Christy Pambianchi: “Stay true to yourself”

Stay true to yourself. Find a job that respects who you are as a person and satisfies your hunger for success. You should never feel pressured to compromise or hide your authentic self because your experience offers tremendous value. And speak up because your unique voice and ideas can change the world if you have […]

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Stay true to yourself. Find a job that respects who you are as a person and satisfies your hunger for success. You should never feel pressured to compromise or hide your authentic self because your experience offers tremendous value. And speak up because your unique voice and ideas can change the world if you have the courage to put them out there.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christy Pambianchi.

Christine M. Pambianchi is Verizon’s lead HR officer, managing all compensation, benefits, talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion, training and labor relations functions for the nation’s leading provider of fiber-optic and global Internet networks and services. Prior to joining Verizon in July 2019, Christy was the Executive Vice President of People & Digital at Corning Incorporated. At Corning, she served in a variety of roles of increasing responsibility including Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Division Vice President of Business Human Resources, and Vice President of Human Resources. Prior to working at Corning Incorporated, Christy worked at PepsiCo, Incorporated for ten years.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always had a passion and empathy for helping other people. When I started my career 30 years ago in HR with PepsiCo after college, my goal was to make an immediate impact on the organization by building a stronger and more inclusive culture. Sometimes when people hear “HR,” they think about policies and rules. But really, HR is core to building a company and enabling its success. It takes more than the best products or services to make a company successful; you need the right people.

People spend most of their lives at work, and companies invest significant resources in talent. I have dedicated my life to optimizing this equation — helping people find work meaningful to them and helping companies create compelling people strategies that enable them to win.

This has been an unprecedented year for everyone, but especially for HR professionals. Overnight, we pivoted millions of employees to work remotely and became laser-focused on building policies that prioritize our people’s well-being amid a global health crisis. It’s the trademark of HR professionals to raise our hands and do everything in our power to help people persevere. This is not a trait we learn, but simply who we are.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I started working at Verizon in July 2019, and then COVID-19 became our reality six months later. As you might imagine, that presented quite a few challenges. Soon after 2020 began, I received word from our offices in China that a virus was spreading rapidly. Recognizing the need to take immediate action, I formed Verizon’s COVID-19 crisis response team with three paramount purposes:

  1. Caring for the health and safety of our employees (V Teamers)
  2. Making sure customers are connected and operational.
  3. Ensuring we’re doing our part to help society recover.

In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 fundamentally changed how we worked, connected, learned and lived. Now, more than ever, our networks must remain operational as an essential service to healthcare, first responders, schools, businesses and families. Connectivity allows our students to learn, our doctors and nurses to treat, our first responders to protect and our families and community to stay connected.

As the world relies on our ability to keep them connected, we expanded our work from home strategy to encompass the majority of our global workforce, more than 100,000 V Teamers. We provided our colleagues with the tools to maintain their productivity.

We reduced our retail footprint, and we created a redeployment strategy to reassign retail team members to telesales and customer service roles. While our goal was to keep our team members employed, transitioning them to new roles expanded their skill set, and they were eager to offer their expertise to advance other business-critical needs.

We developed a series of safety procedures to prioritize our employees’ health and well-being and continue to host a live daily broadcast to keep our teams informed and engaged. In addition, we also implemented a COVID-19 specific leave of absence policy, deployed a team of nurses to support any employees with confirmed cases and implemented essential worker service pay. We can’t predict what the next few weeks will bring, but we will continue to bend as a company to remain responsive to our employees’ needs.

Our commitment to our employees, customers and the greater society was recognized by Forbes, ranking Verizon as number one for our COVID-19 response.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started working, women had to wear full suits to work every day — skirts, stockings and heels. One Friday, in the early 90s, I wore a pantsuit to “business casual” Friday — we are talking full pantsuit with a blazer, pants and dress shirt. To help you visualize the room, men were in khakis and polos.

At the time, other women told me I was daring, and they were grateful. Unintentionally, I became a trendsetter. Only last year, almost 25-years later, I stopped wearing stockings with my dress suits and even stopped wearing suits and heels to work every day. Old habits die hard, but I was proud to rock my look in a time when women were expected to dress a certain way.

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? Can you share a story about that?

My family. My career wouldn’t be possible without the unending support from my husband and kids. I have known my husband since I was 17, and we have raised four children together. They are my biggest cheerleaders and have been by my side at every turn and new chapter.

Throughout my career, I have been very fortunate to have supervisors that stayed with me as mentors. While I worked exceptionally hard in every job and role, some leaders saw themselves as more than managers. They made sure I felt secure in my next step and continue to offer their wisdom and expertise whenever I need support. Mentors act as a compass. They may not tell which way to go, but they will point you in the right direction.

