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Who The @!#$&% Is This Guy? John Legere's Strategy For Taking New Customers By Storm

T-Mobile's CEO is the profanity-spewing shock jock of corporate America. Is this the future of leadership?

Who The @!#$&% Is This Guy? John Legere's Strategy For Taking New Customers By Storm
[Photo illustration: Jeff Lysgaard; Source Photo: Steve Sands, Getty Images; Illustrations: Bo Lundberg

"The fuckers hate you."
"I can’t wait to watch the peckers scream and cry."
"I’m bombing their factories."

Action-movie villains spit this kind of venom. Comedy writers hurl similarly foul tirades at one another. And as the Sony email hack revealed, business executives can speak this way too. In private. But in the open, CEOs—particularly those running multibillion-dollar, publicly traded companies—present a soothing stream of bromides, buzzwords, and nonanswers. All except John Legere, the man responsible for those quotes. At a downtown Manhattan loft this past March, the club music thumps as a crowd of telecom analysts and press wait expectantly for the CEO of T-Mobile to spew his gutter talk. He does not disappoint. Legere, 57, takes the stage at "Un-carrier 9.0," the latest in a series of T-Mobile news events, wearing a black leather jacket over a black T-shirt emblazoned with a hot pink T on the chest. On his feet: hot pink skater sneakers. With his wave of shoulder-length brown hair and mild paunch protruding from what was once an athletic physique, Legere looks like he might have been a member of Kiss rather than a lifelong telecom executive. Once he starts talking, he becomes the anthropomorphized embodiment of the tall can of Red Bull in his left hand.

He launches his opening salvo: "It’s safe to say that our friends in the cozy little duopoly have been shitting themselves more in the past two years than in history." Legere is going straight at T-Mobile’s much larger competitors, AT&T and Verizon. "Dumb and dumber," or "the pricks," as Legere usually refers to them, watched T-Mobile win 8.3 million new customers last year alone. A smile oozes from his asymmetrical mouth. "Yes, that’s in the first minute that I swore," he flirts with the crowd. He knows they’ll be tweeting his feistiest lines. In fact, he’s counting on it. "Those of you with the f-bomb pool will have to wait a little bit longer," he quips. (If you had bet that he’d drop one within the first four minutes, you won.)

This performance—to announce new terms for T-Mobile’s business customers—would get most CEOs fired or sued, especially in the buttoned-up telecom industry. Legere, though, gets an ovation when he takes the stage and another when he’s done.

Amid the applause, questions hover: Who the @#$% is John Legere? Why is he presenting himself as an amalgam of faith healer, social media stuntman, professional trash-talker, and drunken boardwalk pitchman? Is he a marketing genius? A bullshit artist? Or both? He has certainly anointed himself the Dr. House of telecom, jamming a syringe full of adrenaline into the heart of the wireless business. As one industry journalist, Dan O’Shea, tells me, "This guy is being treated like he just popped out of a spaceship from nowhere, but everybody has a history."

Perhaps the most important question is: Why have Legere’s antics worked? Since he first recast T-Mobile as the underdog anti-carrier in the spring of 2013, it has come back from near death. In addition to customer growth, revenues increased 13% year over year in the first quarter of 2015 (though the company continues to lose money), and it is now on par with the incumbent No. 3, Sprint. Virtually every time T-Mobile unleashes a new "un-carrier" move—abolishing contracts and international roaming fees; giving away streaming music; handing out unlimited upgrades for new iPhones; offering to pay off customers’ AT&T contracts if they switch—"the pricks" do their best to match it. Legere is singlehandedly dragging the industry into a new era. Even Verizon’s acquisition of AOL can be seen, in part, as a reaction to T-Mobile’s rising profile.

Camouflaged beneath Legere’s profane shtick and age-inappropriate wardrobe is the germ of an alternative, thoroughly modern model for corporate leadership. A generation ago, if a customer knew of a CEO, it was because he projected an avuncular gravitas on TV that helped to sell Chrysler cars or chocolate Frostys. The public today, inherently skeptical and weaned on social media bluntness, no longer trusts a canned talking head. Both customers and employees expect more, a CEO in the maelstrom just like them. Authenticity of the sort Legere projects is what moves merchandise. Even if it’s just an act.

