Conversation with AT&T’s Betsy Bernard

Former President, AT&T

Betsy Bernard

GBR: Very few people in the world have the opportunity to become the president of a major corporation. Was this something that you always wanted to do and worked towards?

Bernard: I did not start out to become the president of a major company. My motivation and inspiration have always been just to do a really great job at whatever I was doing and to learn as much as I could. In terms of aspirations, my sights were set usually one to two places above where I was. I didn’t start my journey 27 years ago saying, “My goal is to become president of a major corporation or president of AT&T.” My goal was to do a really good job and to make everybody around me feel very proud. I have always believed that I serve at the discretion of others, and so I want to serve very well.

GBR: As you look back over your career, have there been any particularly significant events that were seminal points in getting you to the place that you are today?

Bernard: Well, I had tremendous experiences all along the way. I would say the first significant event was the call that I got from the AT&T recruiter who asked me to come for an interview when I was a junior in college. Twenty-seven years later, I was the president of AT&T. I’m sure that neither the recruiter nor I understood where that particular call and interview would lead, so that call clearly was significant.

It was also significant that I came to a company that had a policy of commitment to diversity, so there was never any question in my mind that I would be given the same opportunities as everybody else at AT&T. I think in hindsight that coming to AT&T was for me a pretty dramatic event. The actual opportunities that I had along the way truly were equal. To be running a 24/7 central office of 50 people at age 24 or 25, or whatever age I was, serving the telecommunications needs of the residential and business customers throughout the northern part of New Jersey was significant.

There was truly a series of important building blocks in my career — though I didn’t realize at the particular time how important they were. But in hindsight, there was just a steady series of increasing responsibilities and a continuous thirst for learning that evolved into the situation where I am today.

GBR: As you talk to people who are in their early careers and are looking to their future, particularly in large organizations such as AT&T, is there some advice that you would give them that you see as particularly helpful to their being successful in that type of large organizational environment?

Bernard: Well, yes. I think that one thing is to be clear about what success looks like in your current role and in delivering results. There’s no substitute for performance, so whether you’re an account executive in sales or a service delivery supervisor in customer care, make the commitments and deliver on them. Performance is the foundational level.

I think the next thing is being accountable for your own career.There may be a lot of people there to help you, but I think that a sense of accountability for your own career is really critically important. Then as part of that accountability, make sure that — along with seeking others’ advice and counsel — that you’ve thought through whatever set of learnings and experiences are necessary in order to be successful at the next level. And finally, I think a continuous passion for learning and a passion for continuous improvement are foundational elements for someone’s success, particularly for success in a large corporation.

GBR: Along those same lines, did mentors play an important role in your life?

Bernard: Probably in my 20’s and the first half of my 30’s the people that I learned the most from were my colleagues and my direct supervisors. I’d also describe myself as an active listener and an observer and learner. I was always paying attention to all those things that I could observe around me.

In my late 30’s, there were a few folks that I would look at who were significant counselors or mentors. Some were within AT&T and some were outside of AT&T. For the most part, what they had in common was about ten years of experience on me. What they also had in common was that they were all women. Yet in my 27 years of work, if you can believe it, I have never had a woman as a direct supervisor, so that’s interesting.

If I consider possible mentors before I began my career — before I actually started work — I would view my mother as having played a mentoring role, although not in a formal way. I grew up in a household in which both of my parents had successful careers. My mother started as a radio personality and then became a TV personality with a daily show. She was always doing news and interviews and traveling for business. She was a writer as well, so it was very normal to me that women got great educations and could be successful in their careers if they chose to be. That idea was the norm for me. I never doubted that I could accomplish whatever I set out to accomplish.

GBR: What do you see as your responsibility–or as the responsibility of individuals at a comparable level in any organization–for developing people who will be needed to carry on the leadership of the organization over time?

Bernard: I think that the responsibility for developing leaders is as important as any responsibility that I have. The job is to identify high potential individuals and to make sure that they are being provided the right set of experiences, the right kind of coaching, the right kind of feedback. It’s a very important role—one that I take very seriously and one that I put a lot of effort into. My effort as president was not necessarily focused on being a mentor to individuals. It was about having the structure and the processes in place to ensure that the next generation of leaders was being identified, developed, coached and mentored.

GBR: I would like to transition a bit. We have all been reading in the papers over the last few months and years about ethical issues in organizations, and obviously much of what we’ve seen has involved top executives in companies. What do you see as the responsibility of the top executives of the company in terms of creating a climate and a culture that instills the right values and the right ethical perspective within an organization?

Bernard: I think that creating such a climate and culture is right up there with developing the next generation of leaders. Leadership sets the tone. It sets what’s acceptable. It establishes the culture. I think it’s absolutely the responsibility of the leaders of the organization to set the tone for the ethical climate and culture within a company. And I think that is done both through your actions as well as by what you say. It’s something that needs to get talked about a lot and in ways that are practical and meaningful for the organization.

If your scenario is that you’re in a foreign country and the minister of some agency comes up and gives you a half a billion dollar bribe to do something, that’s just not the ethical challenge that 99.99 percent of the people in the organization are going to be faced with. I think it’s important to help people look at examples that are more real than the one I just gave, examples of the stuff that goes on every day in the real market place. You need to make sure that you’re really clear as a leader as to where the line is firmly drawn and that absolutely, under no circumstances, is it okay to cross that line. Quite frankly, actions speak as loudly as words in this case, and so you have to make sure that you are modeling in a very loud and public way the ethical climate that you are expecting of the organization.

