Jamie Michael Hemmings had the pleasure of interviewing Horace Starr, Vice President of Technical field Services West at AT&T. His organization spans California and Nevada with over 4000 employees that perform work on the Operations side for Mobility, Power, Local Network Services (LNS) Outside Plant, Multi-Dwelling Unit Fiber installation/support, Central Office, Legacy & IP Installation/Maintenance, and Infrastructure Support. The organization is responsible for a wide variety of projects, plant maintenance and support of partner organizations to ensure success in installation and repair and to meet customer commitments. The team is the front line, the one that the customers see and interact with. To be successful, the team must have a wealth of knowledge and a broad skill set. They are responsible for completing and living the CODE — Care about Our Customers, Own It, Deliver with Confidence and Exceed Expectations with each customer, while providing the highest quality of workmanship possible. This team delivers an outstanding level of service in a complex and multi-layered environment every single day.
What is your “backstory”?
I was born in San Francisco, California and grew up in the Hunters Point area. In the 60’s it was a very rough, depressed area with few opportunities for those who lived there to improve their quality of life and the situation they were in. Many of the people I grew up with didn’t make it out of the area, they stayed and lived a life that was difficult and impoverished, others were involved in criminal activity, some were shot, and others were incarcerated repeatedly or long term.
My father was a preacher and my mom was a homemaker. Our home was filled with love, faith, compassion, a focus on education and taking advantage of those opportunities to expand the options available to me. As a child we moved a lot within the United States, I lived in Monterey, Calif., Cherry Hills, NJ, and Denver, Colo., just to name a few. Moving and adapting to new environments taught me that change was constant, and from those experiences, I learned valuable lessons that have helped me my entire life.
After college, I wanted to obtain my master’s degree and was looking for a company that would provide stable employment with a program to assist me in furthering my education. AT&T had both the employment opportunity and the benefits program I was looking for. They hired me as an E3 Clerk, the lowest entry-level position available and I planned on completing my education. My plan was to obtain my master’s degree and then look for opportunities outside of AT&T. The best-laid plans sometimes change and mine certainly did. While I was completing my master’s degree I was promoted within AT&T to a management position. That was the beginning of a long and interesting career.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your team?
In 2009 I had responsibility for the International group and I went to Tokyo, Japan on a business trip. This was right after Barak Obama was elected president. I don’t resemble him facially, but I am a tall black man and that was enough for me to be mistaken by many people in Tokyo as the president of the United States. I was asked repeatedly for my autograph and to take pictures with people. I did my best to try and explain I wasn’t the president, but most folks spoke little, or no English and I didn’t speak Japanese well enough to explain, so I signed autographs, as myself, and took pictures with anyone who asked. The visit was very memorable, the people were excited and happy and for a brief moment, I was famous!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First and foremost, I believe AT&T’s commitment to diversity makes this company strong and unique in our industry. The commitment our CEO Randall Stephenson shows in this area reverberates across the company and our workforce shows how deep our focus is around diversity and inclusion.
Early in my career, I took advantage of mentoring opportunities. One of my mentors, Carmen Johnson, impressed upon me that regardless of where you stand in the hierarchical structure you can always find someone to help you. All it takes is a willingness to learn, to take a leap and be kind. This lesson has stayed with me through my career, and along the way, I have learned and grown from the experiences and interactions I have had with my co-workers.
Are you working on new or exciting projects now?
Over the last few years, the business has been in a transformative phase as we shift from our culture of Plain Old Telephone Service to a data-powered entertainment and business solution company. Our organization is undergoing a large restructuring project that is designed to support our 2020 vision and to improve the overall customer experience by providing them a one-stop-shop for their needs and give us the needed system integration and reports. Change isn’t easy, and I have asked a lot of my team during the transformation period, to keep the overall customer experience at the top of your mind, stay focused on what we do and how we do it and adapt to an ever-changing environment — a new technology, process, and focus. They do all of this and continue to look for opportunities to streamline, improve customer service and keep our expenses under control. The culture of the organization is one of service, commitment, and family.
What is your best advice for helping employees thrive?
I believe there are several things that can help employees thrive. Providing your employees with a variety of learning opportunities — training of all types and experiences that allow them to improve their performance, gain confidence and take smart risks is critical. When your teams do these things, they should be rewarded for these behaviors.
