Women in Business Q&A: Jan Jones Blackhurst, VP of Communications, Gov Relations and Corporate Responsibility, Caesars Entertainment

Jan Jones Blackhurst is Executive Vice President of Communications, Government Relations and Corporate Responsibility for Caesars Entertainment. In this capacity, she oversees all worldwide government affairs, corporate communications, community relations and corporate-social responsibility programs for the entire company. Those programs include industry-leading responsible-gaming systems and its various initiatives aimed at enhancing diversity, contributing to charitable causes, and promoting environmental stewardship companywide.

Prior to joining Caesars in November 1999, Jones Blackhurst served two terms as Mayor of the City of Las Vegas. She was the city’s first woman chief executive and among the most popular mayors in the city’s history, having been reelected in 1995 by a 72 percent margin. While in office, Jones Blackhurst presided over an unprecedented period of economic, social and cultural expansion, one in which the city’s population increased 66 percent. She spearheaded a massive growth and redevelopment effort in the city’s once-neglected downtown neighborhood and played a pivotal role in conceiving, and promoting investment in the $70 million Fremont Street Experience among numerous other capital projects. Jan was also the first mayor in Nevada and among the first in the country to advocate for LGBT rights and issues back in 1991.

Today, she serves on the board of directors and nominating committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the board of directors of Nevada Public Radio. She is also a member of the Human Rights Campaign’s Federal Club and in 2012 she was appointed the Vice-Chair of the Clark County Public Education Foundation. In September 2014, Jan Jones Blackhurst was inducted into the American Gaming Association (AGA) Gaming Hall of Fame for her numerous contributions to the gaming industry, including developing a number of initiatives aimed at enhancing diversity and promoting environmental stewardship throughout Caesars Entertainment.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The real variety of my life experience – from education to business, politics, philanthropy and sitting on boards – has taught me a diverse set of skills. I was raised doing community work, and then went to Stanford, where there weren’t a lot of mentors for women in the late 60s/early 70s. Out of school I had the unique opportunity to go to work for a chain of steakhouses that was expanding. The CEO hand-picked me to be his go to person. I started doing the accounting, then I took over all the employee training and management training programs. Then he empowered me to become the lead on finding new locations and opening new restaurants. The opportunity to learn different skills gave me the confidence with every other job I’ve gone into that I could find the right way to be impactful and move myself into a position of leadership.

I went from working with restaurants and wineries to working with my family’s retail business to coming to Las Vegas and taking a role with my husband’s car business. That led into politics where leadership takes on a broader role. The time I spent in politics, in office as mayor of Las Vegas, is where I learned the power of really unifying people around a concept. You can lead because you have a title, you can lead because you have a calling, or you can lead because you have a charismatic skill that allow you to move people.

Mostly I’ve always been willing to take risks. If my instincts tell me there’s a direction that’s the right way to go, I try to not let my intellect and the counsel around me exert too much influence so that it clouds my vision, because when that happens, you don’t move.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Caesars Entertainment?
When I started at Caesars it was Harrah’s, so my first opportunity was to rebrand. I looked at who made up our management team at that time and what was unique about it. It was comprised of business professionals from Harvard, Stanford, Duke. We were really known for our data analytics and rewards program, so I began to position the business as a really smart company with extremely high integrity. Part of this work led to launching our Code of Conduct, which was an industry first. We still operate by the Code today.

Most gaming companies grow from within – there’s a sense that the only way to understand the business is to grow up in it. But this company took a different approach by hiring the best and the brightest. So it allowed me to tell a story about a company that was really different. All my various positions have afforded me the opportunity to change the story, to elucidate, to take the company and the story in a different direction.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Caesars Entertainment?
The highlight has been watching the company go from a $1.5b company to a $10b company. And putting together a team of people who really took corporate philanthropy to a whole new level. In my department, when we first created our diversity initiative, we put in place something uniquely different that spoke about inclusion and made diversity a best practice and a business principle, not a compliance initiative. We’ve learned how to use corporate philanthropy to lead – not just give – but to lead and raise awareness around an issue.

For example, we were one of the first organizations to make seniors a strategic focus. We made the Alzheimer’s Foundation a partner and gave a grant to the Cleveland Clinic to hire research doctors who will work exclusively on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. We partnered with Meals on Wheels and have given them over 50 vans over the last decade and a half. We partnered with AARP in their quest to end senior hunger.

