John Donovan (AT&T) in “The Corner Office”

John Donovan (Photo Credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of John Donovan, the chief technology officer at AT&T since 2008, who learned a lot about the subtleties of team-building earlier in his career. He says he found that “giving credit away, deflecting credit, was an effective thing to do.”

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

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Strive for Results, Not for the Accolades

Bryant: What were some early leadership lessons for you?

Donovan: There are certain characteristics that give people a start — and for me, I remember starting to use them when I was named captain of my hockey team. I think after that it becomes practice. I think those characteristics are the ability to set a framework that makes sense to people, and being articulate. You can look at the landscape, characterize it and set a framework for action, then be able to articulate it clearly. You have to have antennas for picking out what’s really important.

So you have to have those basic skills and be a good pattern recognizer. I was always good at those problems where you go “two, four, six, eight, what’s next?” And you start to put those skills together and then, like anything else, you get better with practice.

That said, if there’s a situation where someone else needs to lead, and it’s working, that is A-O.K. I don’t feel a burning need to be in charge, and I don’t feel that it’s a bad thing to follow when the right things are getting done. So in some respects, I don’t have the innate drive that certain people have about control and ownership and leadership. When I left Silicon Valley, a lot of people bet me that I wouldn’t last at AT&T. They figured that because I’d been a C.E.O. before, I couldn’t go qwork at a big company  where you have bosses, and you don’t control everything.

It really isn’t even a consideration for me. I just derive great satisfaction from a well-played plan. As a matter of fact, I have an aversion to situations where credit is showered upon leaders. Those don’t sit easily with me. Maybe that’s because I was one of 11 kids in our family. I love engaging, but I don’t like the compliments, with somebody saying, “Hey, great job.”

Bryant: Other lessons?

Donovan: The first thing I noticed very quickly early on was that hard work is central to what you do, and that’s not any magic or science. I said, “Well, if I start today, and I outwork everybody, then the only question is the starting point.” So I figured that if I work really hard I can be in the top 5 percent in any field. It just gave me some comfort to say, O.K., I’m going to do fine financially, so I shouldn’t make decisions based on money. My objective should be to gain the broadest set of experiences I can, and just try to drill deep everywhere I can. And so I played the game for breadth. Early in my career, I bought businesses, fixed them and sold them. Some went well; some didn’t. I did some home development. I was in sales. I went back to business school.

A lot of people work hard to get ahead, and I recognized early on that it’s a differentiator. I just figured that there was a certain amount of this that’s just raw tonnage.

Bryant: What else?

Donovan: I worked at Deloitte, and became a partner there. That’s probably where a lot of my development occurred as a leader. There were simple things around teams. I developed team skills because I started to engage in deliberate deflection of credit in an environment where it was all about credits. What I started realizing is that people appreciated when you played for the result, and not for your role on the team. So I learned there that giving credit away, deflecting credit, was an effective thing to do. I think I learned a lot of subtleties about teams and how you assemble teams.

Bryant: Can you share some more insights on that?

Donovan: If you figure there’s a karma pool out there floating around for credits, you have to stop playing for credits. I remember the day I realized that, and that I probably never again needed to involve scorekeeping in anything that I did.

Bryant: What are some questions you ask when you’re interviewing job candidates?

Donovan: I always ask questions about what words people would want on their tombstone. So I’ll ask, “If your professional colleagues were going to put three words on your tombstone — I mean literally three — what would those three words be?” And then the follow-up question is always the one that surprises people. I will then ask, “Instead of three, what’s the one word?”

I’ve tried to assemble teams with people who were grounded enough, and comfortable enough, to be able to have these kinds of conversations. When you find people who have that sort of grounding, then it can be about the problem you’re working to solve together, and not about the person.

The leadership part for me now is so much more about game planning than about the role that I play in the game plan. I love the opportunity to take a role that I had and give it away to another team member, and the team result is as good or better. I sort of see myself over time as needing to play the game less, but I’m becoming better at getting even better results by that combination of the right framework and the right people in the right positions.

Bryant: Back to your tombstone question. What’s the one word for you?

Donovan: When I was young, the one word for me was “smart.” I wanted it to be “leadership.” I wanted it to be “inspirational.” But it was smart, and smart is an individual, lonely thing. When you get it on a tombstone, it feels like an island. I’d like to say that it’s “wise” today, but I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished that yet.

Bryant: The other two words?

Donovan: I do think they would be “inspirational,” and “leader.” I’m proud that I can inspire people. I think there are a lot of people I’ve worked with who have burned extra oil, but I don’t think at the end of the day that inspiration is measured in terms of me getting more from them. I think it’s about a better result that we can all share in.

Bryant: How did you make the transition to a big company like AT&T?

Donovan: So when I came to AT&T, I was standing on the shoulders of giants in the industry. I was going in to lead a group that, frankly, I wouldn’t have been qualified enough to join as a junior person.

But let me start with the process I went through. I went to my direct reports and I said I want the 16 smartest people in the technology organization. It’s not about titles. I don’t want any diplomats. I don’t want any process people. And I called them the Tech Council. I still have it today, almost four years later. I rotate people in and out. I gave them several hours a month. Rules of the road are that you’re not allowed to report back to anybody you work for — what is said in this room stays in this room.

We then started with a list of all the things that were broken, stupid, idiotic, what’s killing innovation, from 16 really bright people who were willing and able to tell you the truth. And if you look at some of the things that we’ve done in our innovation program, a lot of the seeds were born in that room. And so we built a profile that started with the ugly truth, and that’s kind of where we had to start from.

When I came in, I was led to believe that we would have an innovation problem. And I learned very quickly that we did have an innovation problem, but we didn’t have an invention problem — and that’s important.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.


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