Women Of The C-Suite: “Humble confidence is critical for inspiring leaders” With Jenifer Robertson, President at AT&T

Humble Confidence: This is critical for inspiring leaders. Often leaders try to be all things to all people. We feel like we personally…

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Humble Confidence: This is critical for inspiring leaders. Often leaders try to be all things to all people. We feel like we personally must meet every need and, candidly, that makes us seem unapproachable or unnatural to our teams. Great leaders embrace the confidence to do and the humility to learn — a combination often found in risk takers. I learned this lesson as I moved into a sales role from a primarily technical and operational background, which led to a lot of humbling moments. After one particularly successful Saturday event, my team realized because of a lack of coordination with our network partners, we couldn’t install what we sold because we didn’t have enough equipment. We sold more in one day than our network teams planned for over several years. So, our teams came together and found a way to solve the problem. We built new partnerships and a better process for local marketing events. And my team saw me take a risk, fail and find a way to recover.

I had the pleasure to interview Jenifer Robertson. Jen is currently the President of Field Operations for AT&T Technology and Operations. She has worked at AT&T for 18 years, in many different jobs, including roles in sales, service, operations, marketing, and corporate strategy. Along the way, she quickly realized how much she needs to keep learning and constantly reinvent herself. As she often tells her peers, “Change can be scary and hard, and often requires risk, but taking risks will give you the confidence to do and the humility to learn for a lifetime.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career journey is the result of a very early choice between a generalist and a specialist path. My first job out of college was as a mainframe COBOL programmer for a company with a well-earned reputation for customer and employee satisfaction. As great as it was, I quickly saw that my path was going toward a specialty in IT/coding versus having the opportunity to learn about the business by taking on various roles in the company. I felt the need to understand the big picture, build expertise on how various business units impact each other and share that knowledge with others so we could improve the customer and employee experience.

Around the same time, I had the opportunity to talk with recruiters at SBC (now AT&T) about a program they were launching to build network leaders by hiring technically astute recruits who wanted to rotate through various parts of company. They had me at “rotate.” 18 years later, I’ve found my way through roles in network operations, sales, customer service, strategic planning and now field operations. The results are a strong understanding of how we operate, an ability to “explain the why” behind business decisions, and a passion for resolving customer and technician pain points by working across the business units I know well.

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

I learned early on that leaders need to put employees first when making decisions. I learned this valuable lesson as I was serving in a cost reduction role for our call centers. It was a time of decline in part of our business and I often found myself sitting with the key leaders during difficult debates around the future of the centers and how we could creatively manage through the change while caring for our employees.

During one particularly difficult discussion, our lead executive stopped the meeting and said he needed to “walk around the block a couple of times to clear his head.” The actions we were discussing would have significant impact on a lot of employees. That was the first time I saw a leader humanize the difficulty of the decision. He sent a message to his team in that moment — we should not take this decision lightly and needed to pause before moving forward.

A few months later, that same executive stopped his leadership team during a staff meeting to talk through forecasted year-end results. He pointed out that we were within a reasonable stretch to hit our targets. The difference between hitting our targets or not meant a difference in bonus payouts for our teams. Again, he was aware of his leaders potentially dismissing the near miss. He pointed out that, while for some people in the room the bonus payout wouldn’t impact how they lived day to day, for many of our employees the difference would determine whether they could afford their children’s education or their homes.

These moments stand out to me today as they continually remind me to put our employees at the front of our decision-making process. We cannot forget that leaders carry a heavy responsibility for our employees. And as leaders, we also need to remind others of that responsibility.

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?

I’ve made a host of funny mistakes that run the gamut from learning how to work with our union associates to walking into walls while frantically taking notes, to overselling services in areas where our construction teams hadn’t yet installed enough equipment. These were all tremendous learning opportunities. But, the funniest mistake happened early in my career when I was overseeing the launch of U-verse TV in San Antonio.

I had moved from the team that first developed U-verse to lead the sales team to launch the product. I hadn’t ever been in a sales role, so the learning curve was steep. Thankfully, my U-verse knowledge was extensive. However, as the sales pressure mounted and we learned that customers preferred installs on the weekend, I made the decision (in a silo) to offer Sunday installs.

Sales jumped significantly. The one hitch in my plan was that we couldn’t schedule technicians for Sunday installs. Our systems, contracts and technician schedules didn’t support that day of the week yet. There’s nothing like getting a call from your previous team asking how you had forgotten everything you learned over the last two years.