Outside of my family and mentors, I am inspired and moved by my team. I work with the most talented colleagues who eagerly raise their hands to take on more and conquer whatever challenges come our way, no matter the scale or size. That’s why it’s important to cultivate and cement relationships with your peers. At work, you don’t leave your personal life at the door or turn off reality. Having people you trust at work and can lean on is critical to your success. Plus, there is no greater joy than helping each other thrive.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Self-care is the most important value we can impart to our teams, especially as our personal and professional lives have merged like never before. However, your colleagues will not prioritize their emotional and physical well-being if you, as a leader, don’t set the example. While I don’t have a set routine to help me prepare for a high-stakes meeting or event, managing our response to COVID-19 and the 24/7 effort it has required further magnified the need to step back and recharge.

Over this summer, I realized that I worked every single day — nonstop — leading our COVID-19 response, and I needed a break. My family and I decided to take a cross-country trip in an RV, a first for the Pambianchis, and I am not sure we would have opted to hit the road if it was not for the pandemic. The memories made from that trip gave me a tremendous boost and recentered my focus. Even now, I am smiling, thinking about those moments spent with my kids, knowing that the most precious thing we have is time, so we better spend it wisely. We had a special gift we gave ourselves to remember the trip by, our puppy Luna, who we picked up during our trek.

Every day, I remind my team members that there is room for their whole self at work, and the signs of life that we may hear on calls or videos — a baby crying, a dog barking, or an elderly parent asking a question — makes them a stronger contributor and an even greater asset. That’s why I invite my family members on camera and have introduced Luna because I need to dial-up the volume when life gets real or my colleagues, especially working moms, will be forever on mute.

My family keeps me grounded. If I am heading into a relentless day of back-to-back meetings, I will hug one of my kids, and the world feels right again. We are navigating what feels like endless waves of challenges and unknowns, so we all need to find what brings us joy. My family is my joy.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

We know it takes more than the best technology to move the world forward, it takes the best people. And what gives us the strength to deliver is that we are all different. We are at the forefront of an industry building a more connected world. With our purpose, scale and global reach, we are uniquely positioned to shape a more equitable future and catalyze the change we want and need to see, starting within our walls.

Diversity is one of our most potent competitive advantages and helps us connect more meaningfully with our customers and society. A diverse workforce that values different perspectives makes us stronger and better prepared to solve the complex challenges that lay ahead.

Every company should feel empowered to be a force for change and live up to the highest ideals of equality and justice. Not only will it create a stronger environment for success at work, but we will also build a bright future for everyone.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Back in June, I had a conversation with my four kids about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, and the injustice that so many in the Black community face daily. At that moment, I realized my privilege both as a mother and a business leader. When I spoke with my kids, it was about the prejudice they may witness, whereas Black parents warn their children about the discrimination (or worse) they will undoubtedly face. We have a long way to go before justice is no longer a luxury, and fundamental human rights are equally respected. And I believe the lion’s share of the change needs to happen in the workplace by calling out systemic bias, whether implicit or unconscious and making sure people of all backgrounds, cultures and perspectives have a voice and a seat at the table.

Here are some of the steps I took to better support our employees:

  1. Listen and learn. Don’t assume you know what needs to be addressed before speaking directly with employees and giving them a safe space to share.
  2. Become actionable allies. We need to co-create solutions that reflect a diverse panel of perspectives by moving from sideline supporters to actionable allies committed to real change.
  3. Stop trying to find the right words when the right actions speak louder. We must continuously evaluate programs, strengthen processes and build the correct support systems to help people of color and women thrive personally and professionally.

When you are committed to equality, you are committed to the practices that help advance equality. That means doubling down on our efforts to infuse greater equity into our processes, behaviors and operational rhythms. To put action into practice means we will strengthen support systems to ensure that women and people of color have equal opportunity to thrive professionally and never have to scale down their ambitions or anchor their dreams. And we will continue to foster an inclusive culture so that every employee feels empowered to share their authentic selves and feel seen and heard as vital contributors.

At Verizon, we are proud to have enacted a Racial Justice Action Plan to reinforce how we will build sustainable equity within and beyond our walls. While I am proud of our efforts, we can’t ignore continued acts of racial injustice. Staying silent and still would go against who we are as a company. While no one person alone will solve the challenges that lay ahead, we are ~135,000 strong, and together we can pave the way for progress.

We also embraced the opportunity to be even more transparent by releasing our June 2020 Diversity Representation Report, a comprehensive overview of who makes up the V Team. While the numbers show we have built a solid foundation over the past 20 years that will serve as a springboard for the future, we acknowledge there is room for improvement across teams and at all levels.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Executives and leaders in the C-suite are the pinnacle of leadership for an organization. As officers of the company, we take the responsibility of caring for the stakeholders very seriously. We continuously look objectively at the entire organization and the world outside of our walls to identify areas of improvement and opportunities. We set the stage for growth and build plans for how the company and our stakeholders- customer, shareholders, employees, society — will thrive.

