Jamie Michael Hemmings had the pleasure of interviewing Xavier Williams, President at AT&T. He’s held roles across Finance, Product Management, Strategy, Sales, Human Resources, Global Operations and Customer Service. But now he’s serving the public good as the head of AT&T’s Global Public Sector and Wholesale Solutions business. Xavier lives his wisdom: don’t be afraid to be great and pay it forward every chance you get.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Thank you for the opportunity to be part of this. Looking at my “backstory,” there’s a common thread that ties everything together. And that’s having the mentality to not limit myself; that I wouldn’t be afraid to take risks if it meant creating my own destiny.
I grew up in D.C. where I played high school basketball. And one day, about 2 inches of snow fell, suspending classes. So, I headed to the school gym to shoot some hoops. A recruiter from Edinboro University was there to scout someone else. But there I was, and I guess he liked what he saw. Edinboro recruited me, and recognizing the opportunity, I went for it.
Following undergrad, I had another decision in front of me: enter the working world or go for my MBA. Now, there’s nothing sexy about being a 22-year-old with an MBA. You’re either under qualified for the job, or you’re overqualified for the job. But I knew one day it would pay off. I had the chance to do it via an 11-month program with the University of Pittsburgh. So, again, I went for it.
And there I was at 22, fresh out of grad school. I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my life when I took an opportunity at AT&T. Nearly 28 years later, here we are. It’s been an incredible journey filled with moments where I had to make the decision to keep going for it, to keep seizing opportunities and to keep in control of my destiny. And I’m thankful to say that because I did, I’ve never looked back. Now, I’m able to help others go for it, too, and that’s the most rewarding part of it all.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you took on a leadership role?
You don’t make it 28 years without a few funny and interesting stories. At the center of all of those are people and the interesting things that happen when you take the time to connect with them — and treat them like people.
At one point in my career, I took over an underperforming sales organization. The running joke was this organization was ranked #34 out of 30. So, I had my work cut out for me.
During my first week, one of my direct reports sought me out to tell me about a family vacation she was planning for the following spring. Thinking it was a nice “get-to-know-each other” conversation, I told her the trip sounded great. Then came a long, awkward pause where she finally asked if she could go.
Keep in mind that this was October. The trip was to the Greek Isles. It sounded fantastic. So, I’m thinking, “After everything you just told me, why wouldn’t you go?”
But that simple conversation opened the door to something much bigger. I found out my predecessor had a policy: vacations had to be approved 6 months in advance. So, I gathered my direct reports together to discuss the various policies in place. I wanted to hear how those artificial walls were affecting them and the culture of our organization. We removed the ones that weren’t working. And within 18 months, our branch was in the top 10.
It was a defining leadership lesson: the health of your organization’s culture is key. It may not always be the answer, but it’s an important lever to check when trying to improve performance. After all, if you don’t take care of your employees, they won’t take care of your customers.
What do you think makes your company/organization stand out?
Our people. I am blessed to work alongside the best in the industry. Our commitment to our customers runs deep. We know how important it is for our customers to keep their operations working or to communicate with loved ones when disaster strikes.
No matter the crisis, our people go above and beyond to serve our customers. They’ve faced blizzards, fires, falling boulders, flooding — you name it. The way our people sacrifice for our communities and our customers time and again gets me emotional. These folks have real heart.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Absolutely. We serve federal, state and local government agencies across the country as well as educational institutions, including K-12 and higher-ed. Our goal is to provide them with advanced technologies that help make them more efficient, modernize their capabilities and improve their ability to serve citizens nationwide.
Folks in the public sector have been chosen to serve. And they often don’t get the recognition they deserve. So, to be able to help them help others is deeply rewarding and exciting. It truly feels like we are serving a bigger purpose every single day.
I’ll never forget my mom’s reaction. I remember helping to close a large deal in another part of the business. When I told my mom about it, she was like, “Oh, that’s nice.” And then I moved to our public-sector organization and had this really small sale to a federal government agency. She was so proud. She started calling her friends to tell them that her son was doing good because he was helping others. The work I was doing was real to her, it was meaningful, and it was easy for her to understand the impact.
And we’re doing some really impactful work. Last year, we were selected by the First Responder Network Authority — an independent agency established by Congress — to build the nationwide public safety communications platform dedicated to America’s first responders. FirstNet was born from the communication challenges public safety experienced during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It’s now giving first responders their own communications platform to help them reliably connect to the critical information they need. Every day. And in every emergency.
