T.J. Fox, president of Verizon business markets, counts among his mentors figures he’s never met, like the comedian Denis Leary and storied General George Patton, whose wisdom on character amid crisis and unleashing employee ingenuity have helped inform his leadership style.
A self-described “army brat” whose itinerate upbringing carried into adulthood during a career at Verizon that found him living in six different cities, Fox’s business inclinations have also been shaped by people he’s encountered along the way, including his own employees, who come from “vastly different backgrounds,” he told CO—.
Here, Fox shares the lessons learned from a roster of unofficial-yet-influential mentors, like viewing change as an “uncomfortable” opportunity for growth, insights brought to bear in a new small business initiative he’s spearheading at Verizon today.
CO—: Who is your mentor and why?
TF: I’ve had many mentors of all kinds. Some probably didn’t even know they were my mentor; a few have worked on my team and some I have never met. A mentor by definition is ‘an experienced or trusted advisor.’ When most people think of their mentor, they envision someone who is older, who guided them early in their career. For me, it’s not been as conventional. I have lived and worked in six cities during my tenure at Verizon and have been fortunate enough to work alongside people with vastly different backgrounds. I have learned different things from each of them and consider several of them my mentors. Whether it was customers whom I respected or colleagues I admired, I have deliberately tried to sit next to these individuals in meetings and find opportunities to learn from them. Other individuals have been my employees, who I hired because they were experts in matters I wasn’t. Now that I’m in a position of leadership, I have tried to take the best qualities of each of these individuals and incorporate them into my leadership style.
I share desired results with my team; I don’t micromanage how they get there. Many times, when I find out how they got there, I’m amazed by their ingenuity and creativity.
T.J. Fox, president of business markets, Verizon
CO—: What have you learned from mentors that’s been key to leading a business?
TF: I have always cared deeply about members of my team and assumed they knew. I no longer assume. I have learned the importance of making personal connections with employees, making sure they know how much I care about them and value their work. This is especially important in large organizations like Verizon, where we have thousands of employees. It’s so important to make those personal connections.
Hire employees who have different perspectives than you. I think it’s so important for your employees to feel comfortable with you, and comfortable enough to provide constructive feedback. Good leaders want members of their team to disagree with them and correct them when they think they have gone off course. I also never hire someone I wouldn’t want to work for.
[I’ve also learned from mentors about] diversifying your network and your talent. As an army brat, I lived in many places as a child. This type of mobility has allowed me to meet people from vastly different backgrounds, enlightening my perspective and helping me to think not only in a more universal way, but also to understand different perspectives.
CO—: How has a mentor’s wisdom informed how you lead a business?
TF: General George Patton once said, ‘Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.’
I share desired results with my team; I don’t micromanage how they get there. Many times, when I find out how they got there, I’m amazed by their ingenuity and creativity. This has showed me time and again there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
I met Greg Wasson, the former CEO of Walgreens and later a Verizon board member, at a Chicago Chamber of Commerce breakfast. During a speech, he said, ‘Change is uncomfortable.’ He went on to share insights about the importance of leading through change. Coincidentally, our Verizon slogan that year was, ‘Change Energizes Us.’ Greg was right and I have always kept his perspective in mind when leading. Change is uncomfortable but it’s also inevitable. It’s also always a chance to energize us. Just look at what businesses have done to adapt to the new COVID-19 landscape. The successful ones have pivoted to adjust to the changing world around them. Successful leaders and business owners are ones that view change as an opportunity. They view it as an exciting challenge.
CO—: Is there a recent project you’ve spearheaded that reflects your mentors’ imprints in some way?
TF: Here’s [one thing] I have learned from my mentors: The importance of character.
Verizon has many programs to help small businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19. I think our team’s dedication to helping small businesses in their time of need is a prime example of a motto I live by best summed up by Denis Leary. He once said, ‘Crisis doesn’t create character. It reveals it.’ That’s exactly how I feel about the way Verizon Business has served small businesses during this time. What we have done during this crisis has revealed our character as an organization.
One example of our commitment to small businesses during this time is our Verizon Business Comeback Coach, which is our first ever comprehensive small business resource hub that helps provide them with connectivity, security and collaboration. It provides one-on-one coaching sessions for small businesses and actionable strategies for success. As part of the program, Verizon is also offering free video conferencing via BlueJeans for one month, and two free months of One Talk, which enables customers to reach a business whether they are in the office or on the go. In addition, for entrepreneurs just starting out, Yahoo Small Business Business Maker has a free website builder, which offers domains and business email addresses.
[Another] thing I have learned from several mentors is the importance of consistency. I hold quarterly all-hands-on-deck meetings. At every meeting, we discuss the same priorities: How are we meeting customers’ needs? How are we keeping our customers happy and how are we gaining new customers? While our main priorities, for the most part, remain the same, we always learn something new, a different way to approach an industry challenge.
My leadership strategies are based upon serving Verizon’s four key stakeholders: society, employees, customers and shareholders. This is consistent across everything we do at Verizon.
While the pandemic has changed what we think of as face-to-face interaction, the importance of getting in front of your employees and customers is the most important element of a functional and successful team and business. During this time, our employees and customers are inviting us into their homes with virtual meetings. Making personal connections with your employees and customers is more important than ever before. Occasionally, my employees see my dog at my feet while I’m working from home. That brings a personal connection most of us have not had before in the workplace and I think it has made our team closer and stronger. Throughout COVID, I have also participated and led virtual dinners. This has been so important to fill the gap we are feeling of in person connections to our customers and colleagues.
CO— Complete this sentence: Without mentors…
TF: I would not be the leader I am today. I am still learning every day.
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Published December 08, 2020