In late 1977, not quite a year into her tenure at BlueCross, Donna Williams took a fateful trip to the ninth floor of “the Gold Building,” a common name for the company’s Chattanooga headquarters.
Her task at that moment was to retrieve plane tickets for her supervisor. But the then-clerical assistant would walk away with a much bigger task in mind.
“At that time, the executive assistant to the president handled airline tickets for the whole company,” Donna recalls. “It was my first time going all the way up to that floor. I stopped and looked around at all of these women quietly working on their little typewriters.”
“One thing my teacher always told me was to have a goal,” she continues. “And as I looked around, I didn’t see one African-American woman on that floor.”
Laying the goal groundwork
Born and raised in Chattanooga, Donna has always recognized the importance of heeding good advice. In high school, a concerned principal noticed that Donna, an honor roll student, was hanging with a bad crowd.
“He saw something good in me, and one day he pulled me out of class and called my mother,” Donna remembers. “As I sat there he asked her, ‘Can Donna spend some time here in the office, answering the phone and helping teachers prepare tests?’ That’s when I started really getting into office work. If it wasn’t for our principal seeing my potential, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
After graduation, Donna enrolled at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, earning her secretary of science degree. An instructor scheduled a class tour of BlueCross, and Donna was amazed by what she saw — the modern technology (at a time when computers were just being introduced to the workplace), the building, even the external elevators going up and down.
Again following sound advice — this time from her cousin, already a BlueCross employee — Donna applied. In June 1977, she was hired as part of the accounting pool, meaning she would float among different teams, going wherever help was needed.
“I knew I had to start from the bottom,” Donna says. “I wasn’t necessarily thinking about a long-term career; I just wanted to get my foot in the door and work hard. You have to remember, I was only 20 years old; I was thinking, ‘I have a job! I can get a car, I can do this, I can do that.’”
“If you had told me then I was going to be here 43 years, I would have looked at you like you were crazy.”
Working primarily in bookkeeping — where one of her earliest responsibilities was opening envelopes containing premium checks — Donna admits it took about six months for her to feel comfortable at BlueCross. But during that time, she’d grown her knowledge of the company, its people and its mission. From there, she worked in a variety of departments: training and development, government systems, government claims, human resources. She even spent time as the secretary for the official BlueCross tour guide.
That background led to Donna meeting David Deal, with whom she would work for the next 22 years. In fact, while working for David in 1995 and following his promotion to senior vice president overseeing claims, Donna made a substantial step toward her goal.
“Before David made the move, he told our then CEO, ‘I need my assistant with me, because she knows the ropes,’” Donna says. “That’s when I moved to the ninth floor of the Gold Building.”
A strong woman working with strong women
Yet another opportunity for Donna aligned with David’s retirement in 2007. A newly created logistics coordinator position opened up in corporate governance, which allowed Donna to work under Shelia Clemons — her first female manager, and a role model and mentor.
“Sheila believed in her work, and she would push you to where you’d never dream of going,” Donna says. “When she sees potential, she won’t rest until you’ve realized it. To this day, I tell people had I not taken that position, I wouldn’t be working as the assistant to the CEO.”
Working for Sheila helped prepare Donna for her next opportunity — and as it turned out, the one she’d been pursuing her entire career.
Vicky Gregg, the first female senior VP at BlueCross, was promoted to president and CEO in 2002 — another first for a woman in the company. In 2009, her longtime assistant retired. Donna’s reputation, knowledge of BlueCross and work ethic was widely known, and she was one of two finalists for the position.
“I’m going, ‘OK, here’s my opportunity, this is what I’ve been working toward — deep breaths,’” Donna recalls. “When Vicky was told I was interested, she apparently did a double take and said, ‘Did you say Donna Williams?’”
At the risk of understatement, the interview went well. Donna got the job, and 32 years after her first day in 1977, Donna became the first African-American executive assistant to the president and CEO of BlueCross — a promotion that resonated on several levels.
“I clearly remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m working for the president, and it’s a woman! Yes!’” Donna says, still beaming to this day. “That made accomplishing my goal twice as meaningful.”
That positive change continues well into 2020, as 38% of executive leadership positions are held by women.
How leadership changes — and remains the same
Today, Donna’s job title may be the same, but the person she works for — and how she approaches the job — have changed. However, there is a vital consistency.
“Decades ago, then-CEO J.R. McGuff believed in employees’ happiness. He would walk around every floor in the afternoon — we had 600 employees in Chattanooga back then — and ask, ‘How are you today? Everything’s OK?’” Donna recalls. “Now, we have a president who operates very much the same way, and that’s JD Hickey. JD believes in that type of company culture, and has built on what came before. He knows that to properly serve our members, our employees must know they’re valued and respected.”
Donna herself plays an active role in JD’s service to not only members and employees, but our group customers and provider partners, as well. Ultimately, her concern is supporting him so he can focus on the needs of those we serve.
“As the CEO of a company this size, JD has a lot of people who want to see him and talk to him,” Donna says. “To help make that possible, there are things related to scheduling, travel and meetings he shouldn’t have to worry about. Every CEO is different, and my job is to adjust to those needs. I have to often be the ears, the eyes, and the feet. When JD needs something, he shoots a quick email or just tells me what’s on his mind. Once it’s off his mind, he knows it’s taken care of.”
With so much experience under her belt, Donna has become a trusted mentor and leader herself, as she’s built a reputation as someone who’s here to help.
“In administrative positions, you have to show you’re a hard worker, and your work ultimately helps others do their jobs better,” she says. “I’m not the kind of person who says, ‘I only work for JD Hickey.’ I remember a time when it was the norm to be territorial, when you only worked for your boss. Well, that’s not how the rest of the executive assistants and I solve problems. I believe in teamwork, and I need to work with team players. And I’m proud to say we are a team.”
Rethinking her goal
“People always ask how I achieved my goal and what pointers I can provide,” Donna says. “They say, ‘What can I do? I want to do this, but I can’t.’ That’s where I stop them and encourage them to change their thinking.”
“I don’t believe in can’t. Can’t is not in my vocabulary.”
“I always want to keep improving, learning and building on what I’m already doing, but my next goal is to retire,” she admits. “Some people might take this as negative, but I don’t — I’m just being honest. I’ve given BlueCross 43 years, and I’m going to give them a little more. But I said in ’77, ‘I want to be this.’ I’ve done that. Now I’ve got another goal, and I want to be able to enjoy it.”
Until then, she’s happy to impart the knowledge she has both about BlueCross as a company and effectively working alongside so many leaders.