bWise – Ep 26: Achieving Liftoff: Lana Hillebrand’s Journey From Astronaut Aspirations to HR Industry Leader

Achieving Liftoff: Lana Hillebrand’s Journey From Astronaut Aspirations to HR Industry Leader

In this episode, hosts Don and Sharon sit down with HR and benefits administration leader Lana Hillebrand, former Chief Administrative Officer at American Electric Power Company, Inc., who recently joined bswift’s advisory council. Lana shares her early career aspirations—which began with a bold declaration as a young girl that she wanted to be an astronaut—and what ultimately led her to a successful career in HR. Based on her experiences consulting and leading HR, she offers invaluable advice to consultants, vendors, job seekers, and anyone else in the industry. Listen in as Lana discusses the importance of relationship building, thought leadership, flexibility, and more. You’ll walk away with practical tips for navigating change and thriving in this fast-paced field.


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    Well, we have a wonderful guest with us today. Lana Hillebrand is a new member of the bswift Advisory Council, and she is an industry expert in talent management and human resources and comes with a wealth of experience in that space. And we’re looking forward today to learning a lot from Lana. Lana, welcome to the show.

    Oh, thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here. 

    Good. Well, I understand, Lana, that you’re an alumni of UT Austin. 

    Yeah. Yes. Hook ‘em horns. Yeah. 

    Outstanding. I love that. My father’s a west Texas native and he went to elementary school way out in West Texas and he himself was alumni of the Red Raiders and Lubbock, Texas Tech. But yeah, so great to have you on the show today, and we want to learn from you, Lana. And I think just to a little bit of an icebreaker to get us started, we’d like to learn a little bit more about you personally before we jump into what’s going on with your background and what you can share with us professionally. Will you share with us something that most of your colleagues may not know about you? 

    Absolutely. So this is probably one of my very first memories. I was actually born, so a little stage setting in 1960, entered the first grade in 1966, and I know my mother took Life Magazine and what was going on then the Race for space. And so in the first grade, I distinctly remembered by first grade teacher Mrs. Fel, going around the room asking the children, what do you want to be when you grow up? And the little boys were saying, policeman, fireman, accountant. And the girls were saying, mother, mother, teacher, teacher, mother. But when it got to me, I said astronaut and I’ll never forget the look on Mrs. Felds face. And it was a very dismissive look. And I don’t know if you have pets, but if you’ve ever seen your dog kind of turn its head and kind of look at you like what? 

    Oh yeah. And so she didn’t say anything, but like I said, a very dismissive look. So I remember coming home and having dinner with my parents who were non-college educated, and my sister. And so they said, what happened at school today? And so I told them the story and I said I wanted to be an astronaut. And I tell this story because my parents had, I guess options clearly in 1966, women or little girls were not astronauts. And so they could have said, you can’t be an astronaut, or they could have said the route they chose, the words they chose, you can be anything you want to be. And in 1966 when your parents tell you you can be anything you want to be, you believe them wholeheartedly. And so I think about that today as I have two daughters, but we have two grandchildren. And words make such a difference. That’s one of my first memories. And I’ll say as we talk about my career in forward, that never left me. I believed I could be anything I wanted to be because my parents in 1966 told me I could be an astronaut. 

    I love that. I love that Lana. And I think there’s something trending on social media right now amongst women, and there’s a famous female astronaut who says, boys do it, so of course I can do it. So I love that it’s a very empowering message, and I think you’re right. Words matter and how you say what you say matters. So the fact that they said you can do anything and that the way that they said it was empowering is everything. So I love that. And obviously it led to an incredibly successful career. Your most recent stop was as the executive vice president and chief administration officer at Electric, excuse me, American Electric Power. You spent several years at Aon Hewitt and Hewitt and Associates and had a long career. And then also, actually, excuse me, were a vice president of human resources for Central and Southwest Corporation before that. So you’ve been on both the consulting side of the house as well as the client side of the house, which I think is incredibly important because you get both perspectives. And I’m curious, as you look back at your career, what your biggest takeaways are from both sides of the business client and consulting. 

