The natural born leader
How Tami Erwin leveraged courage and compassion to build Verizon Business into a customer-centric engine driving the future of business.
Four years ago, Verizon was at a crossroads. The potential for 5G was near limitless – for consumers, businesses, even whole societies. But enterprise customer needs and expectations were evolving rapidly at the same time – and Verizon urgently needed to do the same to serve their customers.
Verizon couldn’t push forward if their interactions with businesses were limited to selling connectivity alone. They had to think bigger.
Answering questions for tomorrow
Helping businesses drive digital transformation would be key to solving rapidly evolving customer needs. But how were their enterprise customers using new technology, and how could Verizon facilitate such change? Verizon wanted to give organizations the holistic solutions they needed today – and be better placed to predict what they would need tomorrow. To do so they needed to understand who their enterprise customers were – and just as importantly, who were their customers?
Verizon wanted to place themselves at the forefront of how businesses use technology to shape their futures – and so Verizon Business was created, to help enterprise customers to use its networks to ‘move the world forward’. This new venture would require fresh ideas and strong leadership to succeed.
A leader in waiting
They didn’t need to look far for the perfect candidate. Tami Erwin started some 35 years ago at Verizon’s predecessor AirTouch. Initially she was a customer service rep, looking no further ahead than using the job as a way to work out what she wanted to do in the longer term. Six weeks in, however, she had the opportunity to try one of the very first cell phones. It wasn’t the sleek, multi-functional device we’ve all come to take for granted since, but it was still a life-changing event for Erwin:
“I will never forget taking and checking out the first cell phone that I ever got to use, which of course was the great big brick”, Erwin recalls. “I remember holding it and making a call. You could barely hear the person on the other line, but wow was it cool!”
The experience revealed a deep passion in Erwin for the potential of tech to enrich lives. And brought more empathetic leadership into the industry.
Learning lessons from a physician
Erwin may not initially have had long term leadership ambitions, but her upbringing clearly helped shape the values she’s displayed as her career progressed. She grew up in a small agricultural community near Seattle. Her father was a physician, playing an important role in the town. He was also a pivotal influence on his daughter.
35 years later, Erwin’s passion remained undimmed as she progressed through the ranks at Verizon and her rise has been meteoric. When she became the first executive vice president and CEO of Verizon Business, Erwin’s targets were clear: to grow the unit’s revenue and customer base, and transform the way the organization serves its customers.
Erwin was confident in her abilities to help Verizon Business succeed in a rapidly changing landscape. “I know how to manage operations at scale, and I’m committed to helping people drive transformational change.”
Erwin also believes her experiences in customer service had given her an innate understanding of what Verizon Business needed to do to thrive in a 5G future.
“I grew up in the world of serving customers”, Erwin says. “I believe it's the most important thing we can do. If you're not serving a customer directly, you're serving the people who are serving those customers. It takes a team to win.”
A brave new world
Erwin took what she’d learned about technology, customers and teamwork, and used it to plot an exciting new future for Verizon Business. She quickly identified that Verizon could no longer rely on just selling their assets – they needed to better understand who their customers were in order to be able to provide them with holistic solutions.
“We had a really clear strategy for delivering for our customers and building the infrastructure of the future – and how to do it with people at the core, building a strong culture and a clear mission.”
Getting there first
As well as providing core connectivity, Erwin knew that Verizon Business could deliver platforms, applications and solutions. Tami was still just as excited by the possibilities of cutting-edge tech as she had been when trying that ‘great big brick’ of a phone:
“Our big dream was to be the first in the world to deliver 5G capability to our customers. 5G is super exciting, and I think we’re just getting started. So we set out on a mission to be the first to deliver 5G mobility, 5G fixed wireless access and 5G mobile edge compute. And we were the first in the world to deliver all three.”
Verizon Business was off to a great start. But there was a further unforeseen challenge that would need to be navigated. As usual, Erwin faced it with a positive outlook.
Turning challenges into opportunities
“Now, what we didn’t plan for was COVID”, Erwin admits. “It gave us the setback that said all of a sudden we need to send 30,000 people home to work from home.”