The lesson was clear — customer needs should drive the business, but ensuring the right teams are engaged to find a solution is key.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are a company with a tremendous history of technology innovation and service to others. From the very beginning, we’ve given people new ways to connect with each other. And as those technologies became critical to our way of life, we embraced the responsibility of service to our customers, shareowners, communities and employees. We show up when people need us. We literally help change the world with our innovations. I’ve seen it first hand — in how we plan for and respond to natural disasters; engage in our communities through volunteerism; and how we embrace diversity and inclusion for our employees and customers in meaningful, actionable ways.

Last September, we experienced Mother Nature’s fury like never before. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria all devastated parts of the U.S. while wildfires devastated parts of California. Our employees are the type that literally run into the eye of a storm to support our communities.

And this September, with Hurricane Florence, our employees are yet again leading with the same service-focused mentality. One of our employees went to repair our FirstNet site in the torrential weather after his own home survived Florence. Two other employees drove from New York City to a shelter near Raleigh, North Carolina in a mobile store with charging stations, flashlights, batteries and bottled water. To them, they were just doing their jobs.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My team is looking at new ways to improve the customer experience and drive operational efficiencies using artificial intelligence and machine learning. We dispatch tens of thousands of technicians each day to install and repair services at customer homes. By using data insights from reported customers’ need, state of the network, technician’s level of expertise, traffic patterns, weather and expected duration of the task, we dispatch jobs to technicians more efficiently. That efficiency helps our technicians arrive on time and successfully perform the work in a timely manner. It also allows my team to route our technicians to as many homes as possible without extra drive time.

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

Regardless of gender, I believe humble confidence is the most critical leadership attribute to build thriving teams. A leader must have the confidence to know what values and skills she brings to the table so she can set a vision and establish a platform for team success. But then he/she needs the humility to learn, take risks (and fail), ask for help, engage the team for answers and action plans and celebrate the team’s success instead of being focused on his/her own.

Specifically for female leaders… they should bring their authentic selves to work. There’s no need to adjust your personality, approach, likes, dislikes just to fit in. People appreciate authenticity above conformity and will rally around a leader who embraces that and extends the same grace to others.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Serve your team by setting a clear vision, removing the road blocks that are in your team’s way and recognizing the outstanding contributions of team members.

Engage quickly and regularly with the frontline members and managers of your team and hear the feedback directly from those who serve customers and employees.

Communicate crisply, consistently and often so the team has clear and frequent access to the organization’s mission, goals and results.

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?

It takes a village and I am blessed that mine is made up of a believer, coach and cheerleader.

My believer, Lea Ann Champion (retired AT&T executive), had countless amazing qualities, but it was her tenacious optimism that made her a force of nature. She just didn’t quit and no one told her “no.” When she called to tell me that she was moving me into a sales role I pointed out that I’d never been in sales. She laughed loudly, told me, “Yep, that’s why you’re going to do it,” and then she hung up the phone. Her faith in my ability to learn set me on a path I couldn’t have imagined for myself. She saw something in me that I didn’t see.

I was lucky enough to meet my coach, Eric Boyer (executive vice president and CTO of AT&T Mobility and Entertainment), very early in my career. During our first meeting, he advised me to, “Take the hardest jobs you can find and make them look easy.” It was clear. It was direct. It was actionable. We all need a person who can be practical and real with us. The person who can observe our work and give us specific coaching that makes us better. The person who can be brutally honest. Boyer-isms have guided me for many years and when he tells me I need to “turn it down a click,” I know I need to pause and take a deep breath. Coaches help us hone our skills. They earn our trust by allowing us to practice, fail, and try again. They celebrate more than we do when we score a winning goal.

Lea Ann introduced me to Brooks McCorcle (retired AT&T executive), who quickly became my biggest cheerleader. Brooks is the leader who used her powerful voice, position and connections to advocate for my career. She’s the positive force rooting for me in the toughest of times, building me up with pep talks and proof points, standing next to me and making sure others noticed my work. Her enthusiasm is infectious and she’s typically the first person I celebrate with when something big happens. The best leaders make their work about others rather than themselves. But even the best leaders need a cheering section led by someone who’s not afraid to hoot and holler and chant your name now and then.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I make sure I “pay back” the leaders who helped me by paying it forward to other talented individuals at AT&T. Finding ways to mentor people who need a believer, coach or cheerleader is incredibly rewarding. It has become one of the ways that I measure my own success — How many people have I been able to help get to their dream job? How many people did I help guide toward higher education, to a move they thought they couldn’t do, to change their habits for the better? Their successes are the sweetest to celebrate. In recent years I’ve added to that focus with a specific eye on advancing women in technology. Through non-profit organizations like the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) and various engagements in the academic community, I’m able to learn and take a stance for the systemic changes that we need to make to increase diversity in technology. I expect my next phase will be to find ways to implement those changes.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Humanizing leadership helps move us toward truly inspirational leadership and I’ve learned five lessons about how to humanize leadership.

