Strive for Results, Not for the Accolades

This interview with John Donovan, chief technology officer at AT&T, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. What were some early leadership lessons for you?

A. There are certain characteristics that give people a start — and for me, I remember starting to use them when I was named captain of my hockey team. I think

after that it becomes practice. I think those characteristics are the ability to set a framework that makes sense to people, and being articulate. You can look at the landscape, characterize it and set a framework for action, then be able to articulate it clearly. You have to have antennas for picking out what’s really important.

So you have to have those basic skills and be a good pattern recognizer. I was always good at those problems where you go “two, four, six, eight, what’s next?” And you start to put those skills together and then, like anything else, you get better with practice.

That said, if there’s a situation where someone else needs to lead, and it’s working, that is A-O.K. I don’t feel a burning need to be in charge, and I don’t feel that it’s a bad thing to follow when the right things are getting done. So in some respects, I don’t have the innate drive that certain people have about control and ownership and leadership. When I left Silicon Valley, a lot of people bet me that I wouldn’t last at AT&T. They figured that because I’d been a C.E.O. before, I couldn’t go work at a big company where you have bosses, and you don’t control everything.

It really isn’t even a consideration for me. I just derive great satisfaction from a well-played plan. As a matter of fact, I have an aversion to situations where credit is showered upon leaders. Those don’t sit easily with me. Maybe that’s because I was one of 11 kids in our family. I love engaging, but I don’t like the compliments, with somebody saying, “Hey, great job.”

Q. Other lessons?

A. The first thing I noticed very quickly early on was that hard work is central to what you do, and that’s not any magic or science. I said, “Well, if I start today, and I outwork everybody, then the only question is the starting point.” So I figured that if I work really hard I can be in the top 5 percent in any field. It just gave me some comfort to say, O.K., I’m going to do fine financially, so I shouldn’t make decisions based on money. My objective should be to gain the broadest set of experiences I can, and just try to drill deep everywhere I can. And so I played the game for breadth. Early in my career, I bought businesses, fixed them and sold them. Some went well; some didn’t. I did some home development. I was in sales. I went back to business school.

A lot of people work hard to get ahead, and I recognized early on that it’s a differentiator. I just figured that there was a certain amount of this that’s just raw tonnage.

Q. What else?

A. I worked at Deloitte, and became a partner there. That’s probably where a lot of my development occurred as a leader. There were simple things around teams. I developed team skills because I started to engage in deliberate deflection of credit in an environment where it was all about credits. What I started realizing is that people appreciated when you played for the result, and not for your role on the team. So I learned there that giving credit away, deflecting credit, was an effective thing to do. I think I learned a lot of subtleties about teams and how you assemble teams.

Q. Can you share some more insights on that?

A. If you figure there’s a karma pool out there floating around for credits, you have to stop playing for credits. I remember the day I realized that, and that I probably never again needed to involve scorekeeping in anything that I did.

Q. What are some questions you ask when you’re interviewing job candidates?

A. I always ask questions about what words people would want on their tombstone. So I’ll ask, “If your professional colleagues were going to put three words on your tombstone — I mean literally three — what would those three words be?” And then the follow-up question is always the one that surprises people. I will then ask, “Instead of three, what’s the one word?”

I’ve tried to assemble teams with people who were grounded enough, and comfortable enough, to be able to have these kinds of conversations. When you find people who have that sort of grounding, then it can be about the problem you’re working to solve together, and not about the person.

The leadership part for me now is so much more about game planning than about the role that I play in the game plan. I love the opportunity to take a role that I had and give it away to another team member, and the team result is as good or better. I sort of see myself over time as needing to play the game less, but I’m becoming better at getting even better results by that combination of the right framework and the right people in the right positions.

Q. Back to your tombstone question. What’s the one word for you?

A. When I was young, the one word for me was “smart.” I wanted it to be “leadership.” I wanted it to be “inspirational.” But it was smart, and smart is an individual, lonely thing. When you get it on a tombstone, it feels like an island. I’d like to say that it’s “wise” today, but I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished that yet.

Q. The other two words?

A. I do think they would be “inspirational,” and “leader.” I’m proud that I can inspire people. I think there are a lot of people I’ve worked with who have burned extra oil, but I don’t think at the end of the day that inspiration is measured in terms of me getting more from them. I think it’s about a better result that we can all share in.

Q. How did you make the transition to a big company like AT&T?

A. So when I came to AT&T, I was standing on the shoulders of giants in the industry. I was going in to lead a group that, frankly, I wouldn’t have been qualified enough to join as a junior person.

