhere else. There’s no other Meridian that brings people from around the world and teaches our diplomats to go throughout the world and negotiate on behalf of the U.S. Government. So if you can take that level of discussion and that level of insight and apply it to the work that we do for companies, that’s a differentiator.

MIC: You’ve discussed how important government relations teams are for companies. There seems to be a lot of synergy with the work of diplomats. Does the corporate diplomat persona help internally motivate change or increase investment in a company’s government relations work?

BK: For me, specifically, and the company I work for, I’m fortunate that our leadership understands the need for corporate diplomacy. Generally speaking, the fact is, most companies don’t. If the U.S. Government did not have a State Department, did not have embassies across the world, did not have ambassadors representing the President of the United States and the U.S. Government, and we only entered into conversations with people when there was something bad happening – that would be really bad policy. That would be a tenuous situation. The reason we practice diplomacy is to be able to have better positions and relationships because everything is about relationships, through which you can either avoid those bad things from happening or you’ve created enough deposits to help negotiate them when they do happen. That takes an investment, and the companies that recognize that investment are going to be in a much better place when something does happen, and definitely something will happen to the companies that don’t make that investment. It might be similar to companies that invest in R&D or venture capital. You’re going to invest in a bunch of companies that are going to fail, and you know that, but the one that wins is what you’re banking on. Similarly, you might invest in your government relations shop and find nothing happening for a while, but when that one thing bad happens that can devastate your company, then what are you going to do? You can’t just jump in and say, “Hey, but we’re this great company!” Too bad you never invested in the relationships, you never put ambassadors in place to represent who you are and what you do. I think that’s how people can embody that corporate diplomat. I’ve been talking about this within my company for years, us being the corporate diplomats, and I’ve been training them and teaching them that this is who we are and what we do so they have that mindset.

AFLAC Diplomatic Training Highlights 2018

MIC: How has serving as an ambassador for corporate diplomacy helped your career at Aflac?

BK: We were playing the long game and recognizing that perspective, which allowed me to grow our government relations team from 8 to 11 people and to do things that mattered for us. In the corporate world, it’s not always a good thing to grow your expense item, but the investment in the long game was worthwhile. The conversation that we’ve been having about the long-range view and what we do and how I view government relations led to a promotion for me to senior vice president of the team. So your question is right on the money, what does it do for you? I think the company recognized that work and I think there’s a level of sophistication that comes with doing the kind of training Meridian did for us. The company, and myself personally, benefited from the training because it offers that next-level thinking for leaders who want to advance government relations for their companies. Doing the training at the White-Meyer House was also important because you’ve got to get out of the office, and it’s a good environment. Every once and a while Stuart Holliday would stop in to the training. An organization with an ambassador that’s overseeing the organization and the program, and having a retired diplomat teaching the course, it’s special and I don’t know where else we would get that experience. This, again, is all about relationships and people. This matters because it’s making a difference in other people’s lives and businesses, and we spend a lot of time thinking about our work.

MIC: What would you say to other companies that might be considering this type of training?

BK: As the leader of the team, and as the person that payed the invoice, everybody from Meridian was invested. Everyone touched the program, it felt high-level, and I could tell the Meridian team cared. I know that you had done other training programs for companies, but not at this level – and it showed. What companies can expect is a high level of care and service; I’m a big fan.