    So thanks for that question because there’s some very distinctive takeaways. And when I spoke with the bswift organization previously, I said I really have two personas so I can talk to you from the consulting side and the client side First. From the consulting side, I believe people work with people they know and trust. And so yes, I was a consultant that had sales goals, revenue grows goals, but I developed relationships with my clients and I tried to understand what would make them successful. I really shored up their weaknesses. So for example, some clients needed help developing a benefit strategy. Some clients needed help in communication, whether that was to employees or maybe it was to their CEO and C-suite executives and boards. Some clients literally just needed arms and legs to get the job done, to get the execution. So I just wanted to be helpful and I wanted my clients to be successful. 

    And so I was very fortunate to have long-term relationships. So from my very first client to the day I walked out of consulting, they were still a client. So for over 12 years, I had a relationship with them. And you might be going to a meeting to talk about benefits administration, but guess what you might’ve read in the newspaper that they just acquired international company. And so I would do some research on expat programs and see if I could take some information knowing that that was probably top of mind for them on that day. So really just enjoyed helping clients, number one, and helping them to be successful. 

    So shoring up a client weakness is a great place to start, Lana. And I think as I think about your experience, I’ve got to imagine that over the years, as you’ve identified some of those client needs, you’ve figured out certain solutions that you can bring to them. And I’m wondering if you could comment on some of the solutions that you’ve used over the years, tools, maybe stuff like bswift or whatever that you’ve put in front of your customers to help solve problems. What would you say about that? 

    So absolutely, technology is huge in HR, really advancing the profession. So IT benefits administration for example, is a very exciting opportunity in arena because you, and I’m going to jump to the client side of the persona. You as a vendor partner, touch every one of my employees, and I may not be touching them in a given year. So very important to select the right partner, I’ll say the right technology, the right solution, because HR is a profession that I say HR is messy. It is craziness. I was responsible for 350 million of healthcare spend annually, a multi-billion dollar pension. I worked with the board on succession planning, talent development, culture, DEI. So it’s amazing how much gets done within a fairly small HR department. And that’s why we really count on our, I’ll say, vendor partners and consultants to help us accomplish what we need to do for the company, for the employees, for the shareholders. 

    Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead. Oh, I was going to say from the client side, so the advice I would give to bswift and other consultants, vendor partners is do your research and know something about my company, my industry, and then maybe me. And so do your research. When you come and get a meeting with me, know something about me, bring something of value, make me think, maybe make me think differently. If you do that, I’ll take another meeting with you. So you need to help me think again, because I’m so busy with all this other, that if you come in very targeted, and again, bring me something of value and make me think you’ll get another meeting. Also, it’s a very crowded industry, lots of vendor partners, lots of consultants. You need to be able to clearly articulate your differentiation. So what makes BW stand out? 

    And so you need to do that very crisply. I’ll say in two to three sentences, a small paragraph. Don’t bring me handout after handout after handout. Just very clearly demonstrate or articulate your differentiation. And as you’ve talked about, so I was a C-suite executive, and so it was most likely you were not going to get a meeting with me unless you knew somebody that knew me. Then I would take the meeting. So it’s kind of like a puzzle. That’s why I’m saying, what do you know about me? Who do you know in the industry that knows me? If somebody would’ve called me and told me, my friend Ted Bloomberg suggests that you take a meeting with me, I would take that meeting, but I probably got a hundred to 200 unsolicited emails or calls a day of people I didn’t know and I was not taking those meetings. 

    And another thing, I really am looking for a long-term partner. I not have time to change vendor partners like the Merry-go-round that goes round and round and round. I really would like to stay with a partner over a number of years because it is an easier working relationship for me, easier for you. We built that trust, we built that confidence. And so I really am looking for a long-term partner, even though I may have to go out with RFPs to check price check, et cetera, et cetera, but I really to make a change is painful to me. 

    Yeah, Lana, this is such good advice for salespeople out there. I mean, knowing that you represented such a large employer and what you were dealing with as an HR professional, 200 emails and outreach is a day is just incredible. So a lot to wade through. And so I think it’s such good advice. Use the tools and resources you have as a sales professional, even if you have a free access to LinkedIn, there’s a way to kind of sew a story and get in front of the right people if you’re using what you have at your fingertips. And anyone can Google the news as it’s relates to a company that they’re prospecting and get what the latest and greatest that’s going on with that prospect. So I think that was really great advice. And you mentioned Ted, who obviously reached out to you, it sounds like, of course, to be on our advisory council. And I’d be curious, what attracted you to join BIFs Advisory Council? 

