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CHRO Conversations
How AT&T's Culture Creates Connections
CHRO Conversations

How AT&T's Culture Creates Connections

A Conversation With Angela Santone

AT&T CHRO Angela Santone

Angela Santone
Chief Human Resources Officer for AT&T

CliftonStrengths Top 5: Relator | Communication | Input | Activator | Connectedness

In December 2019, Angela Santone took over as the new CHRO of AT&T. Six months later, John Stankey took over as CEO. In the interim, a global pandemic took over the world.

In turbulent times like these, an organization can lose sight of its north star. Not AT&T -- in July 2020, Santone launched a major culture initiative with the release of four new cultural pillars and a new purpose statement.

New, but familiar. AT&T's purpose -- to create connection -- could resonate with any employee it's had over the past 144 years. And the cultural pillars define AT&T at its best, a definition that senior leadership and employees say is not just the ideal, but the actual.

Articulating the actual culture of a quarter million employees in such times is no small challenge, though. As Santone relates in the following CHRO Conversation, with a majority-remote workforce due to the pandemic, her HR team missed the face-to-face feedback and the celebration such a launch would ordinarily receive. But it marshalled HR's creativity, built new muscles, and created new ways to connect -- which certainly demonstrated the cultural pillars in action -- and kept AT&T's north star shining even in turbulent times.

"In turbulent times like these, an organization can lose sight of its north star. Not AT&T -- in July 2020, Santone launched a major culture initiative with the release of four new cultural pillars and a new purpose statement."

Emond: How did this get rolling?

Santone: At AT&T, we create connection. One of our key HR priorities for the year was sharing how our cultural pillars support our purpose to create connections. The definition of our purpose actually came from John [Stankey] and his vision of the company, from talking about our purpose, from thinking of it not only from a head perspective, but a heart perspective too. As WarnerMedia and AT&T came together, our values have remained the same -- and we're a very values-based company -- but from a purpose standpoint, whether it be amazing content, broadband and wireless services, or software-enabled entertainment, we wanted to clarify and define how we create connections. The pandemic and new leadership added to the scope of change, but we've been in the process of change for several years during the acquisition of Time Warner. So, launching a new culture model kind of fit right in.

Emond: Tell me about the qualitative and quantitative work that you did before the launch.

Santone: I was the chief administrator here at AT&T before taking this role, which gave me a great opportunity to talk with hundreds of employees at different levels and learn about their experience with and understanding of our purpose. Then, through focus groups and discussion surveys, we were able to quantify what we needed to do to be more competitive and more successful in the future by creating a baseline of our performance.

Emond: What are the pillars?

Santone: There are four: Serve Customers First, Move Faster, Act Boldly, and Win as One. Serve Customers First is at the forefront of everything we do. This tenet encourages us to be customer centric always with a focus on empathy and simplicity. Moving Faster is about flexibility. Our goal is to avoid becoming rigid in how we're doing the work, which we found can slow down decision-making or serving our customers. Act Boldly revolves around candor and setting ambitious objectives for ourselves, taking smart risks, and being future-focused. And finally, Win as One encourages collaboration and inclusion, accountability for delivering excellence, the collective good, and keeping in mind the broader implications and the broader opportunities when we're making critical decisions for the business. The feedback I'm hearing from employees is that these cultural pillars really codified what culture should be and gave us a north star.

Emond: These cultural tenets predated the new CEO, correct?

Santone: We were gathering feedback from employees and working to synthesize the data when John took the helm. The input that we received from employees perfectly aligned with his vision of engagement and the employee experience. We're focused on ensuring that what we are saying is what people feel is a reality. We needed to ensure we're working with the same spirit and mindset across AT&T. We talked a lot about what the employee should expect from AT&T and what AT&T needs from each employee as we were thinking about this.

Emond: And what is that? What should an employee expect, and what does AT&T expect in return?

Santone: People used to join companies with the intent of staying 30 or 40 years, but that's not the reality for many employees today. So, we want our employee value proposition and their experience to be engaging and developmental, with challenging work in a potentially shorter time frame, which changes the way we do benefits and compensation -- student loan repayment, for example, may be more important than college savings to some people -- so we're trying to be very targeted on making this experience better for our employees. We want to meet them where they are. Obviously, we put incredible value on those who have been here a long time, but the focus is on helping people as they grow and develop and share as much as they possibly can with us while they're here. And if they leave, they leave as alumni, customers and brand ambassadors. And if they come back, they come back with different experiences that benefit the company. I think you have to have that type of open mind.

Emond: How do you introduce something this big when so many employees are off-site?

