Leading from the Head — And the Heart

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Q&A with Tami Erwin, CEO, Verizon Business

As Tami Erwin hosts a panel, titled Women in Business, with five women from the world of media, she is poised and passionate. Sitting contemplatively at her desk wearing a bold animal-print jacket, she considers a statement made by panelist Shelley Zallis, CEO of the Female Quotient, who notes that corporate rules were written by men for men. Tami is resolute in her reflection that women are facing a bigger impact during the Coronavirus pandemic because, even while sharing the professional burden with male partners, we largely carry most of the domestic burden too.

The Women in Business episode that Erwin hosted, bringing together women in media, is the first in a series of videos hosted on CircleAround that brings together women professionals. Given her more than 20 years in executive leadership at Verizon, Erwin is well placed to  helm this leadership series. In her role as Verizon Business CEO, Erwin and her team are used to helping women small business owners pivot during crises: her team helps deliver mission-critical solutions to businesses worldwide. Erwin sees her role as connecting businesses, governments, and communities to the global economy with intelligent-edge solutions and helping them prepare for digital transformation, innovation, and accelerated growth in the 5G era.

Prior to being named CEO of Verizon Business Group, Erwin played a crucial role in the evolution and growth of Verizon’s wireline and wireless business segments. She was the Chief Operating Officer for Verizon Wireless, and led Verizon Fios. Earlier in her career, she was Chief Marketing Officer of Verizon Wireless.

As a leading executive at one of the world’s largest companies — one that operates America’s most reliable wireless network and premier all-fiber network — Erwin is also well-situated to help women looking up at the C Suite. Assisting women move up the corporate ladder is actually a passion of hers: she is a champion of both development and engagement programs for women in business and of investment in STEM programs for students. She was the executive sponsor of Women of Wireless, the employee development program that, due to its success, broadened into the global Women of the World initiative. The seven-month program inspires and advances Verizon’s future female leaders by developing self-leadership, effective communication, critical thinking, career ownership, and personal brand. 

CircleAround caught up with Erwin to get her perspective on a variety of topics, from navigating the pandemic to working with Billie Eilish to leading from the heart.

CircleAroundWho has most inspired you during this pandemic, in terms of meeting the moment with grace and resolve?

Tami ErwinAt Verizon, we say we run to a crisis. And no one is running to a crisis more than teachers and first responders during this time. Perhaps that’s why I’m so passionate about the work they do, because I was always taught to help people when you are in a position to do so.

For me, both the medical and teaching professionals run deep in my DNA. My grandmother and daughter were teachers, and my father was a doctor. I learned so much from them, especially when it comes to the power of empathy and compassion.

"At Verizon, we say we run to a crisis. And no one is running to a crisis more than teachers and first responders during this time. Perhaps that’s why I’m so passionate about the work they do, because I was always taught to help people when you are in a position to do so."

We recently partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District to help bridge the digital divide and enable distance learning for more than 120,000 students. In addition, our recent partnership with the Georgia Department of Education will enable distance learning for 12.5+ million students [in Georgia and 10 neighboring states]. Overall, our nationwide initiative to keep students, teachers, and schools connected is helping up to 44 million students across 30 states.

CAWhy is it important to amplify and assist small businesses during this crisis?

TEWhen we talk about helping those in need, we can’t have that conversation without talking about small business owners, who have been hit extremely hard during this time. In March, we launched Pay It Forward Live, a concert series that raised funds for small businesses. Thus far, the program has had 90+ million views, and featured artists such as Alicia Keys, Dave Matthews, Billie Eilish, and Usher. By June, we had provided over 700 small businesses (primarily minority and women-owned) with $7.5 million grants, in partnership with LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corp.), and launched a free Small Business Webinar series, which currently has over 20 webinars to date and over 36,000 views.

As we continue to live with COVID, we’ve also started to realize that small businesses are going to need more help as they look to respond and rebound. That’s why we launched Comeback Coach, a comprehensive resource hub for small businesses, and the Women in Business mentorship program, which launched in early July to help women in business, particularly women entrepreneurs and small business owners, navigate their lives and careers through this pandemic. This effort is near to my heart, as I know firsthand how crucial mentorship and sponsorship has been to my own success. 

