In the Nation's Interest
2018 Awards Dinner Spotlight: Randall Stephenson
Is there a particular public policy that you believe business leaders are especially well-positioned to make a difference in?
While there are several that come to mind – innovation, education and trade to name a few – the most important is economic growth. Thanks to our customer relationships in the many communities and markets we serve, business leaders have a unique perspective on the health of the economy. And those insights position us to play a constructive role in economic policy.
Last year, we saw a great example of this in the achievement of tax reform. For years, the US economy has been underperforming, and one of the key reasons was our outdated tax code. Economic growth is a function of private sector investment, and the old tax code was a major disincentive to investment.
After many failed attempts to fix this, the U.S. business community came together to help articulate the relationship between tax reform and economic growth. And now that tax reform is the law of the land, the U.S. economy is already realizing the benefits.
Companies have announced increased investment, higher wages and employee bonuses. That includes AT&T, which was the first to announce employee bonuses and a commitment to invest an additional $1 billion in capital this year into our U.S. network.
Has your company spearheaded a philanthropic initiative that you would like to share with CED's Trustees?
One of the biggest challenges business leaders face today is finding enough qualified employees for the jobs they have available. It’s no secret why that is – somewhere along the way, our education system became disconnected from the realities of the modern day workplace.
Shortly after I became chairman, AT&T started a program called AT&T Aspire with the objective to move the needle on education and workforce readiness. Our program goal is to connect students with success by funding proven initiatives and driving innovation in education.
Since 2008, we’ve committed $400 million to Aspire. And beyond dollars, more than 21,000 AT&T employees have provided mentoring and job shadowing to 350,000 students. We’ve found that job-shadowing is effective in drawing the line between what students are learning in the classroom and the skills they’ll need in the workplace.
Which aspects of your company’s culture have made the biggest contribution to its success?
The one that’s had the biggest impact is our strong commitment to diversity and inclusion. We fundamentally believe that the more diverse we are, the stronger we are as a company.
Diversity is all about seeing the world through multiple perspectives, which translates into better insights and solutions. And those insights enable us to move and innovate at the speeds required in today’s economy.
What advice do you have for those who aspire to careers in leadership, or have just started to serve in a leadership capacity?
Here are the traits I look for in building my leadership teams.
First, I look for people who are comfortable with risk. We’re a technology company that is now over 140 years old. That means we have to continually see change before others and move fast to stay ahead. I look for people who have the courage of their convictions to shake up the status quo and help us remain a leader in our businesses.
Second, leaders need to be willing to surround themselves with people smarter than they are. That takes confidence. But building and empowering great teams is a hallmark of effective leaders.
Third, I look at how people handle failure – you can learn a lot about a person that way. The more risks you take, the more likely you are to fail, so scar tissue is a key requirement of being a leader. If you’ve never failed, you just haven’t tried hard enough.
Finally, I seek people of character who will ensure a culture based on shared values and ethics. Character is where great leaders become exceptional leaders. If you don’t have it, you won’t last long at AT&T.