gen-xyb™ High Tea - Turning Risk Into Opportunity ™: Jill Wagner on ‘Sizzle’!
On February 12th the 2014 gen-xyb™ High Tea program participants convened for the second session of the 2014 program. Along with some additional guests and panelists, the women participating in the program spent the afternoon discussing turning risk into opportunity in their careers.
How people become leaders and how people take up leadership roles over the course of their career is fundamentally about developing a leader identity. In order to progress your career and to develop your own leader identity, throughout your career you are required to make important decisions. Those decisions, those choices that you make, all the little ones and all the big ones, impact your career path, impact people that you work for, impact people that work for you and with you. Those decisions impact your organization and customers of your organization. They impact your family and friends. They impact your health and wellbeing. They impact your financial status. Some of those decisions we make without thinking too much, some of them we make after putting a lot of thought into them. But how often do we challenge ourselves to think about how we are making those decisions? How often do we question our own thought process? How often do we pause to consider that if we make decisions the same way we’ve always made them, we might only get the same results?
The reality is that all decisions take place under conditions of uncertainty and risk. For important career decisions, it is imperative that we start to take the time to really explore the uncertainty and risks associated with those decisions, and challenge ourselves to think differently about those uncertainties and risks, so we can potentially make different choices to yield different outcomes.
I recognize that people have different tolerances for risk. I recognize that risk frames difficult issues and difficult choices. I recognize that risk-taking is a multi-dimensional concept and a person can exhibit different risk-taking propensities on different types of risks. But we need to do a much better job of understanding for each of ourselves, individually, where we fall on the risk taking continuum, and why. We need to do a better job of thoughtfully calculating risk and getting more comfortable with the idea of responsible risk taking. Because if we can learn the language of risk and how to apply it to ourselves, we are empowering ourselves to make different choices, we are empowering ourselves to turn risk into opportunity! Speaking the language of risk means we will enjoy the power and ability to shape our own destinies more so than ever before. Speaking the language of risk means that we can establish different patterns for managing those risk encounters, which in turn becomes a foundation of our career trajectory and also for that leader identity we are establishing for ourselves.
One of my guest speakers at the session was Jill Wagner. Jill Wagner is the Executive Director at the Hobey Baker Foundation in Minneapolis. Based on the premise that Character Matters the Hobey Baker Foundation provides the most prestigious award in college hockey, the Hobey Baker Award. Jill started out her career working for AT&T, and from there she moved on to MCI Communication, and then to IBM where she was a Manager of Strategic Planning. Her great career continued with roles as Vice President Marketing – Consumer and Small Business at Southern New England Communications; Vice President Marketing – Consumer at Verizon Communications, and Vice President Marketing at Cablevision and Vice President of Consumer Marketing at Frontier Communications.
I asked Jill to share a story with the group about a situation where she took a significant risk. I asked her to talk about that experience, her perspectives, how she felt about the whole experience, how others factored in to the story, and what she learned from it. Here is some of the story she shared.
Daniella: Please share a story where you took a significant risk in your career.
Jill: The one I selected is because I think it’s probably the most complex. I was hired by Verizon to come in and help them launch the long distance business.
Back in the day when they broke up the Bell system the local telephone companies couldn’t be in the long distance business, that was AT&T, and they were now allowing them to get back in the business. I had McKinsey, Bain, all of them telling us that’s a good idea but you’ll only get 14%, maybe 15% market share. In two years we had 57% market share at SNET. So I was hired (by Verizon) when SNET was sold to AT&T, and they were really buying that company for the intellectual property of what we had done.
So I went to Verizon who were about six months away from getting into the long distance business. Now at the time AT&T and MCI were duking it out on the airwaves. Two of the five biggest advertisers in the country were screaming 5c or 7c a minute. But in order to get that rate you had to pay a monthly charge of five bucks or ten bucks or something like that. So I go in and my boss sits me down on day one and says ‘They’re really worried about sizzle, so you have to go get sizzle.’ OK. I can go get sizzle. And then it was like oh by the way you have no IT dollars to go do anything. Oh! OK! We launched six months later two weeks after Y2K and we launched with a product which was 10c a minute, 24×7.
Now this was unheard of in the telephone business. Remember you had those day, evening and night rates when you would say to someone ‘Why are you calling me now? Call me at ten o’clock at night when it’s cheaper!’ We all remember that. So this was 10c a minute 24×7. I had basically the whole company telling me ‘You don’t have sizzle. Because if they are screaming 5c and 7c a minute how can you go in at 10c a minute and make a mark?’ To which I responded and said we will get 20% market share at the end of the first year. They had a business plan when I first arrived there that said they were going to get 5% market share that first year, and really their goal was 25% market share within five years. So really the risk I took was launching with the 10c a minute because we could always go down in price! The other thing is I had market research, I had done the competitive analysis, I knew what the market was going to respond to. So that was the risk I took. Oh by the way six months after that AT&T (that was at the time SBC at the time) went into Kansas at 9c a minute. Then they raised the price to 10c four months later because they had no better position than what we had in our first four months so they rose it and came to our 10c a minute.