CAWhat are key takeaways of how to support women leaders, specifically, engage with this “new normal” pandemic working world?

TEI often say that women leaders are better suited to manage a crisis. Women are more trusted during a crisis, exhibit stronger relational behaviors that help build and restore trust, and have that all-important ability to reframe a problem to reduce emotional impact. 

Those leadership traits are needed more today than ever, and especially when you’re managing a remote workforce. By nature, I’m a field person — I love nothing more than being on the road and with my team. What I’ve realized is that I can still achieve those same connections, but how I do it has dramatically changed.

The tools we use, the structure of meetings, virtual meet-ups and recognition. It’s all about keeping an effective, efficient, and motivated workforce. At the same time, you have to ensure that employees are still able to provide best-in-class services, products, and solutions to customers. 

And then there’s the question of balancing personal and professional. Think about it: over the past six months, we’ve spent more time in our employees’ and customers’ home than we ever could have imagined. And what I’ve realized is that when I say your health and safety matters most to me, that means the full meaning of health and safety. Remote work doesn’t just mean we’re working at home. It means we’re living at work. And that has taken a great toll on people’s mental health, as much as their physical health. I think most women I know are instinctively nurturers, and as leaders of a workforce, the most important thing leaders can do is nurture and care for their employees. 

Recently, as we held our first Women in Business event — partnering with CircleAround for the Women in Media video panel — we discussed how women are navigating life and work in this new normal. The most important thing women can do right now is openly talk about obstacles and reach to our right, and reach to our left, and say, “I need some help!”

CAIt was a great moment when, during that panel, you noted that it has taken a long time for women to feel able to speak about the obstacles that exist in the corporate space and feel empowered to call it out and strive to change the status quo. As EVP and CEO of Verizon Business, what is a common thread that you see women entrepreneurs face?

TEI think women are facing some really unique obstacles as we think about COVID and the impact on families. In my experience, I think the majority of caregiving roles still predominantly fall on women. What we are seeing now in this new normal is women really struggling more than ever to devote the time they once had to their careers and vice versa, in this work-from-home environment. This is a real challenge. 

Most recently, I have seen entrepreneurs, both men and women, rethinking how they reach their customers. At the start of the pandemic, more than 60 percent of small businesses did not have a digital front door. When they had to close their doors, that meant they were closed entirely. It’s been inspiring to help so many businesses accelerate their digital transformations not only to deal with COVID, but to set themselves up for the future.

CAWhat key tools and/or resources can women entrepreneurs utilize to keep their businesses thriving?

TEWe offer a deep bench of programs and resources devoted and designed specifically to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Comeback Coach, our Small Business Webinar series, and Women in Business programs are a few of our recent efforts.

As far as solutions designed to help entrepreneurs overcome recent obstacles, they are many. Our BlueJeans Video Conference Tool enables businesses to easily and securely hold live video calls, webinars, conference calls, and online meetings in the new remote norm. One Talk Calling Service is a mobile-first communication solution that allows small businesses to work more efficiently, from anywhere. Our Verizon Business Security Suite provides critical services and technology solutions for small businesses to help protect themselves from threats. Key security solutions include the free Verizon Business Risk Assessment Tool, MDM (Mobile Device Management), and Business Internet Secure.

And remember that stat about a digital front door? Yahoo Small Business, part of our portfolio of products, is offering a one-year free subscription to BusinessMaker, a platform that helps small businesses and aspiring business owners start, run, and grow their business with the ability to create business plans, form a legal business entity, establish an online presence, and collect payments — all from a single platform.

CAWhat were the typical problems that you observed among your customers, pre-pandemic?

TEPrior to the pandemic, many small business owners had not yet embraced the digital transformation. It was a nice have but not a must have. Most challenges had to do with scaling, moving businesses to the cloud, and ineffective marketing and promotion. 

