The old AT&T will soon officially be gone. As you probably know, SBC is buying AT&T, once the world's most important and valuable outfit. What happened? Based on some personal experiences, I think I know. But this isn't really about AT&T. It's about how we should behave personally if we want to avoid the same fate.
I can still remember my first painful visit to AT&T corporate headquarters many years ago. I was pretty green at the time and quite honored to be asked to speak to one of the top 10 executives at this vaunted company. I felt really intimidated as I walked past rows of secretaries, miles of carpet, and lots of pictures of dead people. I entered his huge office. Before even introducing himself, this executive looked at me dismissively and grunted, "How much experience do you have working in Fortune 10 corporations?"
I nervously replied that I had none but that I had a lot of experience in a wide range of other companies. He seemed completely unimpressed. I animatedly described what I thought were going to be important changes for the organizations of the future and how the traditional AT&T — and AT&T's leaders — might need to change. I mentioned how AT&T's focus on rules, regulations, and bureaucracy, its high overhead, and its culture might not work in the "new world."
Our session didn't last long. He clearly had more important things to do than talk with a relative child with no experience at his level. I left our meeting humiliated and angry. The exact words I felt like saying to him — and probably should have said — were, "You're right. But even more important, I have no experience working in obsolete dinosaur companies that are going to die — like yours!"
I may not have been an expert in the country's largest companies, but I didn't have to be. Anyone could see that AT&T's hierarchy and bureaucratic structure were not going to work in the new world. My field of expertise is interpersonal behavior. I know a lot about arrogance. I could sense a shocking amount of arrogance in that room.
Years later, after I had consulted at several top companies, I was actually asked to teach a class for AT&T leaders. I couldn't wait to hear their reaction to a phone call I had received earlier in the week. I looked closely at their faces as I spoke, trying to gauge their emotional response.
I told them, "Darshan, a friend of mine in India, just phoned. Darshan is a real techie. He has a new Internet phone connection and bragged to me that his call was absolutely free. I am certainly not an expert in your technology, but this seems revolutionary. I'm sure that this is a huge deal to you! Almost all of your profits are coming from margins on long-distance calls. With this new technology, you must be really concerned."
Their reaction amazed me. More than half of them didn't even know what I was talking about. Most of the ones who did know didn't care. One executive laughed, shrugged, and said "I've heard those calls. The quality is really lousy. This is just a toy for a few techies like your friend. These Internet connections are not really a threat to us."
I may not have been a tech expert, but I didn't have to be. Anyone could've seen the impact of this new technology. My field of expertise is interpersonal behavior. I know a lot about denial. I could sense a shocking amount of denial in that room.
So what can we learn from AT&T?
- Don't let success go to your head. Everyone is successful because of many reasons and in spite of others. That's what I try to teach. AT&T was successful for years because of some wonderful things that it accomplished and in spite of an arrogance that eventually stopped it from learning. We can all reach out to the people around us. We can all learn from those who are younger, less experienced, and different. When we get too arrogant to learn, we start to die.
- Listen hard to what you don't want to hear. I certainly wasn't the only person who was trying to tell AT&T what was coming. Others were doing their best to cry "danger." When their voices were finally heard, it was too late.
We've all gotten messages about our behavior — from coworkers, friends, and family — that we don't want to hear. Like AT&T, we first react with denial. We want to believe that they don't understand our unique situation. But they may understand us better than we know ourselves. Look in the mirror. Is your own arrogance causing you to deny what you don't want to hear? Learn from AT&T before what happened to it happens to you.
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America's preeminent executive coach and a cofounder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.