September 20, 2018 • History Factory
Ivan Seidenberg is a principal architect of Verizon Communications, Inc., having served 25 years as a senior executive of Verizon and its Baby Bell predecessors, including 11 years at the Verizon helm, first as CEO and then as CEO and chairman. Working with History Factory as well as leadership guru Ram Charan, Seidenberg published Verizon Untethered: An Insider’s Story of Innovation and Disruption earlier this year (Post Hill Press). He recently sat down with co-author Scott McMurray, History Factory VP-Editorial, and Jason Dressel, History Factory Managing Director, to reflect on the project.
Most of the books by CEOs that I have read are about the philosophy of the CEO, what they thought was right or wrong. That was less interesting to me than what they accomplished, what they left behind. It literally took dozens of people to create this institutional framework that is Verizon. I wanted to make sure that the word got out, that all of the people who had some part in this were recognized for their contribution.
Ram Charan’s contribution to the book really helped put our experience at Verizon in broader context that has applicability to anyone interested in business. We were earlier in the game of social responsibility, public policy, quality service, about serving more than shareholders. And we didn’t do one item at a time, we were able to walk and chew gum and do multiple things. From a cultural point of view, we were millennials before millennials were cool – or even out of school.
I always think that for people who are passionate about their work and love what they do, it is really rewarding to be part of something bigger than yourself. One of my mantras from the very beginning was that I had to buy into the higher purpose of the company. There were times in my career I wasn’t sure I liked what I heard about the higher purpose. That doesn’t mean that I stopped looking for it. That drive for a higher purpose is even more relevant for companies today than it was during my career.
As I was able to move up throughout my career, I shifted the conversation and the messaging to make it fit into things that I thought were good. Early on you get embedded with this concept that you’re only in business for your shareholders. I would never say that. I remember telling our board, “We’re in business to serve customers, employees and shareholders, not just shareholders.” There would be board members who would sit there and go, “that’s not the conventional wisdom.” I said, “Well, without customers, there’s no shareholders. Without employees there’s no customers. So we have to have equal footing.”
We also were early in understanding we had to narrow what we stood for and deepen the relationships with customers. We didn’t try to be all things to all people. So Facebook says, “We’re going to be the social vehicle that connects everybody on the planet.” Oh by the way, they didn’t tell you they’re going to give away everybody’s privacy. We said, “We’re going to run a great network so you two can talk to each other anytime you want.”
Oh, by the way, sometimes what you do well becomes obsolete, so you have to reinvent yourself. That’s another thing we do, we reinvented the land lines with Fios. Then we reinvented wireless to broadband with our best in class network. We are going to go wherever we are going to go so we don’t lose our position with the customer. We have to keep changing it, expanding it a little bit and deepening it.
Our focus on disruption came from our pursuit of growth. If we could make an acquisition or invest capital, that would disrupt something. We couldn’t be a disrupter in the sense that we were a new entry. We had to fundamentally chase growth to expand the market. That is the dilemma for an established company like Verizon, you have to chase growth and you have to chase it meaningfully. You have to invest in it and believe in it and expand the market.
The biggest challenge was getting a fair, unbiased collection of relevant facts. I was deathly afraid that if I did this by myself I would weigh it down with things I can remember rather than with things that are relevant. I think History Factory served a wonderful role in helping to create a neutral, unbiased research vehicle to gather information about the company.
There are a lot of great companies out there that have great stories. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the story because either it appears self-serving or is told through a controversial person or comes through a singular voice. What we were able to do working together is to take the totality of the story in a neutral unbiased way and bring out all the attributes of the complete authentic story so we can get a good book.
The aha moment for me was when I read things I hadn’t thought about, that I knew had occurred, but I probably wouldn’t have cataloged that way. History Factory did prove to me that the story could be written this way. I think when I read the first two chapters I realized that you were telling the story without my thumb on the scales. The word that I picked up from you that really resonates with me is storytelling. Your ability to tell stories and all the things that go underneath that.