Always share what you can honestly and ask for and foster a two-way conversation that is open, honest and direct. This helps to build trust with your team which is a cornerstone that empowers them to be the best they can be and have confidence that their opinion and voice matters.
Take advantage of the learning opportunities we have every day, challenge yourself to learn soft and hard (technical) skills, give and receive feedback that will help to identify areas to improve in and recognize those that make a difference.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
When I was working in the Human Resources organization, Carmen Johnson was my mentor. She inspired me to look at all things differently. She provided me opportunities to stretch my skill sets and build interpersonal relationships in a variety of ways. She challenged me to try different approaches to problem-solving, to create an environment that allowed me to work through issues without the fear of failure and reinforced that from these exercises you will learn something to help you grow. Her belief that failure is evidence of courage to try something different and new has left an indelible mark on me. From my time with Carmen, I developed an approach for myself and share this with my teams to inspire them to take smart risks, engage others for help, never be afraid to ask for support and engage in open and honest two-way conversations.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I firmly believe you must always set an example and give back. Within AT&T, I mentor, participate in and lead fundraising events such as the America Heart Association Heart Walk, March of Dimes, Lung Walk and give time to the Aspire program working with homeless children. AT&T has a long and rich history of volunteering in the community and supporting our employees with different programs that provide the opportunity for growth.
Outside of AT&T, I give my time to a wide variety of causes. Recently my family took a trip to Belize where we adopted a school. We brought in school supplies, books, pencils, reading materials, pens, paper, anything needed to make the environment one that the children could thrive and grow in. This was very important to myself and my family, we wanted to share and help others have an opportunity to flourish and prepare them for the possibilities that may be presented as they take their place in the world.
Simply said, I believe we should give back as often as we can. One moment of kindness can change someone’s world.
Can you share the top lessons that you have learned from your experience as a “Black Man In Tech”?
Change is constant and all around us. I learned early that life is full of change and it is all around us. Moving as much as we did when I was young helped me to develop the ability to cope with and accept change, see the positive in it and look for ways to learn from it.
Taking smart risks is very important. Without taking the risk you don’t know what is achievable, what can be learned from the experience and you stifle your creativity. Having the courage to try something, possibly succeed or fail and learn from the experience is invaluable.
Don’t let others define you. I learned this lesson growing up in Hunters Point. I could have taken the path of least resistance that my friends and some of my family took. That road led to a life with limited opportunity and in many cases becoming a statistic. I learned that you must be responsible for your own growth, ask and receive feedback openly and take opportunities when they are presented. It is up to you how you benefit from the experience.
Continuous learning is a requirement for growth. When I was young my parents instilled the importance of education and the value of it in me. I have found that to be one of the most valuable lessons given to me. I strive to stay in a continuous learning mode in all I do, and I ask others to do the same. When we stop learning we close ourselves off to possibilities, creativity and limit our impact. Continuous learning happens in a variety of ways and we need to be open to receiving and using the teachings we receive.
The words you speak have power. In the mid-eighties during a performance review given by my supervisor, I was told that I had the potential to become an area manager and possibly a director. I asked why not a vice president or even more than that. He responded that there weren’t many men of color in those positions and told me that they weren’t hiring in those positions either. I realized he saw the world in black and white and that he didn’t believe there was any room for change. This conversation sat with me in a way that he probably never intended, it gave me motivation. I didn’t want to be defined by others or held back, I was responsible for my growth and opportunities and I needed to seek others who would help me in these areas. His words impacted me and drove me to reach for more.
You must put in the work. Opportunities will come along and when they do you must work hard, you may have to make sacrifices, you must have integrity and you should always be authentic. Hard work matters, it teaches, exercise your creativity and gives you experience that will serve you well as you continue to take risks.
Kindness matters. Expressions of kindness impact people and move all of us toward a greater good both inside the business and outside of it. I truly believe we can take smart risks, have open and honest conversations and achieve our goals while being kind to one another. Kindness isn’t weakness it is a key to building relationships, instilling feelings of confidence and value and provides people space to create, engage and achieve.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” Colin Powell
“The level of our success is limited only by our imagination and no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Aesop
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would like to have breakfast with Colin Powell. I believe he would have made a great United States President and I admire his work ethic, leadership style, and accomplishments. His leadership model “18 Lessons in Leadership” is fantastic and inspiring I would like to discuss it with him and talk about lessons learned from his experiences.