As the CHRO of Verizon, I’m one of the faces of the brand, and the care and development of our people ultimately fall on me. As I described earlier, I need to set an example and be a force for change. If I cannot drive that change or set that example, alongside my colleagues and teams, it can literally affect the performance and stature of the entire company. All of the actions for progress in diversity and inclusion I just described creates a more inclusive and engaged culture that directly correlates with attracting and retaining top, diverse talent.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think there is a myth that it gets easier the higher up you go in an organization. When, in fact, each step up gets exponentially more challenging. Simply put, the stakes get higher, the risks feel heavier, and your actions come with significant consequences and opportunities.

Your responsibility and oversight scale to encompass all stakeholders — customers, investors, employees and society. And the margin for error is razor-thin because any mistake has an enterprise-level impact.

Therefore, my advice is to get as much hands-on experience as possible early in your career. Make mistakes and translate those lessons learned into opportunities gained. Don’t be in a race to the top — be in a race to learn as much as possible and focus on acquiring the skills needed to deliver the best work possible.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women are rarely given a paved path to pursue their dreams. We have to figure out how to move forward while navigating uneven terrain. It’s what builds us, strengthens our resolve and prepares us to persevere. Not too long ago, being a mom and providing care was largely seen as a weakness and an anchor to your professional dreams. When I started in HR, the policies and protections around working moms were weak at best.

As a society, we need to change our narrative and policies from the fiction and guilt-induced work-life balance to work-life integration, acknowledging that women’s personal and professional lives have merged and build real-world solutions with that in mind. I raised four children and was very involved as a mom and a professional. In fact, I am still raising my children as that role never retires.

Looking at recent workforce data, COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting women, forcing millions to downshift their careers and leave their jobs at an alarming rate. It’s clear that women have been asked to take one for the team, return home and retire their ambitions instead of receiving the support they need to stay actively employed. As a global society, the risk we face from this parallel crisis is unraveling decades of hard-earned progress and jeopardizing what the future holds for women and girls.

Business leaders need to step forward and get real solutions in motion by committing their support and action to drive greater equity. Because we need women at every level, across every industry.

At Verizon, flexible working hours, equity in pay and professional development, financial assistance to offset caregiver needs, paid and comprehensive parental leave and allowing women to adjust to part-time status without penalizing their trajectory and benefits are just some of the ways that we are supporting our female colleagues. But we are not done, far from it. We know career growth is more than a benefits package that acknowledges reality. True equality is how we help women continue to climb the ladder even when they need to take a step back to care for real life.

COVID-19 cannot be another hurdle for us to overcome to advance and thrive professionally.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I think it’s fair to say that within my first year as CHRO at Verizon, I never imagined leading a company through a global pandemic, especially one at this scale with no real end in sight.

As a function, HR has radically changed. Not too long ago, people would only hear from us about benefits, bonuses and policy changes. We became a more visible group as we started to talk about the future of work and the forthcoming transformation sparked by a seismic digital and tech shift. It’s fair to say that COVID-19 served as a catalyst and put our transformation into hyperdrive, but we were already redefining the role.

Change is always a necessary constant, but my entire first year has definitely been a wild ride — and one of which I’m so very proud.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

No one should aspire to be an executive. While it’s important to be ambitious and have a hunger to succeed, people should aspire to be leaders — not status seekers — and, in particular, servant leaders. If you are great at what you do and have a passion for setting strategy, mobilizing teams and empowering them to deliver, you are a strong candidate for being an executive. Executives are leaders. Leaders lead. And leaders cannot be effective without building trust with their teams and colleagues.

Leaders are skilled in articulating a vision and motivating their teams to execute with clearly defined roles and processes to ensure success. Another defining characteristic of a leader is someone who enjoys and values cultivating their team members’ talent and helping them realize their full potential.

It’s also important to note that the strongest contributor is not necessarily the best leader of a team. We should all consider career and recognition pathways for really strong individual contributors. Companies that force people into management to achieve higher levels of recognition, often get leaders who are not suited for leadership. No one needs to be boxed into the “right” path, and we should play to each other’s strengths and reward accordingly.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Never question your place and bring your whole self to work. Let that define you and your career and work style. For example, my role as a mother defined my professional path, and it keeps me grounded as a leader and colleague. I have the foresight and knowledge to build policies that bend with the realities we face at work and on the home front.

And if you don’t see a seat at the table, build your own and surround yourself with people who share your values and commitment. We recently lost Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was truly a Herculean force for women everywhere. She reminded us that “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Never let anyone cast doubt on why you are in the room or silence your voice. Your contributions are too important, and you most certainly belong. And if there’s an obstacle standing in your way, knock it down not only for yourself but for the other women around you.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

No matter how busy I get in work and life, I find time to give back and help others. This is what drives me in my job, but I also participate in volunteering outside work and in my family life.

