Posted by: lcowie | September 25, 2008

John Zeglis

AT&T Wireless CEO, John Zeglis, shares his wisdom with Elon business students

by Lesley Cowie

The Martha and Spencer Love School of Business hosted John Zeglis, former CEO of AT&T Wireless, as part of its Legends of Business series. Zeglis spoke to a group of students and faculty in LaRose Digital Theatre Wednesday evening, primarily about his experiences in leadership.

John Zeglis admits that leadership is a difficult subject to define. Zeglis' experiences have contributed to his knowledge of leadership.

John Zeglis admits that leadership is a difficult subject to define. Zeglis' experiences have contributed to his knowledge of leadership.

“It’s daunting to speak about leadership,” Zeglis said. “Leadership is hard to teach, and for students, even harder to learn. The best thing you can do is to listen to others’ experiences and wisdom.”

Zeglis admitted that his wisdom comes in an unconventional manner. I do not read books about leadership, he says, nor do I write books about leadership. All of my leadership opportunities, Zeglis said, came upon me in sudden instances, such that I was the “Forrest Gump of telecommunications.”

Despite his lack of formal leadership training, Zeglis was able to present his knowledge of leadership as it applies in the workplace and business worlds. He listed five tips for success and labeled them as “group leadership” characteristics.

Don’t Sell Widgets

The first tip reminded students to not sell widgets. Zeglis described this phrase as such: “Make something noble, purposeful with peoples’ work.” He used an old example of the Bell System to clarify his point.

“The Bell System was great,” Zeglis said. “The vision was simple – phone in every home, affordable, usable…even a three year old could use it.”

Zeglis went on to explain how AT&T broke up the Bell System in order to transform the company and prepare it for the future. With ‘The New AT&T,’ he said, we could never get a very strong purpose. Since we had no clear and agreeable purpose, he said, it was hard for this new system to work.

In order to make peoples’ work purposeful, Zeglis returned to the Bell System in 2000 when he began working with AT&T Wireless.

Before moving on, Zeglis acknowledged a possible question running through the audience’s minds.

“You are probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned being customer-focused as an important factor,” Zeglis said.

Align the Team

Zeglis outlines his five tips for leadership success.

Zeglis outlines his five tips for leadership success.

He transitioned into his second tip, aligning the team, by saying that everyone must be trying to accomplish the same goals. If the team is ennobled, Zeglis said, you have a customer-focused team.

“This is harder than you think,” he said. “The people who work for you will challenge you and your colleagues.”

Zeglis’ flipped to a slide on his PowerPoint presentation that featured the name of a book: Freakonomics. Aware that some of the business students were reading the book, Zeglis used it as an exemplary point to his discussion.

“You will not find an answer to alignment in economics,” he said. “You’ll find the tools. You can never just look for the answer. You must use the tools.”

Have a Game Plan, but Run to Daylight

The third leadership tip was to have a game plan and to “run to daylight.” Leaders always have a game plan, Zeglis said. Running to daylight was a phrase Zeglis took from a book about NFL football player Vince Lombardi. Although every leader has a game plan, he said, the best leader acknowledges that there must be changes to the plan along the way.

AT&T Wireless had a game plan to launch the mLife phone plan. When Japanese sponsors required specific instructions, AT&T Wireless had to change its plan. Instead of the original intentions, AT&T Wireless developed text messaging.

“We wanted to be the leader,” Zeglis said. “All of our phones were quietly equipped with text messaging, but we didn’t tell anyone for three years. For the first six months, nobody did anything with it.”

Text messaging was popular in Europe and Great Britain at this time. When Zeglis saw that American fingers were slower to text, he wondered how he could catch up to Europe and Great Britain. When he asked friends and business partners in these locations, they suggested that the company ask Americans to text to one point, and then it will catch on.

Reality shows.

“We chose American Idol,” Zeglis said. “We got the exclusive rights. When you watch American Idol, you see the phone number at the bottom, and then it says, ‘AT&T customers can text their vote here!’ Every Monday and Wednesday, we’d see 10 million texts coming at us.”

Following American Idol, text messaging rates from customer-to-customer increased.

This PowerPoint slide demonstrates AT&T Wireless's market cap compared to other businesses.

This PowerPoint slide demonstrates AT&T Wireless's market cap versus other large companies.

Do Not (Merely) Play the Hand You Were Dealt

Rather than dealing with the circumstances as they are, Zeglis said, leaders have to learn how to improve the hand they have been given.

Zeglis moved through his presentation, showing charts of AT&T Wireless’s improvements over the years. He discussed share profits and market caps, as well as how American wireless compared to other nations in 2003.

It was a competitive market, he said, and we had to keep up.

Rather than following the traditional regulations for breaking down monopolies, Zeglis outlined what he believed to be the real process.

“It all starts with innovation,” Zeglis said. “Innovation comes first.”

Zeglis joked with faculty audience members, saying that they could steal his outline free of charge.

Change the Game, even (especially) if You Are About to Win the Race

The last of the five “group leadership” tips basically suggested that leaders must strive for the top of the competitive market, even when they have reached the top of the market.

“Apple is a good example,” Zeglis said. “First they came out with the Mac laptop. Everybody wanted it. It was the ultra-creative laptop to have. Then they came out with the iPod, then the iPhone. That’s good leadership.”

Leaders must be sure that they can guide their companies to the top and show innovation that outshines other companies, he said.

Zeglis illustrates his own version of how to break down regulated monopolies.

Zeglis illustrates his own version of how to break down regulated monopolies.

Following these five tips is a dynamic start to building one’s interpersonal leadership skills, as well as building leadership for an organization or company. Zeglis’ elaborate use of examples, both verbally and graphically, helped demonstrate his unconventional suggestions.

Although retired from AT&T wireless, Zeglis still keeps busy as a member of the board of trustees to a variety of foundations. He also serves as director to four corporations. Last of all, Zeglis is the principal owner of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, an NBA development league team. Even during retirement, Zeglis still manages to utilize his leadership skills.

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