Collaboration has been the key to professional breakthroughs for Debbie Storey, Senior VP of Talent Development and Chief Diversity Officer
Debbie Storey had an epiphany during the scramble of BellSouth’s mission to convert its systems in time for the Y2K countdown. As the Year 2000 approached, BellSouth, like other digitally driven companies, had to overhaul its infrastructure to recognize four-digit years and prevent potential complete system failure when the digital clock struck the new millennium.
Storey and her team of 30 experts met daily to figure out how to transform the processes before the unalterable deadline, but they were unable to find solutions. Storey thought that as the new Vice President (VP) of the Publishing and Information Technology (IT) divisions, her job was to be smart enough to solve the crisis, but she had not yet been able to do so.
One night, while gnashing on the problem, she realized with utter clarity that her strengths lay not in IT expertise, but in collaboration—asking the right questions and knowing the right answer when she saw it. The next day, Storey started anew with her team by asking probing questions about processes, which led to breakthrough thinking and an ultimately successful system transformation by the Y2K deadline.
Storey’s aha moment proved to be a turning point in her career. Until that time, she had always been the subject matter expert as she took on positions of increased responsibility. But in taking on this VP role at the time, she realized that the more she advanced through the ranks in her career, the less likely it became that she would be the one who had the answers. Surrounding herself with smart people offering a diversity of complementary knowledge became essential to her continued success.
“If I have that and can ask the right questions, I can get them to the right answer,” Storey said.
Now Senior VP of Talent Development and Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T, she often draws on her past experience to mentor other professionals in their careers. By looking back and seeing where she “stumbled before getting things right,” she shows others how to avoid her mistakes and reach good decisions.
“My hindsight,” she said, “can be their foresight.”
Early in her career, when she was a new executive at Stevens Graphics, Storey had a “mortifying” experience that she turned around into a success. She had been asked to give a presentation on her unit’s five-year plan. Storey sought no one’s input on what type of information or level of detail was appropriate for her PowerPoint-driven discussion. When a few other executives gave their presentations ahead of her, she knew that hers was going to be all wrong. She started her talk and realized that she had two hours of material but only 20 minutes allotted on the agenda. She began speaking more quickly and noticed people in the room unwilling to make eye contact with her. Eventually, her time ran out and she “slunk off the stage.”
Determined not to let her public speaking failure define her, Storey immediately went to her boss and promised that it would never happen again. She enrolled in a public speaking course, invested time in polishing her related skills and succeeded in her next presentation to the executive group.
Storey said that she learned at least a couple of vital lessons from the experience. First, seek input from others. No matter how much a person thinks he or she knows, it is best to welcome input from others. “You will always have the best chance of success if you get people in the boat with you,” Storey advised.
Second, failure is not falling down, but failing to get back up. After her public crash, Storey took swift and decisive action to improve, turning what had been a weakness into strength. In fact, Storey recently served as the keynote speaker at the 18th Annual Possible Woman Leadership Conference in Atlanta, where she told the story of her successful failure in public speaking.
Development & Diversity in Action
Throughout her career, Storey has been motivated by a desire to make a difference for people and for her organization. Today, she has considerable impact as the Senior VP of Talent Development and Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world. She oversees AT&T University, where each year more than 100,000 emerging leaders participate in a learning environment that offers continuing education, experience across disciplines and exposure to peers and senior-level executives.
Alongside her talent development responsibilities, Storey’s portfolio encompasses diversity and inclusion efforts. DiversityInc ranked AT&T tenth in its 2014 Top 50 Companies for Diversity. In addition, AT&T employees give the company high marks for supporting diversity in the workplace. Storey credits the company’s success to a long legacy of maintaining a well-rounded and inclusive environment. The commitment is rooted in three foundational principles:
Inclusion. Storey explains that it is not enough simply to have a diverse mix; managers also must deeply understand that the best performing teams have a full range of diversity in all of its forms, including thought, background, experiences, perspectives and education. That philosophy must start at the top.
Management infrastructure. The AT&T Chairman and his team serve on a Diversity Council that focuses on initiatives to improve diversity. These initiatives cascade down through all of the business units, according to Storey, and each manager is charged with executing them.
Accountability and measurement. The company tracks statistics on what the workforce looks like and holds managers accountable for ensuring that theirs reflect the community and the customers they serve.
Leveraging Networks & Relationships
Storey believes that the ability to build relationships has had the single greatest impact on her career. Her first job out of college was as an entry-level clerk for a printing company. On the first day, the boss assigned her the job of making coffee. Rather than complain that she neither drank coffee nor knew how to make it, she “bought the apparatus for making coffee” and set about brewing and delivering it to her colleagues. She decided that she could best leverage her time by building relationships as she moved throughout the office.
The young up-and-comer introduced herself to people and asked about their work. She observed connections between departments and was able to make process suggestions to her boss. In only six months, she was promoted to Customer Service Representative. Every year, Storey had an opportunity to take over another part of the business; within eight years, she was the company’s Chief Operating Officer.
“I watched others who used their networks to get things done, and I naturally learned how to build networks,” Storey said.
Storey estimates that more than 70 percent of job opportunities come about because of networks as opposed to applying cold for a position. She recommends building a diverse network of people across businesses as well as job and age levels.
“Your network should be helping you grow and learn and get new opportunities,” Storey said. “They should be advocating on your behalf, even when you’re not in the room.”
Storey’s Leadership Story: The 5 C’s
People often ask Storey how she is able to lead large teams to achieve great results. She says that her leadership principles were developed in hindsight by reviewing her experiences to see what approaches did and did not work. Here, she distills her acquired wisdom into the “5 C’s.”
- Create a vision. Paint a picture of where the company is trying to go. The vision needs to be described in clear and vivid images that allow people to really see and understand the goal.
- Connect to the vision. Some leaders paint a picture of the goal but neglect the crucial step of connecting people to it. People must get excited about the goal and feel that their role is critical to making it happen.
- Coach. It is not enough for a leader to say, “OK, there’s the vision… Go get it!” Leaders have to take the time to give their staff training, development and encouragement, and to challenge them to give more than they think they can.
- Communicate. It is not enough to describe the vision once. The lines of communication must be constantly open, and the message conveyed over and over again.
- Celebrate. People do not stay on board unless accomplishments are celebrated. Recognition should be not just for the high-performers and the big wins, but also for the small victories along the way.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
Favorite quote… “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller
Books I recommend… Stephen Covey “Speed of Trust” and Seth Godin “Purple Cow”
Things I carry with me… iPhone, iPad and noise-canceling headphones (I’m on a lot of planes)
Apps on my phone I can’t do without… Evernote (it changed my life—all my notes with me, always, on any device), Sonos, Digital Life and Flipboard
I can’t start my day unless… I spend a few quiet minutes getting grounded in what’s important and thinking about what I want to accomplish that day.
I don’t consider my day done unless… I’ve made a positive difference in at least one person’s life.
I start my day by… Enjoying the latte my fiancée brings me, and catching up on the news by reading The WSJ and The NY Times on my iPad.
Favorite leader… Abraham Lincoln: never stopped fighting for what he believed in, in spite of opposition, great communicator, humble, shared credit with others, understood his own limitations.
My definition of retirement… I’ll always keep moving, but in retirement I will be spending time with those I love, doing only what I love, having an impact wherever I can with the tools God blessed me with.
I unwind from my day by… Working out, then spending time with my fiancé, sharing details of our day and plans for our life.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is… Influence is important, getting credit is not. There is no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit.
It’s 5:00 on Friday, and my drink of choice is… A glass of water as I head to the gym. At 7:00, it’s a glass of Cabernet!
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