Verizon has a really great volunteer program, and I’ve been so fortunate to help communities in need of support and service. I encourage everyone to find a cause you’re passionate with and give back. It feeds your soul while offering a much-needed dose of reality. We can build the best networks in the world, but it won’t make a difference if communities are left behind. It’s our responsibility to address society’s most pressing needs as we create and power the future, so everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

I find tremendous joy in helping students realize new skills and ambitions. I have been heavily involved in a robotics program, coaching and spreading STEM to communities that may not have otherwise had exposure. I am also very passionate about improving the link between education and the workforce as we prepare people for the jobs of the future and an increasingly digital economy.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Stop looking for the right next step. One thing I have learned over my career is that there is no right step. Life is anything but linear and there are many steps we take that shape our journey. Focus on doing good work and learning as much as you can. Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones you least expect. When I was a young HR professional, I was asked to run a fledgling technology project, seemingly off the beaten path. It was not exactly a career driver, though I was energized about the assignment. Instead of dwelling on what this could mean for my future, I focused on the work, learned and delivered. In the end, due to my diligence and commitment, the project catalyzed my career.
  2. Have courage. Inevitably you will face challenges that you did not expect. Have the courage to take them, no matter the scale or size. Have faith in your competence and experience. Sometimes you have to dig deep and lean into the courage of your character. I promise you will make it to the other side and be better for the journey you traveled and the lessons you learned.
  3. Stay true to yourself. Find a job that respects who you are as a person and satisfies your hunger for success. You should never feel pressured to compromise or hide your authentic self because your experience offers tremendous value. And speak up because your unique voice and ideas can change the world if you have the courage to put them out there.
  4. Have fun. Work is a huge part of your life. Mathematically the hours you will spend at work over a typical 30-year career is approximately 65,000 hours. Anything you are going to do for 65,000 hours, you should enjoy it. And if you can’t find a fulfilling job for financial or other reasons, be sure to find a hobby or other facet of your life that brings you joy. If you are working in a situation with toxic coworkers or supervisors or questionable ethical circumstances, get a new job.
  5. Build bridges. One of the most important lessons I learned was the value of teamwork and collaboration. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. The best ideas and discoveries are born out of teams who play to each other’s strengths and find value in their diverse perspectives. We all need to build bridges, create friendships and find colleagues that support our journey. I have been incredibly fortunate to grow up in an industry that believes working together is core to helping people thrive. I co-founded a coalition with fellow CHROs with one mission — help people get back to work faster amid the current crisis. People+ Work Connect has been one of the most meaningful bridges I have ever built because it underscores the reason I got into HR.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

When COVID-19 became our reality, resulting in the largest shift in the workforce since WWII, a group of CHROs reached out to each other to see how we could leverage our networks and expertise. The staggering rise in unemployment caused by the pandemic has created a parallel crisis that will be felt by companies and employees for many years to come. Realizing that no one company or even industry can address this problem alone, I joined forces with fellow CHROs from Accenture, Lincoln Financial Group, and ServiceNow to launch People+Work Connect, a coalition to connect people to work and work to people.

This coalition brings together companies in urgent need of workers with workforces laid off or furloughed due to COVID-19. It costs nothing to participate, and the goal is to shorten the cycle of unemployment by connecting both sides of the job equation to get displaced people back to work at speed and scale, lessening the economic and societal impact of COVID-19.

Under normal circumstances, companies wouldn’t think of collaborating on talent. However, now is the time to build bridges for the greater good of society. People+Work Connect was born out of an urgent need to solve a growing crisis, but this model of cross-industry collaboration is going to be our new normal moving forward and what we gain from our united response to this pandemic.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The late Dana Reeve once said to “find joy inside the hardship.” Those words have never been more true than today. Right before my daughter’s senior year of high school started, she was having a tough day thinking about how this milestone moment would look and feel different than she imagined. Totally understandable as our kids are shouldering a tremendous emotional and mental weight with the ongoing impact of the pandemic. Instead of letting sadness take hold and dwelling on what could have been, we decided to make our own magic in that moment and dyed my hair pink. Even though my goal was to boost my daughter’s spirits, the act was just as uplifting for me, and it served as an important reminder that we can find joy anywhere, at any time.

As much as it’s easy to give in to the fatigue and frustration of 2020 or really any challenging time, there is beauty in seeing people come together and help each other. Nothing will cancel out our ability to be kind and find joy in the most unlikely places. Celebrate what you have and take stock in what matters most — the people who support you, the experiences that have shaped you, and the purpose that drives you forward.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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