When Tim Smith arrived to lead Verizon’s Pennsylvania/Delaware Operations, he found a group that thought it was performing quite well both from a metrics perspective and in the way it served its customers.
Unfortunately, the data Smith had reviewed painted a different picture of what was happening in the PA/DE region of the $115.8 billion broadband and telecommunications company.
“The challenge I had was taking a group of individuals that had a lot of tenure, with most of them having been in their positions for more than 10 years, and convincing them that they really weren’t as good as they thought they were,” Smith says. “We had a long way to go to provide a compelling service experience.”
Smith was in the midst of a transition from Verizon’s vice president of operations in Florida and Texas to his current position in Pennsylvania/Delaware.
“I had come from an environment in Florida and Texas where, when I left, the operations budget was $4.5 million under budget,” Smith says. “When I came to Pennsylvania/Delaware, they were $7.8 million over budget.”
These numbers were clear evidence of a problem. But when Smith met with operations directors and later with his sales directors in the 3,100-employee region, he sensed very little energy to get things turned around.
“I said, ‘Do you believe that you can get better?’” Smith says. “And they said, ‘Well, yeah, but we’re No. 1 on this and No. 1 on that.’ I looked at the numbers and said, ‘You may be comparing yourself to a certain part of the region. But if you look at this team nationally, you’re not No. 1. That may come as a surprise to you, but you’re not.’ At that point, you could see the expression on their faces change a little bit.”
It was becoming clear to Smith that he had a tough job ahead of him.
Get people actively engaged
As Smith emerged from his first meeting with regional leaders, he felt he had to take immediate action.
“The first thing I wanted to put in place was for them to work with a sense of urgency,” Smith says. “The numbers were decent, but they weren’t where they needed to be or where they could be.
“I talked to them about how they needed to work with a sense of urgency and mapped out where I thought we could be both on the service side and on the expense side and then eventually on the revenue side so we could turn the margin picture of Pennsylvania/Delaware around.”
With that initial message conveyed, Smith then wanted to speak to everyone who worked in the PA/DE region and make sure they understood what he was trying to do.
“I wasn’t just dealing with my direct reports,” Smith says. “I had to make sure the messaging that I wanted filtered down into the organization and got down to the technician level so that they really understood what was going on.”
To get that message across the way he wanted, Smith gathered the directors to develop a new mission statement that had proven effective for him in the Florida/Texas region.
“I changed just a little bit of it so that it fit exactly what was going on in Pennsylvania/Delaware,” Smith says. “I worked with the directors because my philosophy around how I lead is I want to make sure that the team is involved in everything I do. I don’t just create something and throw it out there and see if it sticks and then move forward.”
Smith didn’t want it to be his mission statement. He wanted the directors to take ownership and feel like it was a mission statement that spoke for the entire group.
“I brought in the directors, gave it to them and said, ‘How can we change this to make sure it really fits what we’re going after?’” Smith says. “‘What are our goals? What do we want to do? Do we want to be best in class? If we want to be best in class, how are we going to do that? How innovative is this team? How innovative have we been?’”
Smith talked about innovation, culture, competition and revenue. He wanted to drive home the message that eventually, complacency would lead to bigger problems.
As a means of continuous reinforcement of the mission statement, Smith made sure the statement was always visible to his team.
“I put together a mission statement that I wanted everyone to put in their cubicle, their office and in their garages,” Smith says. “I sensed that if my direct reports were complacent, then there was no question the rest of the team would be that way as well.”
Making the tough call
Smith had offered some tough feedback to directors in the region about their performance. But it was about to get even tougher when he came to the realization that the team needed an overhaul.
“I came in and within the first 30 days that I was here, we reduced almost 400 technicians and a director,” Smith says. “We called it an ISP offering, an income security plan. It allows individuals in the business to elect to leave the business if they so choose. We sweetened it with a pretty good chunk of money. Not only did they get their years of service, but they also got a huge stipend to leave the business.”