We’re also 1 of 10 prime contractors on the U.S. General Service Administration’s Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) technology purchasing program. This makes it easier for federal agencies to get the advanced solutions they need to stay ahead of technology trends, innovate and improve the way they deliver their missions. And we’re making it easier for states like Texas to protect themselves from increasing cybersecurity threats. Through a Managed Security Services contract with the Texas Department of Information Resources, we’re able to help public sector entities at the state, county and city level get simplified and cost-effective access to cybersecurity solutions.
What advice would you give to other tech leaders to help their employees to thrive?
Start with a healthy culture. As a sales organization, it’s important we provide each customer with a customized solution specific to their needs. So, our culture must inspire the team to think bigger and broader — to go beyond like for like and really help each customer meet its mission. Encourage your employees to always be curious. Give them opportunities to reskill themselves, to learn and grow continuously, to try new things and to fail (so long as they learn from it).
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?
There are many folks that I am grateful to for their support, advice and encouragement. But above all, it’s my parents. I had the best of both worlds. My father was an entrepreneur. My mother an educator. And with the two, came a balanced foundation. It gives me the courage to take risks in business and the lifelong pursuit of self-betterment, learning and structure. Once you have the right amount of both, it sets you up to build a strong and sturdy future.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve always felt it’s my responsibility to pay it forward. To give back. And to mentor others. Through work, I’ve had the opportunity to support important organizations like the Urban League of Pittsburgh, to help others succeed, and to foster diversity.
But on a more personal level, my wife and I have always found it important to help people in any way that we can. So, about 8 years ago, we started a church. We made it our mission to help others create a solid foundation from which they can build their futures from, to learn how to look inward for self- betterment and to share life lessons from one person to the next.
Can you share the top five lessons that you have learned from your experience as a “Black Man In Tech”?
1. Let me start with an African proverb, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” We are each responsible for taking control of our story. It’s our future to write. And to do that, we must celebrate who we are and recognize what we have to offer. The more we embrace our cultural identity, the more we can reimagine what our story looks like. And the more we can power the possibilities of what’s next.
2. You can’t be scared to be great. Happiness, and success on your terms, are on the other side of risk. Many times, as minorities, we’re expected to settle. To accept things as they are. And to just be happy with what we have. But the moment we do that, the moment we stop reaching for what we want, the moment we are okay with being anything less than great — well that’s the moment we stop dreaming and start questioning what could have been. I’m blessed to be where I am. And I’m grateful to the many folks along my journey that helped me reach this point. But I also acknowledge and accept the fact that I put in the hard work. I’ve earned where I am. I’ve taken risks, and I’m a better person for it.
3. You can’t complain about anything you’ve allowed to be done to you. If someone has low expectations of you, and you accept those, is that on them, or is that on you? No matter what others say or the roles they may try to put you in, if you know you are capable of more, then it’s on you to not limit yourself. To control your own destiny, you have to strive for greatness — regardless of what others think or do. That may mean finding a different path forward or creating an entirely new one. But the point is, don’t stop until you’re ready to.
4. You are both an executive that’s black and a black executive. As an executive that’s black, there will be times where you have to deal with issues of race. And as those situations arise, you may need to approach them as a black executive. In a room where no one else looks like you or thinks like you, it’s important to have the courage and the conviction to make people understand your point of view. You have to learn to lead from both perspectives. Uniting the two will help you manage difficult situations. And it will help bring others along with you even though they may not have initially shared your unique perspective.
5. As Ralph Ellison shared, “Play the game, but don’t believe in it.” No matter what company you work for or what position you hold, chances are, you’ve experienced the political game. While it would be great if decisions were made purely on merit, at some point in your career, you need to acknowledge the fact that politics exist. But they don’t have to be an impediment to your success. Learn to play the game in a way that doesn’t sacrifice your integrity and values. And remember that just because you are no longer sitting on the sidelines doesn’t mean this game is something that you have to buy-in to for longer than it needs to be played.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
There are two sayings that I hold close:
1. One is a quote by Alan K. Simpson: “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
2. The other is a Cherokee legend about the two wolves that rage within all of us. One wolf is good. One is evil. And ultimately, the one that wins is the one you choose to feed.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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? He or she might just see this 🙂
I’ve had the good fortune of meeting, working alongside or learning from a lot of folks that I respect. But one I’d enjoy the opportunity to sit down with is John W. Thompson, the Chairman of Microsoft. I’ve been following his career since I was in college. The success he had at IBM and his leadership at Symantec have always been inspirational to me.
Originally published at medium.com