21 Apr

California Leadership Award To AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah. Paula Downey, President

Paula Is Our Daughter.


Leadership California is a network of accomplished women, dedicated to advancing the leadership role women play in impacting business, social issues and public policy. It is also a unique program, designed to develop and mobilize female leaders. From corporate, academic, state and community organizations across the state, Leadership California draws a diverse group of executive women into its California Issues and Trends Program. Alumnae gain new insights on complex global, national and regional issues facing California.

Paula Downey is President of AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah. She will accept the Corporate Leader Award on behalf of her company on May 3 at the Leadership California Legacy of Leadership Awards in San Francisco.

Diversity is Job One for AAA’s First Female President

by Carol Caley

Paula Downey is the face of AAA NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, NEVADA AND UTAH, a company which is recognized for promoting diversity in its workforce and for valuing women and women’s leadership. The company has been a leader and advocate for the safety and security of travelers for 110 years, offering insurance, automotive, travel, and financial services to 4.3 million members, with 6,000 employees and annual revenue of $2.6 billion.

Q: We love to hear the stories of women leaders who’ve been groundbreakers. As the first woman to be named president in the auto club’s 110-year history, do you think of yourself as a pioneer?

“Ultimately, the measure of success is in who we are and the way we do business.”

A: I don’t really think of myself as a trailblazer. Having said that, when I think back, there have been a number of meaningful firsts along the way. I was the first woman in management to be pregnant. (I was then with a prior employer.) Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it was then, 26 years ago. I remember that at that time, you couldn’t go to a store to buy maternity clothes for business wear. I ordered them by phone.

Another first: When I was employed at another AAA club, I became not just the first woman, but the first person to make use of its executive sponsorship program. The organization supported me financially and supported completion of my MBA at the University of Michigan.

I was the first female CFO of my current organization. I was also the first to hold a new role, Chief Operating Officer. There had not been a COO in the organization’s prior history, so I was the first person, not just the first woman, in that role, and due to our organization’s expansion, we needed that role. Ultimately, I became the organization’s first female president.

I don’t tend to think of this particular job as a “first,” since there have been many firsts along the way. “Groundbreaker” is probably right, but I wasn’t thinking that in the moment. For many people who are successful, there were key decisions made as part of their careers. At those times, I was thinking about taking advantage of an opportunity.

“That’s critically important, particularly for women, the need for people to be able to ‘see’ you in the next role.”

Part of my success comes from my focus on the job: what is this job, how can I be successful in this job, how to do that job in the best possible way. When that got going really well, the next thing was to reach out to look for opportunities to help others.

That ultimately gave me the background, the learning beyond the role. That’s what created the next opportunity. It wasn’t a mindful pursuit. It’s part of the way I’m wired. Then when that next opportunity came along: One, I had a successful track record. Two, I knew more than the role I was in, and people could see me in the next role. That’s critically important, particularly for women, the need for people to be able to “see” you in the next role.At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of women and men who came before, who created an opportunity for us to be successful. This is a continuum. We’re part of this continuum in creating opportunities and the environment for people who come after us to succeed.

Q: How did you prepare yourself for this role?

I’ve been preparing myself for this role my entire life. I’m the oldest daughter of eight children, the second oldest. Very early on, I took on a role—my mother would underscore this—a leadership role in the family. I learned some really important skills—compromise, consensus, how to lead so others will follow. Think about it: of eight children, they didn’t really have to do what I asked them to do. I learned to lead through influence. Persuasion and persistence are really valuable skills. I learned to tolerate conflict, to think about when to interject myself into conflict. There is good healthy conflict, and much of it can be dealt with by the people involved.

I always say my leadership style is leading from the “and” instead of the “or.” So many people define issues in terms of, “We can do this OR we can do that.” In a situation where you want to create strong consensus, you’re looking for the “and.” How can we do this AND that—to create something great?

The other part of the preparation is a really strong set of core values, which again I learned at home. Strong values around integrity, work ethic, and the value of diversity. Some lessons I learned from my dad, who was an advocate and champion of equal rights and civil rights in his day.

