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The Advisers Who Help Verizon's Tami Erwin Call Up Her Strengths

04/09/2021 | 10:14pm EDT

By Joann S. Lublin

In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice, and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous installments from the series are here.

Tami Erwin, the highest ranked woman at Verizon Communications Inc., keeps a lightbulb signed by a key mentor so she never forgets that colleague's counsel.

Verizon executive Lowell McAdam gave her the bulb in 2006 after he noticed a dark sign outside a store in her region. "She needed to see how the details could make a difference," explains Mr. McAdam, who went on to become chairman and chief executive of the company.

"I look at that lightbulb almost every day," says Ms. Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business Group, a unit with $31 billion of revenue in 2020. "I am reminded to seek problems and solve them." Her division, based in Basking Ridge, N.J., provides wireless and landline phone services, internet connectivity, security and other technology solutions to businesses.

Ms. Erwin took charge of the global unit in 2019 -- more than three decades after she joined the telecom industry as a wireless customer-service representative making $20,000 a year. Her 2020 compensation totaled about $8.3 million.

The 56-year-old executive avoided laying off any of her roughly 26,000 staffers due to the pandemic. She also spearheaded Verizon's acquisition in May 2020 of Blue Jeans Network Inc., a videoconferencing company, to help the company capitalize on the increase in remote work.

Ms. Erwin reached upper management after taming her fiercely competitive style, moving her family four times and learning to cope with disappointments on the job. Advisers suggested that she dust herself off following a setback because "you don't get success every time," the Verizon leader adds. However, "your hard work will pay off."

The daughter of a family physician and a nurse, Ms. Erwin grew up in the small, agricultural community of Sedro-Woolley, Wash. She aspired to be a pediatrician until she encountered a lung cancer patient during a summer stint in her father's medical office.

"I didn't want to carry the emotional weight of knowing I could not change the outcome for someone who had been diagnosed with a terminal disease," Ms. Erwin says. She decided to instead major in business administration at Pacific Union College.

But she dropped out a year later to marry her high-school sweetheart. She held various administrative jobs before U S West hired her in 1987. Acquisitions eventually folded the Baby Bell into Verizon, which was created in 2000.

At that time, Ms. Erwin already had advanced to an executive spot. She gained profit-and-loss responsibilities in 2003, when she got promoted to a regional presidency at Verizon Wireless, then a joint venture with Vodafone Group PLC. That's also when her husband gave up his accounting career to care for their two children.

Ms. Erwin counts Mr. McAdam among her four most valued advisers:

Jacqueline Cabe

Chief financial officer of UW Medicine

Ms. Cabe and Ms. Erwin call each other "my chosen sister" because they have been close friends since childhood. Their fathers also grew up together before raising families on adjacent 20-acre properties.

Ms. Cabe always encouraged her to do the right thing -- and gave her confidence to persist despite difficult work situations, according to Ms. Erwin. One such circumstance arose in 1997. The 32-year-old manager received negative feedback from her boss while running a large call center.

"People view you as very competitive. They don't view you as a team player," the supervisor told her. Though you're usually right about a required action, the supervisor continued, "you need to let others feel like it's their idea."

Stung by his comments, Ms. Erwin sought solace from her best friend. "Put the mirror to your face," Ms. Cabe replied. "You know you are competitive."

Ms. Erwin vowed to no longer be viewed as advocating "my way or the highway." Even today, the Verizon executive still regularly asks herself, "What is the impact I am having on others?"

Lowell McAdam

Former chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications Inc.

The boss who critiqued Ms. Erwin's managerial style introduced Mr. McAdam to her in 1999. Mr. McAdam became an influential mentor even though he never directly supervised her.

"He was an incredible role model," she remembers. "He used to sweat the details" -- as evidenced by his frequent, unannounced store visits.

His hands-on approach made her realize that she could lead better. He also pushed her and her colleagues "to find the higher gear."

While Verizon Wireless CEO in 2008, Mr. McAdam guided Ms. Erwin as she began to command its poorest-performing operation, which spanned 12 states.

"This (management) team believes that an excuse is as good as a result, " Mr. McAdam cautioned. "Show them that results matter."

Ms. Erwin says she changed nearly the entire top team and "set a different culture." Eighteen months later, her operation became the best performer.

Rose Fass

CEO and co-founder of FassForward Inc.

The leadership-development consultant met Ms. Erwin almost two decades ago during training sessions that Ms. Fass conducted for Verizon.

Her counsel proved critical in 2013 when Ms. Erwin cried in front of a human-resources colleague because she disliked a proposed promotion. Verizon wanted her to leave its rapidly expanding wireless business and assume a senior spot at its slower-growing wireline arm.

"I really felt like I had been benched," Ms. Erwin recalls bitterly.

Ms. Fass insisted she could benefit from the dreaded new assignment. But first, the consultant went on, "maybe you should know what your value is outside of Verizon."

Ms. Erwin spent months drafting her first résumé before landing attractive offers for high-level jobs. Ultimately, however, she stayed put.

The reason? "Verizon no longer took me for granted," the executive points out. Indeed, her boss agreed to help her pursue a position that reported to its CEO. Her current assignment does.

Laurel Rossi

Chief partnerships officer of Organic, a digital marketing agency owned by Omnicom Group Inc.

The veteran marketer long advised Ms. Erwin as a business client before coaching her personally about becoming chief marketing officer of Verizon Wireless.

"I was ill-qualified to do that job," Ms. Erwin recollects. She appreciated learning "through the eyes of someone who was an expert."

Ms. Rossi also recommended that she use her powerful corporate platform to spur the advancement of other women. Ms. Erwin was particularly troubled by Verizon's slim ranks of female store managers and "the fact that women have been discriminated against" historically in business.

She launched Women of Wireless, an employee-development program involving thousands of female staffers in the U.S. Many have since landed leadership roles. Two years ago, Verizon expanded Ms. Erwin's initiative world-wide.

Write to Joann S. Lublin at joann.lublin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

04-10-21 0014ET

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
OMNICOM GROUP INC. 0.78% 84.96 Delayed Quote.36.22%
VERIZON COMMUNICATIONS -0.96% 58.72 Delayed Quote.0.92%
VODAFONE GROUP PLC -0.14% 141.82 Delayed Quote.17.26%
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