“Sharing Vulnerabilities Can Be The Key To Building A Stronger Team” With David Huntley, Senior EVP at AT&T
I had the pleasure of interviewing David Huntley. In his role as Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer at AT&T Inc., he’s responsible for the policies that safeguard the privacy of customer and employee information, verifying legal and regulatory compliance in every country and jurisdiction in which AT&T operates, and ensuring adherence with internal compliance requirements.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Thank you for the opportunity to share a bit of my personal story. I grew up in San Antonio, TX in a very supportive household where my father was the chauffeur to a wealthy family and my mother was a homemaker. The values they instilled in me set me on a path to obtaining my bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and my law degree from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York. I joined AT&T in the early ’90s as an attorney. After a few years in the Legal department, I was offered opportunities to hold leadership positions in different areas of the business. These broad experiences were critical to propelling me to my current position as Chief Compliance Officer. In this role, I report directly to the CEO and meet independently with AT&T’s Board of Directors.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Since taking on the role as Chief Compliance Officer, I’ve travelled across the globe to meet employees, regulators and government officials. Each experience has created unique memories. In Mexico, I met with employees and recognized one of their own for turning down a significant bribe from a competitor. When I handed him his certificate, the room erupted with employees leaping to their feet in adulation. It was as if everyone in the room suddenly realized they could say “no” to bad actors and just do their jobs the right way. It was quite a remarkable sight to see. When I travelled to Europe, I spent my first day there meeting with regulators … getting grilled because the concept of my role as Chief Compliance Officer, and one that reports the CEO and Board of Directors, was foreign to them.
As the day of meetings wrapped, I was relieved to finally be heading to dinner. Only then did the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union approach me to ask what I would be speaking about at dinner. This was news to me. Always prepared, I spoke about trust. Its importance and the impact it can have. I explained how companies and regulators should work together. Instead of the regulators creating rules in a vacuum, they should work with companies at the onset to ensure the final product benefits all … businesses and consumers. The hunger from others to hear more from me literally left me hungry. The questions were coming in at such a rapid pace, I couldn’t find enough time to lift my own fork. This caused a somewhat awkward scene when the attending waiter tried to take my full plate of food away. I had flown in overnight and was operating on just a few hours of sleep. I was going to eat that food.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
For more than 140 years, we’ve been revolutionizing the way people communicate with each other. It’s a history we’re proud of, but one that wouldn’t exist if we weren’t committed to acting with integrity in everything we do. When you act with personal integrity, it reveals your true character. This is best summed up in a phrase penned by Arthur Page, a former VP of public relations at AT&T who’s considered by many to be the father of modern public relations. It says, “A company’s true character is expressed by its people.” This is as true today as it was when it was written in 1928. See, AT&T competes daily against the best of the best. We must have on edge. And how do we get that edge? Our people. We go to great lengths to recruit the best and the brightest. And we work hard to align our employees’ career objectives with the objectives of our business. At AT&T, we want our employees to become who they want to become. This all ties into what makes AT&T standout: (1) we value character and integrity and (2) we must relentlessly innovate.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
There’s a quote from Dov Siedman that says “The World is not just rapidly changing, it is being dramatically reshaped … And this reshaping is happening faster than we have yet been able to reshape ourselves, our leadership, our institutions, our societies and our ethical choices.” To compete, we must innovate … not just in our products and services … but in the way we develop the policies and procedures for these products and services. Case in point, we’re doing a lot of work around artificial intelligence and machine learning. These new technologies are revolutionizing our world. But we must be measured in the way we harness these new technologies. While we rely on data and metrics to guide us, we must have the overriding directive to innovate for the right reasons to achieve the right outcomes. We can’t tolerate any deviation from this directive. This is the same approach we take to everything we work on in the Chief Compliance Office.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
There are two things I’ll share with you today. First off, focus on your people. They’re your most important asset. Empower them. Empower them to act with integrity. Give them the tools. Show them how important integrity is in everything you do. Value them. Respect them. Train them. Compensate them fairly. Be a resource for them. And, most importantly, be someone your employees can be proud to work with. Secondly, don’t be afraid to show them vulnerability. In early 2017, I did an exercise with my team. I held small-group sessions (10–15 people at a time) with nearly every member of my team to help them get to know each other better. What was meant to be an icebreaker to kick the sessions off began dominating the time we set aside to meet. Why? I asked a simple question of each of my team members, “Who’s your hero?” As you would expect, the responses to this question spanned the spectrum. I heard spouse’s names. Mothers. Fathers. Sisters. Brothers. Other family members. Historical figures and icons. From me, I shared the impact my father has had on my life. It was an extremely emotional experience for everyone participating. More times than not, tissues were needed. After we wrapped up the series of sessions, I realized the work we put into this, into opening up and sharing something personal about ourselves, had drawn us closer than we had ever been in the past. This simple exercise allowed our team to gel like it had never before. Bonds were strengthened, allowing us to execute as one united team.
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?
