Three years ago, Matt Carter was the president of a business unit that was anything but booming.
The competition was, however.
Carter was the president of Boost Mobile, part of Sprint’s prepaid wireless group. Boost had made its name catering to lower-income customers in urban centers. But staying confined to that niche wasn’t helping expand the division’s market share.
“It was a very challenging situation,” says Carter, who is now the president of Sprint Global Wholesale Solutions Group, an Irvine-based division of Sprint Nextel Corp. that generated $1.8 billion in revenue last year. “Boost was in a category that was growing, but we were the only brand in the category that wasn’t growing. So it became very critical to give people a sense of reality, but it couldn’t just be me that was standing up there and saying, ‘Here is the state of the business.’ Half the deal was really presenting facts and data, and letting folks come to that conclusion themselves and buying in to the need of finding new ways of doing things.”
Carter needed to leverage the brainpower of his people to help redefine the Boost brand. But in order to get people at Boost thinking, he had to engage them in the process of developing new ideas. This meant everyone under Carter’s leadership umbrella had to realize their input and opinions mattered to management.
“It’s critically important in that situation that you let folks know that you are the leader, but you aren’t going to do this all by yourself,” Carter says. “This isn’t Moses laying down the Ten Commandments. You have to let folks know that you’re there for them, that you’re here to serve them and that you want them to buy in to what you’re doing and trust you in leading them. But you can’t force it. You have to figure out a way to get them to want to believe in you and what you’re trying to accomplish. That’s the type of trust that helps you move a business forward.”
Envision the vision
Carter was the leader, but he was also the new guy. He had people on his staff who were much more familiar with the Boost brand than he was and could see the potential directions for growth more than he could. Early in his tenure at Boost, after talking with a number of employees, Carter started to see the brand through the eyes of his people — and it was a brand with a great deal of untapped potential.
“Many of our people felt that there was a great deal more underlying value here that can appeal to a broader segment of the population,” Carter says. “Not just credit-challenged people, but people who are simply looking for good value.”
Carter developed a vision for Boost as a company that could appeal to consumers of different age groups and different income levels, in the city, suburbs and outlying areas. Boost began developing a diverse selection of marketing campaigns, broadened its product distribution and expanded its product offerings.
It sent a strong message to consumers, and it also sent a strong message to Carter’s work force.
“They started to see that, ‘Hey, he’s listening to what we have to say,’” he says. “There is greater potential here than just where we’ve been. Everything from our devices to marketing to distribution, it was all affected by the input I was getting from our people out there.”
Carter gathered the input by getting on the road. He spoke with customers and employees. Many company leaders pound the pavement, interacting with stakeholders and soliciting feedback, but Carter says the most critical step is the one he took next. He turned the talk into action in a short period of time.
“What happens in that process is that as you get their input, they start to see action that reflects the things they were talking about,” Carter says. “It makes them feel as though they had a vested interest in the process, in the outcome, in the decision. It wasn’t just me as the leader, sitting in a room by myself. It was really me getting input from a lot of smart, passionate, engaged people. As most folks saw that, they bought into what we were doing. They felt like, ‘Hey, I’m being heard.’ You can’t underestimate the importance of that. It just makes people more engaged.”
Make it cultural
Once you’ve set a tone of collaboration, it’s up to you to continue reinforcing that message to your employees. If you start out working hard to seek input and turn that input into action, but let the momentum trail off over the following months and years, you’re going to kill the cultural seeds you planted at the outset.
To make collaboration and engagement a part of your culture, you need to hire the best people, define their roles and continually show them how their work benefits the organization as a whole.
Ultimately, Carter says that as a top-level executive, you’re not in the business of manufacturing your company’s product or providing your company’s service. That’s the job of those under you. As the leader of the team, you’re in the people business.
“I view myself as a player-coach,” Carter says. “I’m in the game, but I also coach and provide guidance. As a leader, your first job is about people. You have to make an evaluation around the type of people you have on your team, who is working collaboratively, who are the people who will help us get to where we need to go. At the same time, you also have to make the tough decisions around those who are not part of those plans. So, it’s being really clear about how you maximize the team’s capabilities. That is absolutely numero uno for me as a leader. It is my belief that it is all about how you maximize your team’s capabilities.”
You need the right puzzle pieces on the table, but you also need them to fit. Fitting the pieces together requires you to define roles for the people on your team. If your team is comfortable with collaboration and sharing ideas, your people need to know what you expect of them and what they can expect from you.
