I’m assuming most readers of my blog would believe, as I did, that the president of a $12 billion unit at AT&T—overseeing 10,000 employees and a huge budget—would hold the necessary levels of power and influence to successively drive a transformation and, more importantly, dictate the pace of that change. If you believed that, you’d be wrong. At least, I was.
Upon my promotion, I followed a playbook that had served me well in other turnarounds. Initially, we focused on customers, competitors, costs, and internal communications. But just 30 days into my new job, word came of an unexpected reorganization that would split our unit into three parts. In other words, with one turnaround effort in its infancy, we needed to shed that effort, shift gears, and undertake a new, even more complex initiative.
One of my early challenges was to find a way to personally connect with my employees who increasingly viewed AT&T corporate officers as part of the problem, if not the problem. At the outset, a number of workers stepped up to lead. I call these people Chiefs—those who need little coaxing to embrace change and become fully engaged in such transformational efforts.
Uncertainties of the newly ordered reorganization, however, led many to hold back from stepping up to such critical roles. This was understandable. Some were just plain frustrated by the abrupt shift. To a certain extent, I was too.
To alleviate some of the internal anxieties, AT&T scheduled a number of town hall meetings as forums for frank and open discussion. Not surprisingly, the conversations often became heated. That certainly was the case at a meeting I led in New York City, where I was to unveil details of a new voluntary retirement program.
Things got a bit tense in the Q&A session when an employee asked if I truly understood the impact of losing health care benefits while a family member was battling cancer. From the question, I inferred that most of those in my audience assumed officers—like me—were somehow insulated from the layoffs and voluntary-retirement program. The question provided an opportunity to share a personal vulnerability to illustrate that all AT&T employees—including leaders like me—shared many of their concerns and anxieties.
Although I never hid the fact that I was diabetic, I had never publicly shared that I was a cancer survivor. Years ago, while working at Sperry Corp., my doctor discovered a malignant tumor and recommended immediate surgery. At Sperry and later career stops, I had kept my cancer battle under wraps because I feared it would hold back my career advancement. Other than my boss and assistant, no one in my professional circles knew . . . until that fateful AT&T town hall meeting.
After I addressed the specific question (transition health care insurance would continue to cover his family), I took a risk. You could have heard a pin drop when I revealed, “I am a cancer survivor and know how important health insurance is.”
I deliberately put myself into a vulnerable position as a way to connect with my team. Brené Brown, a sociological research professor and author of the New York Times bestsellers, The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, started a movement that’s changing the way we think about vulnerability. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, by exposing my vulnerability, I was actually being more courageous than muscling though my professional life without opening up about my bout with cancer.
The benefit of openly acknowledging the link between our personal and professional lives is huge. After my “aha moment,” more and more employees began to engage me in conversation. It was clear that the initial animosity I faced as an AT&T officer had eroded. As a result, more of my team members stepped up as leaders in the transformation.
From this experience, I was again reminded that title, position, and authority don’t automatically translate into power and influence. Rather, my vulnerability had made me more powerful and able to effect change. In turn, it boosted the impact and power of my team.
What choices can you make to become more powerful?
(This story was excerpted from Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title, slated for September 2018 publication. Pre-publication book orders can be made on Amazon, starting April 1.)