But let me start with the process I went through. I went to my direct reports and I said I want the 16 smartest people in the technology organization. It’s not about titles. I don’t want any diplomats. I don’t want any process people. And I called them the Tech Council. I still have it today, almost four years later. I rotate people in and out. I gave them several hours a month. Rules of the road are that you’re not allowed to report back to anybody you work for — what is said in this room stays in this room.

We then started with a list of all the things that were broken, stupid, idiotic, what’s killing innovation, from 16 really bright people who were willing and able to tell you the truth. And if you look at some of the things that we’ve done in our innovation program, a lot of the seeds were born in that room. And so we built a profile that started with the ugly truth, and that’s kind of where we had to start from.

When I came in, I was led to believe that we would have an innovation problem. And I learned very quickly that we did have an innovation problem, but we didn’t have an invention problem — and that’s important.

Q. Can you elaborate?

A. If you’re going to build a car and you have no blueprint, and you have no factory, that’s a different place to start than if you go in your garage and you turn the lights on and there’s everything that you need to build a Ferrari. It just isn’t assembled. That’s a very different world. So I very quickly started to tell people that we’re close. We have inventions. Most companies don’t have that.

So I realized that this was going to be much simpler than I originally thought walking in. You have all these brilliant people inventing. So I started just by telling folks that’s an important distinction. We have invention.

Q. Parse the distinction for me a bit more.

A. I would describe innovation as invention with a customer at the other end. When it becomes a relationship that’s consummated with a commercial transaction, then that’s an innovation. That adoption part of it was where we were not good. But the invention was there.

So I did a diagnosis. The 16 folks who were with me gave me a million reasons to explain why we couldn’t innovate, it’s just simply impossible. So then we spent hours and hours just breaking the problem down. Then we said, let’s start an innovation program in this room. And we started our “crowdsourcing” plan in that room.

Q. Tell me more about that.

A. It starts with the fact that we’re too kind of an organization, so no one stands up and says, “Your ideas are lousy.” So we have this culture of really nice people, and it’s nurturing. And there’s a convenient place to blame if I don’t want to tell you your idea isn’t any good — I just blame it on the people upstairs, and I say that they don’t like it.

So I said, let’s start with some tabletop exercises. Each of us brought six ideas into the room. So we had 96 ideas. Everybody presents their ideas, and then we voted on them, and chose the top two that were going to get funded. And then we knocked down every hurdle to get those two ideas into their final form and into a funding process.

Today, that idea has been expanded to an online site, with 104,000 people who are on the innovation pipeline, as we call it. It generates thousands of ideas. Then people vote on them, like in social media — thumbs-up, thumbs-down — and it’s invisible who voted. Why? Because, culturally, people don’t want to call other people out. So then you move to the collaboration phase, where you need comments, and comments are not without attribution. We thought about it, and decided that you have to be accountable when you use words.

And so it doesn’t feel like a big company anymore. Somebody might say that an idea is impractical because it would be really expensive, but then someone says, wait a minute, what about trying this? So the group comes together and they solve the problem.

What happens in that second phase is that you earn a certain amount of currency, fake currency, for playing the game. If you vote up and vote down, and you’re pretty good — meaning that your down votes are on stuff that went down, and your up votes are on stuff that went up — you can earn more. Then you earn points for being a good collaborator.

Then, at the end of every quarter, people “invest” in these ideas, and there’s a stock value that’s placed on them. They’re placed on the potential leader board. And then on the leader board, people invest in them and the ideas get voted up to the top. The top 10 move on to the next phase for potential funding. People then pitch the ideas to an angel committee — we only give them 20 minutes — and then on the spot we decide to fund it or not. But this time it’s real money.

So we’ve had more than 15,000 ideas generated. We have 45 of them we funded, with tens of millions of dollars that have been invested. Products are now hitting the marketplace. It’s become so popular that executives are throwing problems out to the crowd, like instead of spending $1 million with a professional branding firm, they’ll offer a trip for two to Hawaii to the person who comes up with the best idea.

If you look at this process, it’s designed around the idea of venture capital, because I had the experience coming out of that world on how things get funded. It also uses social media to solve this perceived problem that there’s some corporate machinery that kills ideas. Now it’s your peers, and good ideas ultimately get funded with real money.

At the end of every quarter there are prizes — real money — for the people who have made the most contributions. You get a bonus for this, and you get a bonus for that. We already have about 50 patents that have come out of it. It’s an amazing environment, and it was built by those 16 people in that room. It started as a paper exercise, and all we did is we digitally removed real cultural barriers by thinking through how we can use technology to solve that problem.


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