“I don’t try to come in and prejudge people,” Carter says. “I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Some people work better with certain types or leaders or in certain types of situations. What you try to do is come in with an open mind and a clean slate. This is what I need from you and your team, and this is what you can expect from me. And that starts the evaluation process. How are they performing against the expectation that is required for the team to be successful?”
Some people will perform above expectations, some will perform at the level of expectation and some will fall below. If someone falls below, you take corrective steps. If those don’t work, then you are forced to make a judgment call on whether you can move forward with that person as a member of your organization.
“The worst thing you can do is keep bouncing around people who are not performing,” Carter says. “You have to protect the integrity and the performance of the team.”
Develop solid practices
Carter says there are few things more important in business than defining metrics and goals and consistently executing on them until you’ve gotten it right. Without practice and execution, Carter and his team would never have seen their vision for Boost Mobile come to fruition. It’s a lesson he’s seen illustrated in pro sports.
Former NBA league MVP Allen Iverson once famously ranted to the media after he was criticized by his coach for missing team practices.
“Maybe Allen Iverson didn’t completely believe in practice, but you have to practice,” Carter says. “You have to be able to work on your game. So I have put in practices that allow us to have good habits as an organization.”
Carter and his leadership team continually assessed Boost’s performance with a series of metrics and used some tools they formulated to help keep everyone abreast of how the company — and their department — was performing against the metrics.
“Every week, we made sure everyone was clear on the state of the business,” he says. “We had a weekly scorecard to indicate how we were performing against all the key metrics. It was set up like a gas gauge, with red, yellow and green. Green meant you were performing at or above the plan, yellow was kind of a warning area and red meant you were underperforming. The goal of that was to get everyone performing from the same sheet of music, the same metrics we were going to use to evaluate the business. Everyone has a common language. And you don’t want to underestimate the importance of that. Having a common language is what allows everyone to have a robust conversation as an organization.”
If you don’t have that method for uniform measurement that allows for consistency in your execution against your goals, you end up like the Lakers did this past spring when they were swept in the second round of the playoffs.
“The Lakers are unquestionably one of the best teams in the league, and what happened to them? There were all kinds of personality issues, emotional distractions, psychological drama,” Carter says. “They’re people, and they weren’t all operating on the same page. And they collapsed. L.A. could still have lost that series, but I don’t think they should have been swept four games to none. And the same thing applies in business. People come to work, they have all kinds of things going on, and you as a leader have to figure out how to keep people together and focused on helping the team best the best that it can be.”
With that approach, Carter had refashioned Boost as a prepaid wireless services brand with appeal to many different market segments by the time he was promoted to lead Sprint’s 4G network expansion in 2009 and to his current post in 2010.
“It just keeps coming back to the fact that it wasn’t just one person as the head of the business, telling everyone else what to do,” Carter says. “We had a forum that was collaborative but invited dissent. You get different points of view and then encourage debate around those points. At some point, if you reach a stalemate, the leader has to make a decision. But you get everyone to understand where we’re going, how we’ll get there and the pros and cons of any decision.
“Having that as part of the process was absolutely critical to getting people to buy in to the vision. And that’s really what you’re trying to do — establish habits and routines. Practice still makes perfect, and you have to put some form of practice in place.”
How to reach: Sprint Global Wholesale Solutions Group, wholesale.sprint.com
The Carter file
Sprint Global Wholesale Solutions Group
Education: Radio, TV and film major at Northwestern University; MBA, Harvard University
First job: I did the newspaper thing. I used to deliver the Boston Globe back in the day, when people used to read the paper.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
It is about people. You get things accomplished through others. As soon as you understand that as a leader, the better off you are.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
You have to be competent at what you do. You have to have confidence, exude optimism and communicate. You don’t have to speak like Barack Obama, but you have to have a willingness to reach out and engage people. And you have to have trust. People have to see that you as a leader are trustworthy. You need to have their back.
What is your definition of success?
It’s living up to your capabilities. If your capabilities can only get you onto the junior varsity team, then so be it. For me, success is really about giving it your all, to the best of your capabilities. Don’t be like Mike. Be like you, do the best you can do. If you can’t live up to what Michael Jordan did, you don’t need to feel like a failure. You give it your best try. It’s when you don’t give it your all that you fail.