My father. My father grew up in the Great Depression. He was a black man in the South without a high school diploma. The odds were deeply stacked against him. But nothing held him back. You see, he knew that even if he had nothing, he still had his reputation. And he wouldn’t let anything tarnish it. In the 1930s, while working as a waiter at a dinner party in San Antonio, TX, a wealthy oilman who had recently moved to Texas was in looking for someone to help his family adjust to their new hometown. A guest looked over at my dad and said, “You should talk to Walter.” And that’s what he did. My dad obtained a job that would last more than 50 years. Reputation was everything to my father. If you saw my dad today, you would instantly see he took great pride in his appearance. Impeccably dressed. Shoes shined daily. As I was once told by a gentleman that knew my dad, he was an “elegant” man. But for all that you saw on the outside, there was so much more on the inside. He took even greater pride in being a man of his word. If he said he was going to do something, he got it done. And he got it done the right way. Never cutting corners. Just staying true to who he was. He also rarely worried about the news of the day. He’d say, “Don’t think about the way things are. Think about what can be.” That work ethic, commitment to personal integrity and unique perspective has been passed down to me… and to my sons… and hopefully to future Huntley generations.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I serve on a few boards and that provides me some opportunities to give back. But what I get the greatest joy out of is mentoring others. Throughout my life, I’ve faced adversity. Whether it was being the only African American freshman in my dorm at SMU or serving as the highest ranking African American at AT&T, the pathway presented some challenges. I share my experiences with others to allow them to learn from my successes, and my failures. I encourage other leaders to do the same. We’ve all overcome adversity. Your willingness to share your successes (and failures) will shape how you’re viewed by those you lead and those you work alongside. As I mentioned earlier, showing vulnerability can be a strength.
Can you share the top five lessons that you have learned from your experience as a “Black Man in Tech?”
1. Be authentic. Have you ever felt like an impostor? Like you’ve not earned the right to be in the room? Too often, we find ourselves pressured to assimilate, whether this is real or from our own subconscious. While I’m not advocating all-out anarchy in the way you handle yourself, I strongly advocate being who you are. For example, there may be times when you feel like you’re the only one in the room that sees the forest through the trees. But realize, you’re in that room to see the forest through the trees for those that cannot. Embrace who you are and use it to your advantage. You’ve earned the right to be there. Now make the most of it.
2. Be prepared. My father always said, as a chauffeur, he had to think ahead. He had to understand the routes and traffic … all kinds of things. He was always prepared. You should be, too. Always be looking to see what is coming around the next bend. You’re responsible for where your career is going. You’ve got to take that ownership and take the necessary steps to reach the goals you’ve set out for yourself. The best way to do that is to be prepared. Whatever your next step is, anticipate what skills you’ll need and train them up.
3. Ask for feedback. Sometimes it’s difficult to receive feedback. I’m not talking about the struggle you might have in hearing constructive criticism. I’m talking about receiving any feedback in any form. See, the rush to be inclusive has led some to be too careful and not as forthright when providing feedback, especially to women or people of color. In the end, this only hampers the development of your people. Without the necessary feedback, you might find yourself digging a hole that becomes to deep to dig out of. Simple corrections go unaddressed and concerns only grow larger. Nobody wants that. No one benefits from that. Especially you. So, ask for feedback. I do it every time I meet with my boss. And I also ask for it from my peers and those that work for me. You don’t always have to take the feedback, but at a minimum it allows you to regularly gauge your performance in the eyes of others. It’s a reality check of sorts. At AT&T, we conduct surveys to obtain employee feedback. When I get the results for my organization, I pour through the feedback to identify areas of opportunity. But I also pause to celebrate areas of success. It reminds me that our journey to reach our goals is a marathon, not a sprint.
4. Find a sponsor. There’s only so far you can go on your own. I think everybody needs help. A sponsor is somebody who is going to be an advocate for you and help you get from place A to B. They typically have an idea of who you are, and they’ve decided that you’re somebody they’re going to help promote. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of sponsors throughout my career. Through them, not only did they help move my career forward, they also provided me with counsel to help me determine where I wanted to take my career.
5. Help others. Think about the times when you’ve helped someone. It could be helping move a piano. Taking a friend to the airport. Or simply holding the door for someone. There’s a sense of joy that puts a smile on your face. That’s a feeling you can have over and over again when you make helping others a priority. And helping others isn’t difficult to do. In addition to the above, you can be a good listener when a colleague needs to vent. Offer encouragement to those whose confidence may be shaken. Help shoulder the workload when you see a colleague overwhelmed. Just be there for others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“You must have unshakeable conviction to do what is right. You must have courage and be bold, when necessary. You can say you have integrity, but you don’t truly know you have it until it is tested.”
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 US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
There are several folks I’d like to break bread with. But at the top of the list would be Barack Obama. Who wouldn’t want to break bread with President Obama. The stories he can tell and the lessons I could learn. How could you not admire the way he has handled himself in the face of immense adversity. He’s persevered. Never stopping and never letting up. And he has always been true to himself.