Challenges from inside your own company can require you to be powerful.
When Mike Armstrong joined AT&T as CEO years ago, change accelerated at the company. He had inherited an organization that was ill equipped to deal with the competitive threats. Mike began an acquisition phase to add the people and other assets he needed to compete on all fronts. As part of the change, Mike also shifted several executives into new jobs.
When it was my time to meet with Mike, he opened the meeting with news that made me want to shout out loud. “Rick, you’ve done a great job and I think you can do more to help the company. I’d like you to become Global Services President.” I was tasked to lead a 10,000-person organization that generated close to $12 billion in worldwide revenue. I was happy and stunned at the same time.
I knew that leading a Global unit was going to be a challenge, but I had a secret weapon. I had a compass. I knew the key to success was to build a team of Chiefs, but there were many things I could not know.
From outside the company, I couldn’t know that our primary competitor, MCI/Worldcom, was engaged in illegal activities, giving them unfair advantages in the market that would result in their CEO going to jail. From inside the company, I couldn’t know that my biggest challenge would come from my own boss. This is when I learned that my compass would help me deal with “friendly fire.”
Mike needed lots of cash to pay for the acquisitions he wanted to make in the consumer segment of the market. He turned to the business segment for that cash—and our new benchmark for success was Worldcom.
To my boss’s credit, he pushed back on Mike and asked for more reasonable targets and accurately carried the message that Worldcom’s aggressive pricing seemed inconsistent with their quarterly reports of improving revenues and margins. Unfortunately, nobody was listening, and my job in Global was about to get a lot harder.
My first blow came when the business segment was burdened with irrational growth targets and expense cuts that needed to be distributed among the business sub-segments. For reasons known only to my boss, he chose to place a disproportionately high level of the expense cut load—a 50 percent headcount reduction—on Global Services just one month into my new assignment.
Blow number two came shortly after when I learned the company had decided to move some of Global’s largest accounts into a new international joint venture with partner British Telecom. We now needed to convince a number of my Global Service customers, and the employees who served them, that joining this new entity would be preferable to remaining with AT&T.
Blow number three came with a decision to transition account control from Global Services to the separate AT&T Solutions unit for all outsourcing contracts, and I felt like my head was spinning. This new direction would have a major negative impact on my team’s earnings.
Finally, when my boss chose to move smaller Global Service accounts to yet another unit, I felt like a knockout had been delivered. In this case, customers would need to adjust to a reduced level of service and build new relationships with a new group of AT&T leaders, creating a great opportunity for a competitor to step in.
Any one of these adjustments would have been challenging for a unit to absorb. Together, they signaled to the entire organization that Global Services was being taken apart. It did not take long for rumors to start circulating that my boss was behind the effort to dismantle the organization. Everyone was nervous.
How could we succeed and build a team of Chiefs when everyone thought the organization was being taken apart? In Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title I describe what we did to drive record levels of employee engagement in spite of this dire situation, but it was every bit as important for me personally to “keep my head.” And my compass was the key.
Looking back now, the influence and impact I needed to have with my team could only be generated from inside me. Help wasn’t coming from anywhere else. It was the support I provided for my team that kept my influence strong, just as it was the internal and external creativity I demonstrated daily that preserved my ability to have an impact on my team.
To keep me strong, I focused in three areas. To keep my energy high I focused on staying present, increased my daily meditation routine, and worked to accept the situation as it was. To keep my clarity I focused on the vision I had for Global and on the strategy and tactical plans that I could control to realize that strategy. And to keep my confidence, I reminded myself regularly about the values I stood for and took great comfort that I was living them.
At the end of the year, Global Services was indeed split apart, and we did miss the growth targets that had been established for us based on the misinformation of our primary competitor. We did have a large number of our team members select the voluntary force reduction plan and many more follow their clients to units outside of Global.
But employees who remained with Global sent a clear message to senior management by responding to the employee engagement survey that year with the highest engagement and confidence in unit management scores in AT&T history.
And with energy, influence, clarity, confidence, and impact I remained true to myself. I’m grateful for the experience.