Lesley Elwell, VP of Human Resources for Customer Care at DirecTV, discusses her transition through three career disciplines and how she’s relied on events she witnessed from her upbringing in Venezuela to spur her onward and lead her team
Editor’s Note: At the time of interview, Lesley was VP of HR for Customer Care at DirecTV. Lesley was appointed VP of HR for Sprint in May of 2015. She will architect the formation of Sprint’s New Hispanic Market Business Unit.
Throughout history, authors have captured the way in which our lives are cumulative and endlessly updating. From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s quote “I am a part of all that I have met…” to Chuck Palahniuk’s more recent “I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known,” it has been well established that we are made and shaped by our experiences.
Just as crucial as having lived through highs, lows, and everything in between, however, is what we glean from each; there’s something from virtually everywhere we’ve been that is essential in helping us with wherever we’re going.
In her career as an engineer, a marketer, and now an HR executive, Lesley Elwell has developed skills and a heightened understanding of businesses from various vantage points. With a willingness to keep learning, even after having earned a master’s degree in engineering, and a humble disposition, her honest, transparent leadership is making a difference for DirecTV’s Customer Care function, one team member at a time.
Three Work Lives
As stated, Lesley’s educational background is as an engineer. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from the Universidad Nacional Experimental del Tachira in Venezuela and a master’s in Engineering Management from the University of Kansas’ Regent Center, where she attended as a Latin American Fulbright scholar.
Since graduating, however, she has progressed through various aspects of organizations, describing those career stops as her “three work lives” and she shared what she’s taken away from each one.
“In engineering, that experience was about building things that worked. I developed a model of doing things efficiently, of logical problem solving, and of looking at cost versus performance. These concepts really work well with machines, as well as the structure of an organization.
In marketing and sales, I learned two things: the power of word of mouth not only for your company’s brand, but also for your personal brand too. And second, that as a rule, the bigger a brand is, the harder it can be to reposition it.
In HR, leadership training and coaching can make a big difference in someone’s career. Confidence and authenticity have to be there, and you really need true support from the very top for any transformation that you’re striving for. Without it, you’re basically pushing water uphill with a rake.”
Lesley says she sees all three of these distinct career lives as intertwined and how, especially in HR, these attributes coalesce and make one a better professional.
Caring for Customers – And Support Staff
Referring to her position in HR as her dream job, Lesley discussed three elements from her upbringing that helped to form a disposition and perspective she has maintained even as she has risen through the ranks both at Sprint and now at DirecTV.
“Number one, a promise must be kept. Growing up in the frontier of a developing country, I saw things before I was eleven years old that people shouldn’t see at any point in their entire life. My brother and I made a promise to each other that we would definitely have a better quality of life for ourselves and for our family.
The second one is gratefulness. Living in Venezuela gave me the gift of realizing that my worst days here in the U.S. are better than the best days for most of my family. Keeping that gratefulness and thankfulness in mind and having joy in everything that you do is so key.
And third is an obligation. Since I’m able to enjoy living in such a great country, I have not only the right but the duty to give my very best every single day.”
Seemingly stating the obvious that working in a call center is by and large not anyone’s dream job, Lesley nonetheless shed light on how she endeavors to inspire, empower, and transform her team members and looks to cultivate those same elements of gratefulness and ownership of hard work within them.
“Call centers have a very special place in my heart. I have a very unique love for the customer service representatives there because they’re full of young women and young professionals, and it’s not their destination. Generally, people don’t raise their hands in high school saying “I want to work in a call center when I grow up. More often than not, they come there as a result of some hardship or maybe through a referral from a friend. However, if they’re coached to have confidence, self-awareness, perseverance, and to be leaders, the job can spur a life transformation and I love the ones that I’ve been able to witness in young men and women in our organization.
“You have to give your best to every customer you talk to and on every call, but it’s important that we are investing just as much in those team members. I call this my ‘dream job’ because I have the logical problem solving component to ask if our employees are enabled effectively and do they have the right systems, tools, and processes to be able to do their jobs. On the other hand, are they being inspired, engaged, and motivated in a way that transforms their lives so that they in turn can give that feeling to our customers?”
Lesley’s work not only helps to make her team more productive within the confines of a call center, but also helps to bolster abilities that they can take with them wherever they go in their respective careers.
“I always tell my agents that my goal is for you to feel gratefulness and growth. If you feel that you’re grateful, if you become a stronger leader for us or for someone else, I’m thrilled for you because I know that you’ll be able to say ‘you know what? DirecTV really understood and developed me.’ And because of that, I’m grateful. Circling back to the power of word of mouth, it’s amazing what happens in that regard when you really, truly care to develop people.”
With Lesley Elwell at the helm it seems likely that DirecTV’s call center employees will continue to be grateful not merely to have a job, but to have that job at that company, where they are valued and invested in by their executive leadership: every man, woman, and of course, every Rob Lowe. ♦
Planning Your Success
During her time working in marketing for Sprint, Lesley said she got a little burned out because she seldom was able to plan and often had too much on her plate. She came away from that particular experience with a two-part lesson.
1: “I didn’t plan because I was so busy doing. I had to learn how to plan and reflect.”
2: “I didn’t coach; I told and directed, but often if I didn’t do it myself I would feel it wasn’t good enough and that was the result of not hiring top talent.”
“I see young leaders make the mistake of hiring too fast, without giving thought to coaching and teaching. And then when they’re reviewing work and trying to revise issues, they’re left with no time to plan.”
Lesley's Key Partners:Entelechy (Customized Leadership Development Programs) | Strategic Programs Inc. (Workforce Intelligence Consulting)
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