Daniella: Did you give thought to people and stakeholder groups that wanted you to succeed and who were stakeholders that secretly wanted you to fail at this risk you were taking?
Jill: I knew that financially the company wanted me to succeed at 10c a minutes, especially if I got the market share I was saying we were going to get. What people didn’t realize was that for 65% to 75% of the marketplace 10c a minute with no hidden fees was like music to their ears. I knew that breaking through was a clear message and that was going to be discussed by the stakeholders. I knew that the analysts would seize on it as being innovative and all of that. What I didn’t realize, and this was a shock to me and it’s still a shock to me, is that there were people that had staked their career on the 5% market share and were not pleased when I got 20% market share because that made them look silly. I had not anticipated that piece of it. I thought that everyone wanted to be the best they could be and if they were part of the team, even if it wasn’t their idea at least they were still part of the team that got it done, because I certainly wasn’t doing it by myself. That was one thing I didn’t anticipate.
Daniella: What are some of the things you did to mitigate the risk and exposure you had, particularly with regard to those people that had staked their career on a different position?
Jill: I had mounds of analysis and I had James Earl Jones as our spokesperson! It just doesn’t get better than having Darth Vader’s voice and talking about we’re here to clean up the industry. It was bigger than price. So I really came at it from the angle that they had hired me because they didn’t have anyone else with the skill set to pull off. And we were launching on Wall Street, the first state to go was New York. So with all the analysts, we had to do it right, there was no downside. We couldn’t screw it up. And we also said if we did screw it up we could always come down in price. So I came at it from the angle of ‘here’s all the research’. We had deep pockets, we did mounds of research.
When you really tore apart the market, of the number of people that made a long distance call, at the end of the month 65% of households never made a long distance call. At the end of the year, 35% had not. So at the end of the day, if I as a consumer can get something and I don’t have a monthly fee attached, I can just pay as I go, it was music to their ears. If grandma’s sick I can make the call myself now, I don’t have to wait. So I got households. That was my market, versus callers. I went after this loading them up with facts and data rather than opinion. At the end of the day how could I break though against 5c and 7c a minute? Because mine was all in. And it did carry the day. That was how I thought I had to overcome all the secret naysayers.
Daniella: You had a lot of facts and a lot of data, but how did you feel?
Jill: This is the thing – I didn’t feel I was taking a big risk. After all the analysis, I was confident this was going to work, and if I was wrong so ok we go down in price. I can write that press release. So I didn’t see it as a risk. We even played games in the war room on what companies would respond with. We had really thought it through, so I didn’t feel like it was taking a huge risk. It was a huge corporate gamble and all credit goes to the Chairman and the top executives that they let this proceed.
Daniella: Were you concerned if all didn’t go according to plan and if you had to go down in price that it would hurt your career trajectory?
Jill: I told them flat-out that if we didn’t get 20% market share they should fire me. We ended with 19.6% and I kept my job. But also to your point though there were people that were secretly furious with me that I had to deal with the rest of my time at Verizon.
Daniella: How do you feel taking those risks, what you learned, what you experienced, contributed to developing your identity as a leader?
Jill: I am passionate about teamwork and I don’t think any one person has any corner of any market and has the brains to pull off anything alone in business. Even if you are Single Contributor LLC you need to have your advisory council to go to. I think that allowing everyone to have their say is mission critical to doing well.
Daniella: How have your personal values aligned with the next stage you have taken in your career at the Hobey Baker Foundation?
Jill: I left Verizon and then the industry because it’s fun when you’re growing, not so fun when you are contracting, and the industry is contracting. It’s not that I have to have fun every day, but if I am not whistling home and whistling to work in the morning then something is wrong. I like big audacious projects and that is what I have again. It’s on a much different scale but it is also taking it into another industry – the sports industry – which is fun and another whole level of complexity.
Daniella: As you have taken risks over your career, have you had role models and mentors and sponsors that have stood by you?
Jill: I would say that is not an area that has been a capstone for me. If you look at having a mentor you might need one for a situation or for a particular span in time. But there are very few people I know that have maintained a mentor/mentee relationship for the long run. I am not saying that doesn’t happen or you shouldn’t look for that. I am just staying that is not my experience. I can’t say that has been one of the hallmarks of my career. That has been a big challenge.
Daniella: Why do you think has that been a challenge?
Jill: One there were very few women above me – stating the obvious. Two – if you go and seek a guy they would get very uncomfortable. Now that has changed over the course of my career. I think that is a conversation in and of itself – finding a good mentor, and how do you maintain that relationship.
Daniella: What have you learned from your successes with taking risk that you would like to share with the group?
Jill: When you succeed you just get more. That was yesterday, what are you going to do for me now? It’s not without its downside. And just because you did well doesn’t mean you are going to get promoted. I did. But at the end of the day it’s my soul not theirs, and all I care about is my soul because that is all that I have left, that is the only master I have. If my boss didn’t like what I did, but if I did what I believed was right and morally correct, I can put my head on the pillow and sleep at night.