GBR: Do you have any advice for individuals at lower levels of the organization who feel as if they’re being asked to do things in their organizations that are inappropriate — individuals in middle management and below who may be caught between difficult choices and who sometimes take the fall for difficult situations in companies?

Bernard: I would encourage them to ask questions and report their observations. If it’s a company that doesn’t have a process for reporting such conditions, the first thing I would do as a middle management employee is to suggest that we formulate such a process, explore what it should look like, and even propose how to structure it, how to put it in place, and how to run it. If the company already has such a reporting process in place, then I would report the circumstance. If no action takes place, and if it is an ethical violation, then I would choose to leave. However, I also think it’s important to really make sure that you understand the situation and that you raise questions about what’s actually going on.

GBR: Are you suggesting that sometimes things aren’t exactly what they look like on the surface?

Bernard: Exactly! And assumptions are . . .Well, it’s never a good thing to act on assumptions.

GBR: And often there are many rumors floating around in organizations that aren’t always accurate as to the reality of what’s going on.

Bernard: Exactly!

GBR: Let’s talk more specifically about the telecommunications industry and all that’s going on there. What do you see as the real challenges and opportunities coming up in that industry that telecommunications companies have to deal with?

Bernard: Obviously the biggest one right now is that the telecom market remains extremely weak.That condition is driven both by the economy, which is having a significant impact on lack of demand, and by pressure on prices, which I’d argue is a result of a billion dollars’ worth of fraudulent accounting that caused the industry to get priced down three years ahead of itself. So those two things are driving an extremely weak telecom market. It’s been weak for a while. It will probably stay weak for the foreseeable future.

Within that environment, AT&T continues to operate from a position of relative strength. The company has maintained a relentless focus on managing our costs, a relentless focus on driving share gains in key areas of the business. AT&T has industry leading skill and global networking expertise that are being leveraged. And the company is also very much investing throughout the course of the downturn in the marketplace, which I’m confident will put it in a unique, advantageous position when the market does rebound. So–tough, tough market—and within that tough market, AT&T is continuing to execute successfully.

GBR: This next question is a two-part question. I’d like you to respond either in terms of the telecommunications industry, or if you want to look more broadly at business in general, that’s certainly appropriate as well. As you look out two to three years from now, what is of the most concern to you in the business environment? Then, what are you most excited about as you look down the road two or three years?

Bernard: In terms of the business environment in general, I think the issue is if we will get an economic recovery or not. Economic recovery to me would be businesses investing in their businesses, starting to spend on capital initiatives again. Probably what’s most concerning is the question of when that is going to happen. I’m not worried about if it is going to happen. Business is made up of cycles, and this is just one of them. It’s really just a question of when recovery is going to happen.

From a parochial standpoint in terms of AT&T, I am confident that the company is currently taking the right risks and doing the right things to position it for recovery, so you can well imagine how excited everyone is going to be when it actually does happen. I think that will be the greatest demonstration that the choices that were made now were the right choices.

GBR: I really just have one more question for you that I always like to ask of people. Is there anything that you’ve read recently that was particularly meaningful or insightful? It doesn’t have to be a business related reading. It’s always interesting to know what people are reading and what kinds of things they’re thinking about that are driving their perspective on what they’re doing.

Bernard: Well, the most recent book that I have read is called “Women, Power and AT&T,[1] ” by Lois Herr. It just came out a few months ago, and it’s a story of what was going on in the early ’70s in business in general and at AT&T specifically as it related to the women’s movement. The book was incredibly interesting and fascinating to read. I think it leaves you with two impressions: how incredibly far we’ve come as a country as it relates to the women’s movement and diversity in general and how individuals can make such a difference. For me personally, it is a reminder of how important it is that I as a leader stay vigilant on the issue. You can never get complacent on the topic of making sure that once through the door, you feel appropriately accountable for making sure that the door stays open for others.

GBR: Let me ask you a follow-up to that. At various times, women have made significant strides in moving up in organizations, and then there may be a lull. Particularly with all the layoffs and downsizing that we’ve seen in the last few years, do you see that companies are still working hard to make diversity a priority? Is this continuing to be something that’s significant in organizations?

Bernard: I think companies are still working on it to make it a priority, and progress continues. I don’t think that the economic downturn is dampening the commitment or the progress that’s being made.

GBR: Thank you so much for talking with us. We appreciate the opportunity to share in your insights.


[1] Lois Herr, Women, Power and AT&T: Winning Rights in the Workplace, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003)

Author of the article
Linda A. Livingstone, PhD
Linda A. Livingstone, PhD, , has served as the first woman dean of Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business and Management since 2002. She oversaw a $200 million expansion of the business school's regional campuses, increased the school's international partnerships to 30 business schools around the world, and led the school to membership in the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative and as a signatory to the Principles for Responsible Management Education. Under her leadership, the business school launched the Dean's Executive Leadership Series, a high-profile lecture program that brings to campus leading business innovators. An award-winning teacher, Dr. Livingstone's research focuses on creativity in organizations as influenced by the fit between the individual and the organizational environment. She is the author of business textbooks and numerous scholarly articles that have appeared in Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management Education, and the Journal of Management.
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