Randall Stephenson does whatever it takes to keep AT&T on top of its game

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Randall Stephenson saw the proposed merger of AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile USA Inc. back in 2011 as a transformational deal. He believes it could have provided AT&T with the additional network capacity it needed to keep raising the bar on the level of service available to consumers.
“It was a really, really significant deal,” says Stephenson, the chairman and CEO at AT&T. “We spent a lot of time with the board, brought the board up to speed and told the board that this was not a layup. It had the potential to fall apart, but we felt like it was a deal that ought to be done. And we pulled the trigger on it.”
Soon after, however, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened and filed an antitrust lawsuit against AT&T. Stephenson thought he could win a court battle, but he says he never got the chance to prove it and ended up walking away from the transaction.
“What I miscalculated was the extent to which our government would go to keep it out of the courts,” Stephenson said, speaking last November during a live panel discussion at the EY Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs, California.
Stephenson recalled a piece of advice he received from his father, who was a serial entrepreneur.
“He told me one time that if you never fail big, you will live your life being fearful of failing,” Stephenson says. “And until you fail, you’re always afraid to take the risk that will put you in a different place.”
An ‘elegant’ transition
Stephenson became chairman at AT&T in 2007 and has helped it become one of the world’s largest telecom organizations with $129 billion in revenue every year. In the past six years, AT&T has invested more in the U.S. than any other company.
Stephenson says his experience in virtually every part of AT&T plays a big part in his success as its leader.
“I’m one of those guys who takes a job apart and puts it back together and when I put it back together, it takes a lot fewer people to do it than when I took it over,” Stephenson says. “I just went through a series of these and I find myself — it was like over five years, every time I would get something fixed, they would throw me into another mess.”
The man putting him in these tough spots, his predecessor, Edward Whitacre, Jr., was testing his mettle to be the company’s next CEO, along with a few other talented leaders. Stephenson came out on top.
“And then over a three-year period of time after he told me that the job was going to be mine, he didn’t tell anybody else,” Stephenson says. “I began to put my people in place over a three-year period of time. So at the point in time when he announced, ‘Adios, I’m out of here,’ my people moved immediately into their roles and I had my team in place from day one. It was the most elegant process I could imagine. I will always be indebted to Ed for how he did that.”
Keep pushing ahead
AT&T has more than 253,000 employees and it takes a strong leadership team to make sure people at every level of the organization understand their role in the company’s success. Stephenson says he tries to think of all those employees in every decision he and his team make.
“I have a philosophy in business and that is whatever hard decision you have to make, you’ve got to go stand in front of the mirror, look yourself in the eye and say, ‘What is the right thing to do?’” he says.
He adds that it’s not just about morals, nor is it just about you as the leader. You need people on your team who have the strength and fortitude to make the hard decision when the moment arrives for them as well.
“Are these people who can make that tough call?” Stephenson says.
Stephenson recalls the decision to push wireless technology in that segment’s infancy, a move which “cannibalized the devil out of our fixed line business”, but obviously proved to be the right move.

“I tell my people this all the time,” Stephenson says. “If we don’t disrupt ourselves, somebody will be glad to disrupt us for ourselves. And so you’ve just got to have the discipline to keep pushing, pushing, pushing.”

How to reach: AT&T, (210) 821-4105 or www.att.com.