Tweeter-in-chief: CEO John Legere’s calculated outbursts have helped T-Mobile recruit millions of new customers.Photo: José Mandojana

Legere seems to go out of his way to convince people he’s a lunatic. In the middle of my interview with T-Mobile’s straightlaced COO and CTO together at the company’s Bellevue, Washington, headquarters, Legere—as if jacked up on jelly beans—pulls up to the conference room on his custom-designed Segway, which flaunts magenta-rimmed wheels (or "mangenta," as T-Mobile’s all-male executive team refers to the brand’s electric shade of fuchsia). Later, while I talk with another company executive, Legere pops his head into the office, and, with a mangenta-hued bullhorn, reenacts the kind of attention-seeking antics that got him thrown out of Catholic school in the small Massachusetts mill town where he grew up, the middle of five kids. "This is taking way too long!" he blasts, banging impatiently on the horn’s button.

When I finally reach his corner office, Legere shows off the paraphernalia that comes with being a CEO-slash-performance artist. He props his feet on his desk, giving me a close-up look at his hot pink Converse high-tops embossed with T-MOBILE CEO on the side. His feet rest next to a Legere doll, a 10-inch replica of himself that’s been mass-produced and has its own smack-talking Twitter feed. (@LegereDoll has 2,589 followers to @JohnLegere’s 1.3 million.)

This is not what T-Mobile’s conservative German owner Deutsche Telekom was buying when it hired Legere in September 2012. Legere was a suit, a Brooks Brothers catalog model with a slicked-back Gordon Gekko ’do. He had been CEO of fiber-optic networking company Global Crossing—an even bigger dog than T-Mobile when he took it over in 2001. Legere had to declare bankruptcy within months of his appointment and submit to being grilled in congressional hearings. Yet he dug the company out of the mess he inherited, and it was acquired for $3 billion in 2011.

Despite his chops as a turnaround expert, when Legere became CEO of T-Mobile the following year, he felt vulnerable. Most of his career had been in telecom, but wireless was a specialty that he now admits he didn’t understand. His doubt evaporated only after he spent evenings during his first few months on the job listening in on T-Mobile’s customer service calls, a visceral window into the public’s angst. "None of the [technology] mattered," he tells me, his hand now anchored to a jumbo-size iced coffee, black. "There was this plethora of hatred for this industry and this never-ending list of things people wanted to change. They didn’t want to know what I don’t know. They don’t care!"

Legere has spent his life defining himself against an opponent. A star runner in high school, he says he keeps tabs on his alma mater and still holds "most of the [running] records." He rattles off the name of the guy who was the youngest officer in AT&T history until Legere took the crown. (Yes, Legere worked for one of "the pricks" for nearly two decades.) When Legere talks about competition—one of his favorite topics—much of the thrill appears to be in inflicting pain. "Winning is fun," he says, "but when somebody else can lose, it’s even funner."

The wireless business, where you can only grow by poaching customers from your rivals, turned out to be tailor-made for Legere. "Declare victory, designate an enemy. Attack that enemy," he grins. "The bigger the enemy, the better."

T-Mobile employees cheer Legere on during an expletive-laden speech.Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP Photo

Legere’s official debut came four months into his tenure, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2013. He had already started to loosen up his wardrobe now that his customers were millennials and not milquetoast CIOs. "Open coat, nice collared shirt" is how Legere’s longtime friend David Carey, T-Mobile’s EVP for corporate services, describes Legere’s first steps toward finding the clothes that would make the man. "It was very Silicon Valley–like," he says.

But Legere began to worry he still looked like too much of a suit. "We were up in the suite," Carey says, recalling the night before T-Mobile’s press event at CES, "and he said, ‘What should I wear?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, look at me. What the hell are you asking me for?’ " The two fiftysomething dudes bantered for a bit, until Carey suggested "this cool hipster kind of sport coat that he had just gotten." Legere was receptive but still flummoxed. "What shirt?" he asked. Carey told him, "I’m not a fashion guy, but I think you’re supposed to wear one of those T-shirt kinda things to get that cool look going."

Legere came up with a twist. What if it was a magenta T-shirt with a giant T on it? Vegas, baby, Vegas. They had the T-shirt made overnight.