    So first and foremost, Ted is very convincing. Very convincing. It’s very personal. 

    He should be on our sales team, I think, right? That’s what I’m hearing. He’s very 

    Compelling and convincing. So the first conversation with him, I think we had a rapport, we had respect, and I wanted to be a part of, I’ll say his team to realize that vision. Another advisory council member is Maria y, and then your chief revenue officer, Sue Thompson. And they both came from Hewitt and we worked together. And so that was 15 years ago. And I have extreme admiration for both of them, and I wanted to work with them again. So between Ted and Sue and Maria, that was a perfect combination. But I love this industry. I love hr. HR makes a difference. I can’t think of a successful company that doesn’t have a great HR program and really engages employees. So I love the, but also back to my astronaut story, I wanted to make a difference. It felt like I had something to bring to the table, and as Ted and I talked, it would be something of value for bswift. And I certainly think about bswift touching millions and millions of employees and really what an honor that is. Anytime you can have that impact on that many employees, I mean, it is just such an honor to be able to do that work and make a difference. 

    Lana, as I’ve listened to you talk, my mind is reflected on Natalie, who is our Chief People Officer at bswift. Her, and she is amazing. And I think about the impact that she’s having on bswift as an organization, the heart and soul she puts into it. We were just going through a reevaluation and a restatement of bswift vision and values and things like that. And her impact on the organization as a whole has been tremendous. And I know that you’ve had that similar impact in the places you’ve worked because of the care that you’ve put in to your work. And I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re so delighted and excited to have you as a member of our advisory council, as the voice of the customer. We need to consider that in everything that we do at bswift. And we know that the people that we’re working with on a daily basis in the delivery of our services and our tools are people who are in roles that would be similar to the role you’ve played in your career. And we need to know how they think and what they care about. And you’ve been so helpful to us in that respect, and we so appreciate it. 

    I just think as I’ve reflected on your comments too about the astronaut comment from when you were a little girl, perhaps you’ve looked back and said, well, I never did become an astronaut, but I can tell you you’ve shot for the stars. You’ve definitely been able to have impact across thousands and thousands of people, and we’re just so delighted to have you as part of our team, and thank you for all you’re doing for us. 

    Well, and I’ve had in-depth discussions with Natalie, and so again, you’re right on. I mean, you’re so fortunate that she’s leading the effort and the culture is the secret sauce, I’ll say to the success of a company, and I’ve only joined since December, but I spent quite a bit of time in December with employees and gotten to know the leadership team. And I can tell you, I believe the bswift culture is the competitive advantage. And so Sue Thompson knows I’ve been doing a little bit of networking and prospecting with my contacts, and I did reach out to a contact that I know and I could have led with, oh, they’ve got amazing technology, or they’ve got this new feature and function that does this and that. But you know what I led with, I led with the culture of the organization and why you wouldn’t want to work with bswift because of the culture and the amazing people. That’s why as a client, I’m looking for in a partner. And so I believe bswift has the competitive advantage because of its culture in people. 

    I absolutely would agree with you, and I think we lean in on that. And it’s funny that you mention it because we had just hosted Amit on a previous podcast and he had the same messaging that that’s really something that we’re leading with from a client services perspective, is creating an amazing culture amongst B Sifters so that we can best serve our clients. And it all starts really at that nucleus of culture. So it’s great to hear you say that, and don’t release that prospect list on air here, because I’m sure we might have some competitors listening, but thank you for prospecting for us of too. Of course, yes. So wanted to ask before we wrap, this is a exciting industry, the benefits industry, but it is fast moving. So what advice would you have for someone who is maybe looking to make a career change into the insurance or benefits administration business or who’s just exiting college or education and looking to enter the industry? 

    So as I said, I think HR is a highly engaging, it’s highly engaging work. It makes a difference for employees, and it makes a difference for companies and shareholders. And so for somebody, as I said when I was a consultant, if you love to help people, I mean, every HR department needs help. And if you love to help people, if you love to enjoy working with clients and want them to be successful, HR is fascinating. It’s always changing. It really is. I mean, due to technology, due to company strategies due to employees, it’s just very interesting. And there’s something new every year. So there’s many ways that you can learn and grow. And you could start out in benefits and you could go to comp or you could be a HR executive. I mean, there’s lots of room to grow within HR, but the benefits administration, if I were to consider, okay, if this is the profession I want to go to, but which company do I want to go to? 

