Vernon H. Stafford, Jr.
EVP/Chief Audit Executive
First Horizon National Corporation
What do you consider your greatest strength, and how do you think it benefits your business?
The ability to read people and situations has served me well in my professional and personal life. As an auditor and former bank regulator, it is, and has been, important that I understand various circumstances and scenarios, and comprehensively discern and assess situations.
Who inspires you? What did they motivate you to achieve or accomplish?
Spiritually, my motivation comes from strong faith in God. Physically and mentally, my inspiration comes from my wonderful wife of 22 years and our children. It is for them that I aspire to do what I do each day. It is for them that I arise at 4:00 a.m. each weekday, to get my day started.
Knowing that they depend on me to provide for them is a huge responsibility. But, it also serves to motivate me to progress each day, no matter what challenges I encounter. The inspiration from my family comes in various forms—for example, as I look into the eyes of my 11-year old who is just coming into her own, but still looks to me as her tender warrior; from my only son, a college sophomore, to whom I serve as an example of an African American male succeeding in a challenging world, while overcoming obstacles and setbacks; or to my 20-year-old daughter, who hopes one day to have a family of her own and sees me as a model for how a husband and father should honor his wife, and provide for and protect his family.
While all that serves as constant pressure to succeed each day, it also serves as tremendous inspiration. It is my family that has kept me motivated and inspires me to never quit on myself, to not succumb to destructive temptations, and to meet head on the challenges I have faced over the years and the challenges I will continue to face.
How do you motivate others?
By sharing the lessons of life that I have learned and lived. By sharing my life experiences and conveying what helped me get through the difficult times in life.
What do you think is the greatest issue or dilemma facing the African American community today?
Not placing education as the most important developmental need is, in my view, the greatest issue facing the African American community today. It is through education that all doors can be opened. If young African American boys and girls would place education as their most important developmental need, it would replace the need to find affiliation through gang association; it would conquer the distractions of the streets and replace them with the occupation of career opportunity.
I am not speaking of only formal academic education, I include team skills learned through athletic education, social skills learned from fraternal organizations, and spiritual development attained through faith-based organizations. If young African American boys and girls pursued education more, not only would it provide crucial life skills, career options, and greater self-esteem, it would help them see the value of the family structure, and the importance of promoting and participating productively in the family. It would also help them see the devastating effects the erosion of the family structure has on the African American community, and all communities.
How do you give back to the African American community?
I give back to the African American community by lending my talent, and donating my time and financial resources. Throughout my life, I have served in organizations with missions designed to mentor, educate, and inspire African American youth. Through church affiliations, I have interacted with African American youths to provide spiritual nurturing, as well as life skills. I currently serve as a member of a leadership development team working with high school youth in the Shelby County Schools system.
What’s the most important lesson you have learned in the course of your career?
Perseverance! I have learned that life can often be challenging. While we do our best by planning for the future and preparing ourselves for challenges, at times, events can present circumstances that are not anticipated, not sufficiently mitigated, or for which there is no immediate resolution. Such times can seem overwhelming. But we must have strong personal resolve to navigate through the storm and stand firm until resolution comes about. While in the midst of those personal storms, it is important not to sit and brood, but to remain ever engaged, always thinking and preparing for the next opportunity. However, I recognize that the necessary personal resolve to stand firm is difficult when left to our own power. Over the years, I have benefitted from spiritual strength I receive through my strong faith in, and relationship with, God.
What advice would you give to someone just beginning his or her career?
Study intently people who have been successful, have frequent conversations with them, and learn what they’ve done to become successful. Also, develop an extensive and diverse professional network. Many times, people make the mistake of trying to go it alone, fearing that asking for assistance or reaching out is a sign of weakness or incompetence. In fact, it is the opposite. The most successful people in life have a vast and diverse network, and they frequently invite assistance.
What is your favorite quote, and why?
I have several favorite quotes, but one that is particularly meaningful to me, and seems to fit the theme of Black History Month and the discussion above, is from a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass in August 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
While that speech focused on the oppression of slavery, the words ring true today, and can apply to any area in which we want to progress. As Douglass said in 1857, “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions…have been born of earnest struggle…Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
To achieve success in life, there must be a struggle or there is no true progress. The African American community, the youth in particular, must understand that nothing worth having comes free. We must work hard to earn success in life. That means putting in the time necessary to study lessons, learn the subject matter, gain the knowledge, apply the lessons learned, withstand the setbacks, persevere, and achieve success!