When he showed up at the Venetian hotel the next day for his first public introduction to the technology industry as T-Mobile’s new CEO, Legere had accessorized the hip sport-coat-over-a-T-shirt look with a dangling silver chain and a chunky white plastic watch. He donned a New York Yankees cap in a nod to a partnership with Major League Baseball.

Legere had a script, but something about his sartorial transformation encouraged him to scrap it. He had all those frustrations coursing through him from listening to those customer service calls, so he channeled that. "My head exploded," Legere says now, "and I just went on a rant about the wireless industry and how I didn’t get it." Like a preacher finding his groove, Legere hit upon a recurring bit, what in one conversation he calls his I-just-landed-from-Mars technique and in another the 5-year-old kid questions: Why, why, why? "People hate contracts. Let’s not have them! ‘You can’t,’ companies say. Why?"

Previous T-Mobile executives had realized the value in positioning the service—a distant fourth in a four-horse race—as the rule-breaking upstart. But only Legere had the chutzpah to follow through with it. "Most of those signature moves, especially the early ones, are things we explored, that we had in our ‘in case of emergency file,'" says one former T-Mobile executive. This person remembers Legere’s predecessor saying, "We hate the rules of the industry, but we’re tied to them. No one will be crazy enough to do anything about it."

Legere’s performance at the Venetian, which alternated between attacking his competitors and presenting himself as the customer’s only friend in the business, was viewed as a tour de force as it was taking place. "T-Mobile CEO John Legere is killing it," tweeted one reporter from CNet. "Holy moley John Legere is the UnCarrierCEO," said another from PC Magazine. To the outside world, Legere had just dropped in from Mars. But for longtime industry observers who remembered Legere the suit, this irreverent channeling of consumer wrath was even more shocking. "It was obvious that he was going to be quite different in this new role," says analyst Jan Dawson, who covered Legere during his time at Global Crossing. "This was John Legere 2.0."

Crazy love: Legere takes a selfie with an eager fanPhoto: Eduardo Munoz, Reuters, Corbis

"Can I get a selfie with you, John?"

Legere has shown up at T-Mobile’s secluded innovation lab, located in an office park not far from company headquarters, and he is being swarmed by a cavalcade of engineers, all of whom want their picture taken with him. "I feel like a mall Santa!" Legere squeals. He fist-bumps his employees at their desks, and he grants every photo request, hamming it up by hanging rabbit ears over the engineers’ heads just before the shutter clicks.

This kind of paparazzi treatment seems absurd, but as with most things Legere, it serves a purpose. "I use this respectfully," Legere begins, a prefatory remark designed to cushion the nonrespectful comment to come. "There’s a form of PTSD here." When he first arrived at T-Mobile, the employees he inherited had just lived through a failed acquisition bid by AT&T and morale was low. If Legere was going to turn the company around and change the brand perception, he needed swagger not only onstage, but also in T-Mobile’s innovation lab, its call centers, and its retail stores. Now, fueled by a cocktail of endorphin-pumping Flywheel spin classes and caffeine, he glad-hands and mosh-pit dives with any T-Mobiler he can find.

On his way to the company cafeteria for a ham sandwich, he swings into the on-campus T-Mobile store, where a young woman with a French manicure nervously introduces herself as a salesperson from one of the carrier’s local shops. Legere, who in college switched his major from phys ed to accounting for the sole purpose of a bigger paycheck, is blunt about what motivates most of his twentysomething clerks. "In the hierarchy of needs, it’s pretty clear," he says. "The second they’re not making money, you’re off the island!" In that spirit, Legere started a stock-ownership program for the company’s full-time employees. Working his audience of one, he starts to ask her if she’s making bank, but before he can get the words out, he spies her Michael Kors purse, and with perfect comic timing, winks at her and the purse to indicate that he already has the answer to his question. She blushes and smiles, and Legere is off to gab with the next employee.

The most Belieber-esque of the Legere employee interactions comes when he drops in on a T-Mobile call center. He typically shows up unannounced, decked out in his T-Mobile–branded wardrobe. Birmingham, Alabama; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Mission, Texas, have all been recent stops on his perpetual tour. At each visit, literally hundreds of call center employees line up to meet him, waving pink boas and Legere dolls, and Legere spends hours posing for selfie after selfie. Poor employee engagement, particularly among millennials, plagues most of corporate America, according to recent studies. That is clearly not the case here.