It was obviously a difficult decision to make, but Smith felt it was the right call to get things turned around in the PA/DE region. It also made it clear that the status quo was not going to be acceptable.
“I had to be really self-confident in the decisions I was making when I came into this job,” Smith says. “And that had to be really consistent with my values and my belief system. You need to trust that gut instinct that you have to make the right decisions. I didn’t have a whole lot of folks that were cheering for me to do the things I did or make the decisions I made.”
If he did not produce any results, Smith would face a lot worse than the lack of cheering and he understood that. But that confidence he had in his leadership abilities, and the knowledge that he had done it before and succeeded, kept him moving forward.
“I had to show them I could get results and I had to show them I could do it in a relatively short period of time,” Smith says.
Smith’s goals were to cut expenses, improve customer experience and energize employees to work as hard as they could for the company and its customers.
One of the key metrics Verizon looks at is the meantime to restore high-speed Internet due to outages from weather, equipment malfunctions or other problems.
When Smith arrived, he was coming from the best-run operations region in the nation. “We were running in Texas and Florida right around 30 hours for restoral,” Smith says. “In Pennsylvania/Delaware, it was around 56.”
There were other metrics in which PA/DE was way behind as well. And Smith set out to create a sense of accountability at every level of the region.
“I taught them how to look at what I would consider the numbers or the metrics and put together action plans that really drove those numbers where we wanted to go,” Smith says.
As he looked at the team and who knew how to do what, he discovered that some people weren’t trained in all that they needed to know.
“They had groups of individuals that just focused on one piece of the install,” Smith says. “I said, ‘We can’t do that. We need everyone to be accountable for every install every time.’ So we changed our philosophy.”
The key to making this type of improvement work is listening to your team and working with them to bring everyone up to the desired level.
“I have a call with my directors and second-line managers every Friday,” Smith says. “It’s not a call I beat people up on. It’s a call where I hold them accountable and we talk about the actions they had taken the previous week and how those actions either helped them or didn’t help them.
“If it didn’t help them, now I’ve got the team on the call to help them so they can improve the next week. Leaders need to excel at giving feedback and it has to be quantitative feedback.”
Smith says the efforts of the team have paid off in a big way for the company, the region and its customers. The budget has been trimmed, everybody has clearer goals and the end result is actually less work that now needs to be done.
“When I came in here, the amount of work we had every day was more than double what we have today,” Smith says. “Once we reduced it down, we were able to provide a more compelling service experience for our customers. We improved our business meantime restore by 49 percent over the past two years and reduced our overtime by 31 percent. So it speaks to the quality of life our employees now have.”
How to reach: Verizon, www.verizon.com
The Smith File
region president, consumer and mass business markets
Verizon’s Pennsylvania/Delaware Operations
Born: Fort Wayne, Ind.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, Indiana Wesleyan University.
What was your very first job and what did you learn? Danny’s Pizza Shop. I was making $1.25 an hour. I didn’t live close to the pizza shop, so I had to get up and catch the bus because I wasn’t of age to drive. It taught me discipline. I wanted to sleep in, and I couldn’t sleep in because I had to catch the bus. If I missed the bus, there was nobody at home to take me to work.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? My parents always instilled in me a good work ethic. I watched my dad work, and I can’t remember my dad not being at work through the week, other than vacations. Even a few hours on Sunday, he would go in. My mom was the same way. I watched them do the best they could to make ends meet for our family.
What one person would you like to have met? Martin Luther King Jr. It is not because he’s an African-American, but it’s the vision he had for America.
Most people have a hard time creating a vision for their own life or household.
When I look at my job here at Verizon, I want to make sure I have a vision for not only growing revenue, margins going up and expenses going down, but there are more than 4,000 individuals that count on me to make the right decision.
I don’t take that lightly. Meeting a person like Martin Luther King Jr. would just help me even today to solidify the vision that I not only have personally, but it would also help me in business as well.
Be confident in yourself.
Think before you act.