Let’s take ineffective marketing and promotion. Our Localworks Small Business Dashboard addresses this very issue. Localworks is an online self-service dashboard that allows a small business owner to submit business-listing information to more than 70 online directories, so a business can be found whether customers are using voice assistants, search engines, navigation or GPS systems, or social networks. It enables business owners to promote timely deals and offers, edit listings, track listing performance, analyze key business-reputation information, and respond to customer ratings and reviews.

CAWhat surprising positives have been evident during the pandemic?

TEOne of the hardest things for me during this time is not being able to spend time with my team and customers in person. However, what I’ve found is that connecting with them virtually has enabled more frequent communication and given me the opportunity to get to know so many more members of my team on a more personal level. Over the last five months, our employees have invited us into their homes and that’s been a phenomenal thing. I’ve met more kids, grandparents, and dogs than I ever would have otherwise. At the same time, we have to be mindful and respectful of the fact that you are in someone’s home and that previous separation from the office doesn’t exist.

"I often say that women leaders are better suited to manage a crisis. Women are more trusted during a crisis, exhibit stronger relational behaviors that help build and restore trust, and have that all-important ability to reframe a problem to reduce emotional impact."

Another positive result of the pandemic is how well our network performed and how quickly we were able to serve our customers during this unprecedented time. Verizon experienced massive changes in customer usage as tens of millions of people and students transitioned to working and learning from home. We handled more than 10.3 trillion megabytes of data during the first 90 days of the pandemic. We saw peak usage of 10x a normal pre-COVID day in collaboration tools, and an 81% increase in use of VPN connections. We handled upwards of 800 million wireless calls per day and over nine billion texts. To meet these usage spikes, geographical shifts, and changes in demand, we added and reallocated network resources quickly, while also responding to the needs of first responders with mobile assets.

CAHow would you define corporate social responsibility as it relates to crises or important cultural shifts, like the pandemic or the current movement for social justice? What are corporations’ social responsibilities?

TETo me, corporate social responsibility is taking action as a corporation when you see something that is wrong. Whether it’s for social justice or the pandemic, it’s our role as organizations and as members of this society to stand up against injustice. It’s also our role to listen and admit when we have taken the wrong course.

Our CEO Hans Vestberg has been very direct and open about our company’s stance on this. He recently commented that “Verizon is fiercely committed to diversity and inclusion across all spectrums because it makes us and the world better. I am hopeful that the rest of the country will come to understand that valuing everyone equally is the best way forward. We cannot commit to a brand purpose of moving the world forward unless we are committed to helping ensure we move it forward for everyone.” The Verizon Foundation has committed $10 million to various social justice organizations.

CAYou’ve had an incredibly successful career. What advice can you offer women looking for tips from the executive suite?

TELearn to deliver results and deliver them consistently. Invite others to be a part of your success. Value people and their contributions. When you go from an Individual Contributor to a manager and a leader, there is a shift that needs to happen, where you are creating an environment that enables others to be successful, not just yourself. That shift is key to the success of an effective leader. 

CAWhat are the kinds of challenges women might encounter more of as they climb even higher on the corporate ladder?

TEOne challenge that women face as they rise through the ranks is that there are less women in positions of leadership than men. When women get there, there is less support from women. We need to be aware of that and figure out how to change it. One thing we can do is sponsor and mentor other women. Support and raise up the next generation of women leaders.

CAWhy is servant leadership so important?

TEThe very definition of servant leadership is the idea that a leader's main purpose is to serve. It’s my belief that our role as leaders is to help members on our team imagine their future. So many times, we are too busy doing what’s in front of us, that we forget where we are going. It’s our responsibility to help members on our team realize what their North Star is. And, hopefully, their North Star aligns with the organization’s. 

It’s our role to make sure our employees are doing well and have what they need to succeed. My philosophy has always been if you take care of your employees, they will take care of the business. I try to lead not only from the head, but also with the heart.

Tags: Navigating the Pandemic, Tips from Women Executives, Overcoming Adversity

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Poppie Mphuthing

Poppie Mphuthing is a news and digital media professional. She is well versed in reporti... See Full Bio

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