1. Humble Confidence: This is critical for inspiring leaders. Often leaders try to be all things to all people. We feel like we personally must meet every need and, candidly, that makes us seem unapproachable or unnatural to our teams. Great leaders embrace the confidence to do and the humility to learn — a combination often found in risk takers. I learned this lesson as I moved into a sales role from a primarily technical and operational background, which led to a lot of humbling moments. After one particularly successful Saturday event, my team realized because of a lack of coordination with our network partners, we couldn’t install what we sold because we didn’t have enough equipment. We sold more in one day than our network teams planned for over several years. So, our teams came together and found a way to solve the problem. We built new partnerships and a better process for local marketing events. And my team saw me take a risk, fail and find a way to recover.

2. Grit: Leaders must demonstrate a willingness to come back and try again tomorrow regardless of today’s outcome. This persistence can inspire others. But it’s also important to understand that grit doesn’t have to be aggressive or insensitive. In fact, the best leadership examples I’ve seen of grit involve tenacity with a heart. As one of the key leaders for a startup organization at AT&T in 2014, I was part of a small team that had to tell our highly-talented recruits that we were shutting down the operation a few short months after we started. Many of the employees had taken risks to join us. They’d moved teams and left behind strong networks of supporters. Some had even relocated their families. As a leadership team, we set a goal to help ensure each of our employees would raise their hand to take a risk again. That simple guiding principle shaped how we communicated to our team and helped us successfully negotiate their new positions at AT&T. Within weeks, all these employees were in new roles and now, several years later, more than 80% are still with the company and more than 25% have been promoted.

3. Perspective: We can humanize leadership when we have a balanced perspective. While this isn’t true or necessary for all leaders, for me, I became a better leader when I became a parent. My children shifted the focus immediately away from me and toward others. They gave me instant perspective on what really matters. And finally, my children keep me in a constant state of humility and humor. My ability to laugh at my shortcomings skyrocketed … mostly because they continue to point them out 😊.

4. Communication: Inspirational leaders are powerful communicators. Leaders who can crisply and clearly communicate will inform and inspire their teams to get the best results. Leaders who explain the why behind decisions and results build understanding and support. Leaders who speak to their audience instead of over them harness the power of the group. This realization dawned on me during one of my very first team huddles at work. We had a leader with an extensive vocabulary who seemed to prioritize complex sentences and multi-syllable words over direct, simple communications. He may have felt smarter than the rest of us, but his team had no idea what he was saying or what he needed us to do. We wasted time deciphering and debating what he meant when we could have been embracing his message and quickly turning vision into action.

5. Diversity and inclusion: Diversity and inclusion across gender, race, beliefs and experiences improves team results. Leaders who understand and embrace this build stronger, more engaged teams that make better decisions and deliver better results. I first noticed this during the U-verse sales launch in San Antonio. We intentionally focused on recruiting people from across our various teams regardless of their direct experience with sales. As a result, we ended up with a team of subject matter experts across construction, HR, marketing, analytics and project management. We ended up with a team of broad gender and cultural diversity as well. While the task could be challenging at times, our diverse team solved problems in unique ways. We were able to have broad perspective, with many connections across the company that helped us succeed. Above all, because everyone was able to bring their authentic self to work, we had a lot of fun while exceeding all expectations.

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

I would focus on systemic changes we can make to improve the education and build up the confidence and self-esteem of girls from very early childhood through post-graduate and early professional experiences. I would extend it to women who are working to rebuild lives after domestic violence and economic hardships as well as women who are single parents and working to find ways to fulfill their own dreams while caring for their children. We make the entire world stronger when we lift this half of the population.

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

I have two…

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. Oscar Wilde. 
 This quote gave me the freedom to stop comparing myself to others and embrace the unique point of view, approach and talents I have. It also reminded me to extend the same benefit to others and appreciate the different voices that come together to form a team.

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Maya Angelou.
 As leaders we have tremendous power to inspire or demotivate, to empathize or dismiss, to acknowledge or ignore another person. Forgetting or abusing that power is beyond reckless regardless of the situation. Even the toughest conversations can be handled with respect for how the other person might feel.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn as Jenifer Robertson ( and on Twitter @jen_txs.

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