Santone: We didn't have the opportunity to share face-to-face and see immediately how employees were responding. Typically, you would take a day in-person, build the excitement and the energy, and really celebrate. Obviously, that's not something we can do, so we've done all the rollout activities virtually. We've had town halls and individual meetings across the company, we're sharing specific examples of behaviors in action on our intranet, we've introduced digicards, every way you can possibly imagine to get a message out and let people hear it, see it, feel it, we've done it. And we're checking in to make sure the impact is there. We rolled this out in July and did a survey at the end of August and another pulse survey in November.

But you know one of the things I personally love, is that because of the limitations we've had to deal with, we've had to be really creative about how we restate the message. I'm amazed at how often I'm seeing the way these cultural pillars shape employees' and leaders' communications, especially Win as One. Yes, cultural transformation may be more difficult when you're doing everything virtually, but we have a language to align around. And I'm seeing some amazing opportunities to connect with employees in very different ways than we're traditionally used to. I think that's a huge advantage.

Emond: How so?

Santone: For one, it democratizes all types of conversations. We shared all the culture survey results at one time throughout the company, versus cascading through the organization. And we're finding it helps us be more open and transparent. That's probably a result of the pandemic, but even more so a result of our leadership. For me personally, it validated that we were moving in the right direction with our purpose statement and culture pillars.

Emond: How has this played out for your HR team?

Santone: We all agree this has been a really exciting time for the team. Redefining our purpose and cultural pillars puts us on a journey to change the employee experience and reimagine the employee value proposition in really meaningful ways. In HR, that means changing our employee touch points -- over 30 of them. We've shifted our compensation components, we've changed how we announce promotions, we've been looking at our talent acquisition experience and the onboarding experience; every touch point you can imagine, we're looking at. We're building new muscles through the four cultural pillars, and it's exciting.

"Yes, cultural transformation may be more difficult when you're doing everything virtually, but we have a language to align around. And I'm seeing some amazing opportunities to connect with employees in very different ways than we're traditionally used to."

Emond: How has this affected you operationally? Aligning with the new pillars must have highlighted opportunities.

Santone: It really did. We probably have the most opportunity with Move Faster to ensure that we're agile, proactive and taking calculated risks -- and people are feeling that across the company in a very real way. For example, we brought together a cross-functional team to provide recommendations on areas where we need to move faster. Or there's the Connection Awards, which recognize and reward the individuals exhibiting these cultural pillars throughout the year. Regarding performance development, we've introduced a 360-degree process for all employees that includes peer and manager feedback. And we just added an employee engagement index that we think is really important to ensure we know how engaged our employees really are. Especially when things are changing so fast -- not just internally but externally as well -- ensuring that these values guide our decision-making across everything we do collectively as a company, guide who we are and our behaviors moving forward. It's really important.

Emond: Tell me a little bit about the Connection Awards -- how does that work? Is it a monetary award?

Santone: Yes. You and I both know that money is a key motivator. It shows we take culture seriously and that we want to recognize the individuals who are examples of the pillars that we want each employee to exhibit. It also shows that our purpose isn't just words but is something we really value. With these awards, all leaders have an opportunity to recognize employee behaviors in real time. You may do a fantastic job on a project that Serves Customers First in March, but if you don't feel the impact of that until the following February, it does less to reinforce the cultural pillar. We also hope this empowers leaders across the company to reward their people in a way that works best for their organization.

Emond: How so?

Santone: Well, with this reward, a leader has the power to acknowledge an employee for the job well done on the spot, to Act Boldly. That enables leaders and managers to live out the culture, to be more purposeful and pointed about how we get the work done, and to inspire and motivate that behavior in others. That's important for business results, and I'm not sure that was very clear for employees until now. Now, this company does an amazing job of promoting and rotating talent within. Internal mobility at AT&T is probably best in class. But where I see a potential opportunity, is enabling us to learn best practices from one another across diverse areas of the organization.

"Redefining our purpose and cultural pillars puts us on a journey to change the employee experience and reimagine the employee value proposition in really meaningful ways."

Emond: Creating connections inside and outside the company.

Santone: Right. And I would say that had particular relevance in 2020. I mean, think about it -- we had social unrest across the country, hurricanes in the U.S. and Latin America, wildfires in California. Our network is critical for first responders and that connection has a huge impact on people. Our network has also enabled employees to work from home and kids to learn during online school. From a content standpoint, we create connections that are engaging, that make you laugh and cry, that get people through tough times. So, it's really important, now more than ever, for employees to build that connection to the company, so they can build connections for the customers. It's truly our purpose.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article, which was based on an interview conducted by Larry Emond.

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