    Back to our previous discussion, and I wasn’t smart enough when I started to work in 1983 to ask about company culture, but I think today in 2024, you really need to do your homework. Like we were talking about research, research the company, research the leadership team, research how this company works with clients, and really ask you get to ask those questions about the culture. Try to find other employees that work there, talk to them, what’s it like to work at bswift? Tell me what a day in the life of b swifter is. And so really do your research and homework. Lots of ways you can go into, I’ll say the HR profession or benefits administration. There’s lots of different companies to go to, but make the right choice. 

    Well, Lana, I can tell that if there was a second career for you, it would have to be something in teaching because I’ve heard a lot about research and do your homework and stuff like that. But no, that’s what you’ve been through your career, right? You’ve really been a teacher, you’ve been a teacher, an educator, and I could tell that really comes through from the heart from you. And we could tell that’s really the kind of person you are and what a delight it is to have you as part of our team. So thanks for joining us on our show today, and thanks so much for your time and attention. 


    Nice. Garrett, you’ll probably have to edit out me hating on men in the beginning. I haven’t had enough coffee yet. It’s only three 30. So 

    Did we get enough? I mean, y’all said usually 20 minutes. I was just trying to think of any other points. 

    Yeah, was there anything else? I think we’ll have ended up with what, 20 minutes. So if there are any other 

    Could we did that one? So the question, you did say a question about what makes a great benefits administration partner, and I spoke a little bit at the sales meeting. So as you enter into a partnership, it really is like I’ll say, so this may be taboo to say it like a marriage. So lots of communication, accountability. If you say you’re going to deliver, deliver, deliver, deliver, you’ve got some expertise that you’ve got to bring to the table. And you really, like I said, need to help me think and be arms and legs, give me some insights. You’re touching my employees in ways that I may not have an interaction with them and annually, and you really need to build that confidence each and every day that you’re the right partner for me. So those were the only things. I mean just it’s just so important. If you say you’re going to do something, do it right, 

    Have integrity and what you say you’ll be doing. And I think one of the things, yeah, no, I was just going to say, I think one of the things that you mentioned is HR has so much on their plate. They don’t have time to be experts in benefits administration. That’s why they’ve outsourced benefits administration. And we’ve talked about that on this podcast before. People are putting their trust, their money, and their teams in our hands to be the experts in something that they just don’t have the depth or breadth to cover. So we need to, once we’ve secured the partnership, continue to be thought leading in the partnership, looking out for ways to improve or make suggestions, bringing new ideas to the table. It’s not necessarily just the onetime sale. We’ve got to continue to win these customers day after day, month after month, year after year, not just when they’re out for RFP, but throughout the process. So I like that. I like that you brought that up because the upfront sale is of course so important, but having thought leadership and depth and integrity throughout the relationship is critical. 

    Well, and I tell a story, so after you win, like you said, win the relationship. We’re married. So it’s kind of the old comfortable easy chair on Monday nights. We’re watching Monday night football in our barca loungers, right? But I’ll tell you, maybe it’s coming up time for a renewal. And guess what? Your competitors are reaching out to me and they’re saying, oh, you’re so smart. You’re so funny. You’re so cute. So this, oh my goodness, I got flowers. Okay, so don’t take for granted the long-term relationship. And like you said, you got to deliver every day. You got to keep bringing thought leadership and keep engaging the client, because if you don’t, you may wind up in a very sad situation at renewal time, 

    Right? Let’s not just do TV dinners, let’s bring these people out to sushi. Sometimes I’m 

    In the bar lounge, 

    I’m in the 

    Barker lounge. You’re watching Monday Night 

    Football. We’re not going to do trade tables over here. 

    So anyway, 

    Great advice. It’s great saying,

    About Lana Hillebrand

    Lana is a strategic HR executive with over 25 years’ experience in human capital functions and leading people to drive transformational change through the organization. She most recently served as Chief Administrative Officer at American Electric Power Company, Inc. (AEP), a Fortune 125 company.

    The views expressed by guests of the bWise podcast series are theirs alone and not endorsed by nor necessarily reflect the views of bswift, its affiliates or their employees. The podcast recordings and all rights are owned and retained by bswift. Reproduction, duplication or reposting of podcasts or any portion thereof without the express written consent of bswift is prohibited.
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