But after the initial shock, it became clear that the effects of the pandemic demonstrated that Verizon Business was already on the right track.
“We were talking about digital transformation when we first set up Verizon Business, so COVID just accelerated it”, Erwin says. “It reinforced our commitment to businesses because we had to find new ways to help them serve their customers – whether it’s a health care provider who needs a bigger circuit or a business that suddenly has employees working from home. How can we use 5G to accelerate these digital transformations?”
Building an inclusive culture
Erwin’s forward thinking and belief in new technology played a large part in Verizon Business being well placed to navigate the pandemic. But equally important was her style of leadership. She believed in building a culture in which doing good was as important as being successful. And Erwin valued every voice, whether it be listening to the needs of Verizon Business customers, or suggestions from within her team.
And Erwin speaks with obvious pride about fostering an inclusive, welcoming culture within Verizon Business which could help develop the leaders of tomorrow.
“It was a clear mission. How do you transform the way we serve our customers while also building leaders for tomorrow? We wanted to build a ‘people first’ culture that understood how to lead, even in volatile times.”
Success in several forms
The results of Erwin’s work were clear. Verizon Business’s ability to help businesses capitalize on the opportunities 5G provided for digital transformation combined with its growing insights into what made its customers tick soon saw the organisation grow to over $30B in annual revenue.
And as for building a strong leadership group? Well, in early July 2022, Tami stepped down from her role as CEO of Verizon Business to become Strategic Advisor to Verizon’s CEO, before her departure from the company at the end of the third quarter. She had been working with her successor, Sowmyanarayan Sampath, for 18 months to ensure a smooth transition. As always, Tami’s modesty shines through, speaking about her hope that Verizon Business gets “even better” after she leaves.
What’s certain is that the team she leaves behind have had the perfect grounding in how to do business in a way that balances success with empathy, respect and a desire to help the world become a more connected place.
Tami’s three tips for effective, compassionate leadership
Be true to yourself
Operate on values that you hold dear. Anchoring to those values helps you align to a common purpose and move forward.
Balance your priorities
Leadership involves balancing the delivery for your stakeholders, whether that’s customers, employees, shareholders or society at large. Be agile about how you work and deliver. And be clear on your mission and values.
Back your people
Provide your employees with the tools, resources and information to do the job you ask them to do. Treat them with the respect they deserve, listen to the things that make their job hard, act on those, and then get out of their way.
A humble inspiration
It's notable that whenever Erwin speaks about Verizon’s achievements, she is keen to point out that it was a team effort, always referring to ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. There are different ways to be a successful leader. Some do so through sheer force of personality. Others, like Erwin, prefer a more collaborative approach. It’s a method that played a part in her rise to the top of a traditionally male-dominated industry.
“What I found over the last 35 years is for women in particular, how you amplify your voice, how you have your voice be heard is a really big challenge”, says Erwin.
The art of getting your point across effectively to a range of audiences is central to Erwin’s approach, both as a woman and more generally as a leader of a large organization.
“I've worked very hard in my career to learn how to communicate individually, how to communicate to a team, how to communicate in a large form environment”, she explains.
A force for good
Erwin is a natural communicator. But it helps that she genuinely believes in what she does. For Erwin, 5G isn’t just about providing faster connectivity – she sees its potential to improve lives: “I think we've never had more ability to control the outcome and use tech to help solve some of the world's biggest problems, whether it's education, whether it's health care, whether it's poverty or whether it's digital transformation.”
Erwin is particularly proud of Verizon’s work in the education sector. The Verizon Innovative Learning Program takes a holistic approach, going beyond providing a school with 5G to integrating tablets into the learning process and showing teachers how to use technology to provide a better experience – and outcome – for students.
Erwin and her team also created a program for small businesses. It provides access to expertise, coaching and advice on how to use technology at the core of their business.
It’s clear that Erwin sees it as a duty for businesses to try and make a genuine difference. Her story is one of compassionate, customer-centric leadership, and a belief in the power of tech “to make the world a better place”.