Effective Communication Can Build Stronger Trust Between Employees and Leaders, Gary Ludgood AT&T Executive
I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Ludgood, President of Field Operations for AT&T. Gary has had nearly four decades of service with AT&T, where he currently leads a team of 62,000. One of his greatest accomplishments? He has created a commercial business operation in a rural, economically depressed community in his home state of Alabama. This move provides employment opportunities for local residents they may not have otherwise had. He and his family reside in greater Atlanta area, where he is on the board of directors of Zion Baptist Academy and Georgia’s Own Credit Union.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was fresh out of college at Alabama with an electrical engineering degree and an interest in how things work when I joined AT&T 39 years ago. I’ve since grown to lead assignments in planning, engineering, and various network operations roles. I appreciate the mentors I’ve had along the way, and it energizes me to be able to reciprocate and help people fulfill their aspirations.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Over the past four decades, I’ve worked many natural disasters. I was around for hurricanes Hugo, Katrina and many others. And I’m continually struck by how resilient and deeply committed our teams are to serving their communities. When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast last fall, one of our Houston-area managers waded out of his flooded home in neck-deep water. Everything he owned was submerged. Yet, without hesitation, he put his personal loss aside to help colleagues, customers and neighbors. And he wasn’t alone. We consistently have team members during these events who swim to our central offices to get the doors open, use personal boats to rescue others, and house their families in our facilities so they can be on the ground to help restore operations the after the storms pass. No one would ever be asked to do that, but they’re things our team volunteers for. It’s one of the things I find interesting about leading a team of this caliber. You hire people who are smart and passionate. You drill and prepare as much as you can for the unknown. But the individuals on this team always seem to instinctively know what to do, even when circumstances fall outside of a playbook. You can’t pay people to do what they do during these events. They could do so much less and it’d still be above and beyond what’s expected.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
Simply, our people. AT&T is a great place to work, and a central part of that is celebrating our uniqueness as a strength. AT&T people are smart, engaged and fearlessly authentic.
We’re a leader in the corporate world’s journey from tolerance to understanding. We’re moving beyond binary thinking and propelling into the understanding that recognizing visible and invisible diversities is the first step to true inclusion.
AT&T’s recognition in 2017 reflects our story. In the past year alone, we’ve been recognized by a variety of organizations as a best company for diversity, top LGBT-friendly company, top disability-friendly company and as a 50 out front company for diverse and women managers.
This makes us stronger as a company. The more diverse the input is, the better the solutions and the more innovative we are. I’ve worked for this company many years, and I’ve never been part of a group where there wasn’t someone who had the answer.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
We’re embarking on a couple of exciting projects right now.
One is a large, ambitious project to reskill our employees so we can better meet the needs of the future. Learning is no longer an option, it’s a way of life. And in a large organization like ours, this means creating platforms to deliver training, motivating employees to participate and coaching team members on their journey.
Employees have traditionally thought of their careers in terms of their work histories instead of skill sets. Reskilling has given them an opportunity to better understand what their skills are and have a broader view of the business. Some of our best developers pivoted from roles as technicians. They worked in dispatch so they understand the process. The benefits we’ve seen have been significant.
Another project involves aligning our teams in a way that enables us to better serve customers and meet our goals quickly. We call our program CODE, and it all comes back to focusing less on experience and more on skill sets — what are the skills that enable the experience we want to deliver each and every time. CODE is Care about the customer, Own the problems, deliver with confidence and Exceed expectations. Our business is changing very fast and we simply can’t afford to be inefficient. As the needs of our customers change, we must ensure we are eliminating roadblocks and unnecessary handoffs — especially those that result in a poor customer experience. Our program is about living the CODE. This approach promotes more accountability and collaboration, and provides more flexibility in providing opportunities for non-traditional candidates
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
A mere two words: effective communication. Employees need leaders to inform, educate and share. Not only because it enables understanding, but also because it builds trust and credibility. Ongoing communication is key. You can’t overdo it.
I learned this lesson young. I asked my mother why the preacher kept preaching the same sermons repeatedly. She told me, “There are three reasons you keep hearing those sermons. The first is, there’s someone in the congregation who never heard it. The second reason is that they heard it, but aren’t behaving as if they heard it. And the third reason is that they heard it and are behaving like they did, but they need to be reassured that it’s still the right thing to do.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Different people come into your life at different times and meaningfully impact it. When I think about who’s been there every step of the way, it’s my parents. Any measure of sustained success is built on a solid foundation. My parents, more than anyone else, created that for me.
They definitely drove home the importance of a good education and hard work which have been two of the key cornerstones of my career. As a first-generation college graduate who went on to be a teacher, my mother recognized the importance of a good education and made sure I got one. I’m particularly thankful for that. It’s part of what drives my commitment to lifelong learning. My father was in pipeline construction, so I grew up hands on in the field digging ditches, driving trucks and working in dispatch. I see a lot of parallels with what I learned working with him and what I do today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
It’s all about transferring your achievements, knowledge, experiences and progress to others to lift and support them, isn’t it?
Helping others enriches the meaning and purpose of our lives and gives purpose and understanding as to what our true life’s mission is. I found mine in the shrimping industry in rural Alabama. I created a company that raises, harvests, and distributes green shrimp. The company isn’t as much about the product as it is about enabling hardworking locals to earn a living in an economically disadvantaged, rural area. It’s really an investment in people. All profits are put directly back into the company to sustain the effort. I sponsor the company, but my contributions have been modest compared to the dividends I receive knowing the good it’s doing.
Can you share the top five lessons that you have learned from your experience as a “Black Man In Tech”?
It all starts and ends with extending grace.
1. Ensure your work reflects the quality of your character.
2. Share your successes; include others in the achievements.
3. Celebrate your failures as equally as you take pride in your accomplishments.
4. Boldly take the risk as long as you are willing to be accountable for the outcome.
5. Be clear on your objectives, though give your teams discretion on how to obtain the goals. Let them exceed your expectations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Build bridges, not walls.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
One of the more interesting names that fits all of those categories is Shaquille O’Neal. I was a fan of his career as a professional athlete. I’m even more impressed by his transformation into a sound businessman and entertainer.