The opportunities that were given to me – and that you’re allowed to take advantage of from this platform – are just extraordinary. We can really make a difference in the communities in which we operate by aligning our collective force around an initiative. It’s not just about the money you give, it’s the partners and stakeholders, aligning employees and the workforce, communication inwards and outwards… pretty soon you’ve created a movement because people really care about the outcome.

Challenges? I’ve managed the aftermath of major weather events like tsunamis and hurricanes Katrina and Rita, after which we continued to pay and provide healthcare to our employees in the impacted areas for at least three months. I’ve witnessed a shootout of rival Hells Angels gangs. More recently, managing our leveraged buy-out and managing the messaging around our debt has been a significant challenge.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in your industry?
I see one of my roles as trying to change the corporate ethos, helping corporations understand that if they’re really going to harness innovative thinking, they have to have women at the table in very high level positions. Women bring a different perspective, it’s complementary, and if it’s not there you’re never going to be able to achieve at the highest levels. Anyone who thinks going into the next millennium that you’re going to be able to manage these large businesses without some fairly equal representation of high level women is missing the opportunity to really be successful.
My advice, which I’d offer equally to both men and women, is to remember that ultimately leadership is about three things. One, take risks – leadership is about not being able to afraid to use your voice, and even if there’s a consequence, because the position can be more important than the outcome. Two, it’s about building consensus and aligning common interests. And three, it’s about inspiration. If you really believe in something and are passionate about it, you can instill that into your organization and your colleagues. Soon they will share your enthusiasm and maybe you can change the corporate world or the larger community, or can right societal wrongs.
It’s really important for women to lead because the more you see us lead, the more you institutionalize the concept of women as leaders.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
There is no such thing as work life balance. If you’re a mother you’re always going to feel guilty. Your husband will not necessarily, but you will. And that’s okay. You have to give as much time as you can to all elements without being too hard on yourself or impractical. I also think companies need to look at their cultures to allow women to find the best balance possible. There are things that the business community can do to make it easier – flex hours, where people work, how they work. The quality of the brainpower that you’re putting against an issue is much more important than saying,”we all work from 9 – 7.” Hold me accountable, but let me work it in a way that actually reduces my stress so you’re getting my best thinking.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The balance between children and work, particularly when you’re really driven. I was once on vacation and saw what seemed to me to be the “perfect family” – mom, dad, three well-behaved kids. I suddenly felt so awful so I texted my kids to apologize for not being around more while they were growing up. Literally within 30 seconds they all wrote back and said “Are you kidding? We loved our life!” It reminded me that working women are also role models! When I was elected mayor of Las Vegas, for so many women in Nevada, as well as for some men, it sent a whole new message: you can achieve by aspiring to achieve. Education matters. Gender doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t matter. Leadership is not gender specific. You know, sometimes it’s opening the eyes that open the door. Sometimes if you believe the door will open you approach it in a whole new way.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship is invaluable. Sometimes, particularly when you’re new, having someone who is willing to take the time to give you their perspective and observation, sometimes just the conversation makes a difference. Sometimes the way they will network you into another group of people changes how you will approach a solution. It’s about having someone who you trust to take things to them, ask their advice, ask their counsel without fear, and having them say “run with it.” The best mentors are people who encourage you to go out and try, knowing that you will learn no matter what. The best mentors are going to allow you to feel safe enough to experiment and then explain what to do differently.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Hillary Clinton is unbelievable as a leader, especially her perseverance and determination to move her leadership position forward. I admire Arianna Huffington, and I love Tina Fey. Also Elaine Wynn – if you really look at what has made Steve Wynn a powerhouse in the gaming industry, a lot of that is a result of Elaine Wynn’s vision and perspective, and her ability to engage her workforce.

What do you want Caesars Entertainment to accomplish in the next year?
I first want Caesars to work its way through the restructuring of debt, and then I’d like to really re-engage with a lot of the CSR work we’ve done for so long. I am so proud of how we’ve used our platform to create positive change – supporting seniors, advancing legislation to allow domestic partner benefits, writing op eds in support of immigration policy, filing briefs in support of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, developing a remarkable and high impact partnership with Clean the World. It’s really important that we continue to not just talk the talk but walk the walk on these critical issues. I think corporations can really change the way America thinks and governs if you’re willing to use your voice.