Photo: Jason DeCrow, AP Images for T-Mobile

All of this in-person faith healing doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Does a CEO selfie really happen if it’s not then shared on social media? Legere broadcasts his every exploit on social media for customers, fans, analysts, and fellow employees to see. It gives T-Mobile workers the sense that their fearless leader is in the trenches with them, even if they’re getting paid by the hour and Legere made $29 million in salary, bonuses, and stock in 2013. "John is not the king in the back, standing behind his soldiers," says Andrew Christou, chief creative officer at T-Mobile’s ad agency, Publicis Seattle. "He’s the first one running with a sword into battle."

Twitter is Legere’s Excalibur, and there is no other public-company CEO who uses it quite like he does. In the spring of 2013, one of Legere’s two daughters persuaded her middle-aged dad to dip his toe in the platform. (His daughters are "the wizards behind the curtain for his coolness factor," says Neil Barua, a former Global Crossing employee, noting the two twentysomethings’ obsession with gaming and electronic dance music—both areas T-Mobile has since poured a sizable amount of sponsorship money into.)

It didn’t take long for Legere to realize that his potty mouth, willingness to pick fights, and total lack of self-consciousness made him an ideal tweeter. He spent months baiting Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure until Legere’s trashing of Sprint’s 2015 Super Bowl ad finally led Claure to respond (he called Legere classless). Legere posted a ridiculous video where he cuts through steel with a pink blowtorch. He replies to every tweet directed at him, and he claims that he has personally written every one of his 11,000-plus tweets, though he does have a social media person trailing him with her Canon—God forbid a moment passes that can’t be repurposed for Instagram. Legere does sprinkle in touches of humanity, such as when he honored the passing of his mother last December with a photo of the two of them (of course, Legere had put rabbit ears behind her head). Social media fills in the gaps when the indefatigable Legere can’t be in more than one place at one time; it helps him figure out where to point his company next; and it helps create the impression that T-Mobile is much larger than it actually is. In the past two years, Legere has tweeted, on average, almost 20 times a day. That’s roughly four times more than Twitter’s own creator, Jack Dorsey.

Legere’s act works best when he’s punching up, aiming for the likes of AT&T and Verizon. At CES in 2014, Legere made news (and a lot of social content) when he tried to crash the parties of his larger rivals for the express purpose of chronicling him getting tossed out on his ear. That said, if you’re a social media star with a bad-boy persona, you’re bound to find your magenta Jimmy Choo sneakers (another in his collection) over the line on occasion. Last summer, Legere’s public dis of "dumb and dumber" as "duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have" created a Twitter firestorm. Legere apologized, but five outraged T-Mobile call center employees still wrote an open letter to their boss for going too far by "using repugnant, sexually violent language for cheap laughs."

When Legere does go for the cheap laughs, such as in his spat with Donald Trump this past spring, he can come off like a CEO with too much time on his hands, a guy who may have had too much to drink, a D-list celeb like the ones he’s tussling with, or all of the above. (If you missed that Sunday Twitter fight, Legere complained about street musicians outside his Trump Hotel window; Trump responded by trashing T-Mobile’s service, and it devolved from there.) Says Legere’s friend George Lombardi of his buddy’s full-throttle commitment: "It’s selflessness and recklessness at the same time."

Amped up: Legere’s wired persona, onstage and up close, is an invaluable asset for T-Mobile.Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP Photo

On Legere’s left hand is a silver ring. From a distance it looks like a wedding band, but upon closer inspection, it’s a signet ring bearing Batman’s chest emblem. Legere’s older daughter is doing her second master’s thesis on comic art, and she gave her dad the ring as a gift.

He’s since co-opted the superhero as part of his persona. Legere’s Twitter wallpaper depicts the Dark Knight with his head bowed by the awesome responsibility of the Bat Signal shining above Gotham City. (The comic panel has been doused with magenta.) Of course Legere would identify with Batman: He’s a regular guy who uses his wits and cool tools to outsmart the villains, a billionaire industrialist by day who’s a crusader at night, equal parts outlaw and savior.