“We place a high value on diversity, on the broad spectrum of diversity: diversity of leadership style, diversity of thought and idea, of inclusion. We want to make sure that we have a diverse set of voices in the room.”

These are difficult jumps, so you’ve got to have a strong sense of yourself. It’s equally important to find an organization that’s aligned with your core values. We all make important choices along the way: where we go to school, how we understand the roles we have, and where we choose to work. All of those choices add up to prepare us for our role.

Q: You’re a Leadership California program alumna, Class of 2003. Tell us about your most memorable experiences in the program.

The biggest impression I that I took away was how much potential exists in women. I was already in a significant leadership role when I was in the Leadership California program, but I met so many women in various roles, and saw all of the potential. Here was an incredible group of women with great ideas, ready and able to make a difference. It increased my awareness that I could create an environment that unleashes the potential for everyone.

It was an energizing and inspiring experience for me. I always say that I’m a work in progress. There’s an opportunity to learn and improve ourselves, by just opening ourselves up to others.

I had such a great experience, I became a champion and advocate for the program, working with our head of HR to encourage women in middle management positions to participate in the program.

Q: What are the learning and leadership development opportunities for women at AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah?

We’re very proud of the work we do around leadership development, diversity and inclusion. The outcome we’re looking for is that these are integrated, that they are just part of the way we do business. Programs are important, but ultimately, the measure of success is in who we are and the way we do business.

We have a very active and strong Talent Management and Succession Planning Program across all management levels in the organization. We look at leadership characteristics, along performance as well as values. We look to identify high potential future leaders in the organization, and with that awareness, ensure that we are giving them opportunity, whether that’s potential for promotion or broadening their skills. The entire leadership team is committed to this.

We also have Employee Resource Groups that provide support and personal development opportunities, as well as leadership development. The group for women is called the Women’s Initiative Network. There’s also a group for Asian Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, African Americans, and others.

We place a high value on diversity, on the broad spectrum of diversity: diversity of leadership style, diversity of thought and idea, of inclusion. We want to make sure that we have a diverse set of voices in the room to be part of the decision-making process.

We also want to connect diversity to our success in the marketplace. That is the role of our Regional Diversity Councils. They can tap the Employee Resource Groups and others, to ensure that we’re bringing our understanding of diverse communities to growing our business. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. Then you begin embedding this idea: this is just who we are and the way we do business. You have a direct linkage between the organization’s values around diversity and inclusion and the success of the business.

We’re making great progress. If we look at some of our results in the organization, we have been very successful, growing and profitable. As we look at women in the organization, of 6,000 employees, 58% are women, and 41% of our female employees are women of color. Both our Board chair and vice-chair are women. We have a very diverse board that’s representative of the membership and where we do business. Of course on our top leadership team, in addition to me, there are women in key senior roles, heading up our people and performance and general counsel. I think the results, by way of corporate performance, and the role of women in the organization, speaks to the success of taking this integrated approach.

Q: What is the key message that you would like to convey to our diverse group of women leaders?

My message is the power of diversity, in the broadest sense. Diversity of opinion, diversity of gender, ethnic diversity, diversity of leadership style. I’m proud that both in our organization and on the top executive team here, we have all of that. It makes it a better place to work, it’s good for business and we can see it in our own results as a very successful organization. My core message is around the strength of diversity, toward achieving a better society as well as a strong business.

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CONGRATULATIONS! PAULA, we all are so proud of you. At a time in our country when we are besieged by persons in the world of business driven by greed to a fault and by those who decry and ridicule diversity in our lives, you are a shining example of decency, ethical business practices, and brilliance. What a joy to read that you are being honored for all of this.


Well done Paula! An excellent interview that cleary shows how well you balance a great business sense with ethical regard, a difficult and admirable achievement.


Thank you for your continued words of encouragement and support. Everything I needed to be a successful person I learned at home. Thank you family!

David McGlinn

From making me peanut butter sandwiches when I was a kid to this…… You are inspiring!

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