Legere, alas, doesn’t have a Batmobile, but he does invite me for a drive in his midnight-black Ferrari. "I have a rainy-day one and a good-day one," says Legere, who lives bicoastally, with apartments in Manhattan and Bellevue. What’s the difference between the California model and the 458 Spider? I ask. "$70,000," he beams.

We talk about the business, and Legere finally sounds like a competitive executive rather than a goofball showman. He’s boastful of transforming T-Mobile into an increasingly annoying gnat for the industry, bending its practices toward customer friendliness. His rivals are now trying to out-un-carrier the Un-carrier. Last December, his team got wind that AT&T was going to unveil a new data-rollover plan, in what would have been a month before T-Mobile’s rollout of a near-identical offering. That simply would not do, so within a frantic week, Legere pulled together "Un-carrier 8.0: Data Stash," stealing his competitor’s thunder. "You take your foot off the gas for a second, and they come hard," says Legere, driving through Bellevue’s drizzly back roads. "So we keep the front foot on the pedal pretty strong." After all, winning is more fun when someone else is losing.

I ask Legere about the number-one critique of his tactics: What is the long-term viability? Poaching customers the way Legere has can be expensive. But he defends every contract buyout and data offer as rigorously specced out to deliver cash-flow-positive results for the business in a short period of time. As for the idea that he’s bankrupting the industry, he falls back on one of his favorite lines, telling me, "That’s what they want you to think."

Analysts speculate that at some point T-Mobile’s need for cash, perhaps to improve its network, will necessitate an acquisition or partnership, potentially with a rival. If that were to happen, Legere—who just signed another two-year contract (ironic for a guy who routinely says he hates contracts)—insists that he would put himself at the center of that larger company. Of the failed attempt by Sprint’s owner to acquire T-Mobile last year, Legere says confidently, "If there had been a transaction, the company would have been called T-Mobile and been run by me."

Legere drops me off at my hotel and peels away, heading to an Oregon call center, followed by a trip to Los Angeles. I am left to contemplate what would happen to Legere if he were one day not CEO of T-Mobile. "He becomes the organization that he is at," says David Carey, who’s worked with Legere for 25 years at AT&T, Global Crossing, and T-Mobile. "He takes on that identity. Deeply." At AT&T, Legere needed to be Michael Douglas in Wall Street, so he looked the part. When Global Crossing needed tough love, he reportedly thumped through the company’s office with a baseball bat, swinging at people’s desks. As his turnaround took hold, Legere finally took full advantage of 14 years of Dale Car­negie courses and used regular CNBC appearances—jocularly cage-fighting with another irascible cartoon, Jim Cramer—to eschew Global Crossing’s image as the Enron of networking. "I would use TV so that my employees and customers would hear me saying the same things on TV that I told them," Legere explains. As Carey says of Legere’s range, "He can be the most charming, elegant, protocol-oriented date for the Queen of England, or he can be that raucous Las Vegas nightclub act."

Photo: John Moore, Getty Images

The one instance when Legere didn’t have a role to play—after he sold Global Crossing and decided to retire—he nosedived into existential aimlessness. Two life changes hit him simultaneously during that period: He got divorced from his second wife, and he now had so much money that he never had to work again. "I had the biggest ‘Who are you?’ moment," he tells me. He found himself lost in Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, taking up expensive hobbies, and buying his first Ferrari. "It wasn’t a pretty sight," says his friend Lombardi. "He grew his hair long, he was unshaven, not excited about anything. His most important decision was what to have for lunch."

Lombardi recalls going to a cocktail party with Legere during this time. "We started speaking to these two women who asked what we did," he says. "I said, ‘I’m a physician,’ and they turned to him and he said, ‘I’m retired. I manage my own money.’ They gave him this long drawn smile, ‘loser’ registered on their faces, and they walked away."

Earlier in the day, I had asked Legere if the T-Mobile nightclub act was simply a role he was playing. He paused, confused by my query. "The question is, when’s the right time in your career to flash your independence?" he said. "Because this is far more me. I’m clearly at a self-actualized point in my career."

If authenticity is what enables leaders to cut through the noise, bringing everyone along with them, then it seems Legere has backdoored his way into becoming a real-life corporate Caped Crusader. And, at least for now, the Bat Signal beckons.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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