Leading by Learning

By Mike Sievert, CEO of T-MobileApril 16, 2021

I am still learning.

This quote has been attributed — and misattributed — to so many thinkers throughout the centuries that at this point it sounds generic. Whether it was Michelangelo, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Norman Rockwell or someone else entirely, the words express a simple yet powerful idea: Even the masters never stop growing.

The contemporary term for this openness to new ideas is growth mindset. As a theory of intelligence, the growth mindset is one where our interests, skills and aptitudes can develop over time. And hey, there’s science behind it. Studies show that when a company embraces a growth mindset, it can go a long way toward improving employee diversity, mental health, job satisfaction and performance.

During my first full year as CEO, my goal has been to embrace a growth mindset — to continue being proactive about learning and constantly improving, for myself and for T-Mobile. To that end, I’ve been looking at the ways successful leaders do their thing, and infusing some of the resulting ideas into how I lead this company. Here’s a handful I want to share with you.

Satya Nadella: Lead with empathy. The CEO of Microsoft once described his original interview at the company as ending with a question that caught him off guard: You see a baby fall down in the street, what do you do? This was back in the ’90s, so Satya said he’d run to a phone and call 911. He wasn’t hired. Incredulous, he asked why. The interviewer told him he needed to develop empathy — to pick up and comfort the baby. From then on, Satya made a point to incorporate empathy into his leadership style, putting himself in someone else’s shoes before making a decision that will affect them.

For me and my leadership team, that means helping employees balance health, household and work responsibilities. I recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all model — especially while weathering a pandemic — but it starts with a simple question: How are you?

Megan Rapinoe: Embrace your individual strengths. At T-Mobile we say, “Be yourself. We like it that way,” and there’s no better embodiment of that philosophy than U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Few people are as willing to take a stand — on the biggest stages in the world, with purple hair, no less! — than Megan (who happens to live right across Lake Washington from me in Seattle).

Diverse perspectives and experiences help a company like T-Mobile better understand the communities we serve every day — and ways we can improve our workforce. That’s why I’m in awe of our External Diversity Council, a superlative group of men and women that represents the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in running a successful company, and for providing an example of this lesson just by living their lives.

The Nordstrom family: Always put the customer first. Another Pacific Northwest icon, the Nordstrom family, set the standard for customer experience. Their retail empire was born from a single store opened in downtown Seattle in 1901 and today includes 100 stores in 40 U.S. states, along with a bustling website and more than 70,000 employees. The great-grandsons of original founder John W. Nordstrom, brothers Pete and Erik Nordstrom, run the family business under the same founding principle: The customer is always first. The “Nordstrom Way” has guided them through a century of boom-and-bust shopping trends, including recent shifts in brick-and-mortar retail.

Just like the Nordstrom family, I am all about customer obsession. I want T-Mobile to become the best in the world at connecting customers to their world. My vision is to be #1 in customer choice and customers’ hearts.

Kizzmekia Corbett: Each one, teach one. A mentor-mentee relationship ignited Kizzmekia Corbett’s lifelong passion for scientific discovery. Now a viral immunologist and research fellow in the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, she is the lead scientist on the team that developed the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.

Kizzmekia has followed her curiosity since becoming a scientist at 16 by constantly learning, along with seeking and encouraging feedback on her work. Now, at 35, she has adopted a mentoring philosophy from an African-American proverb that originated during slavery: “Each one, teach one.” The idea is to spread knowledge for the betterment of your community.

In addition to Kizzmekia’s role in leading the design of the vaccine and preclinical studies, she is easing hesitancies about Covid-19 science — often in her limited free time — in communities of color.

Kizzmekia’s example is so inspiring. Instilling a sense of self-reliance and self-improvement helps our upcoming leaders grow. It also positively impacts our business. In fact, a Korn/Ferry International study of the stock performance of 486 publicly traded companies found that companies with strong financial performance tend to have employees with higher levels of self-awareness than poorly performing companies.

José Andrés: Direct your passion back to the world in the biggest way possible. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, José Andrés took his food out of the restaurant and straight to people in need. The internationally renowned chef launched World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that provides meals to people suffering through natural disasters. In 2020, José set up community kitchens across the U.S. to deliver tens of thousands of meals to people hit hard by Covid-19. Doing what he does best to make a difference for those who need it most. His big heart is matched only by his outsized impact, a combination I admire and aspire to. And now more than ever, people need someone fighting on their behalf.

Just like José, I believe in fighting for those who need a little extra support. It’s why T-Mobile launched Project 10Million this past year, an ambitious program aimed at eradicating the digital divide issue known as the “homework gap.” Education should be the great leveler in our society, but students need broadband connections in order for that to work. Our goal is simple — to connect every single child with internet access. So far, we have provided more than 2.5 million underserved students nationwide with free or highly subsidized connectivity. Directing our passion back to the world.

Greta Thunberg: We must protect the Earth for future generations, and we must do it now. Greta has changed the conversation about environmentalism at the highest levels of global leadership — and she did so before turning 18. I see her as one of the bravest leaders on the world stage today, and she quickly pivoted her movement to online and socially distanced activism during the pandemic.

I want the cleaner, safer, saner world Greta envisions, not just for my children but for everyone’s. And I’m proud to put those words into action at T-Mobile, where our Changemaker Challenge program celebrates creative young people who are making a difference with their innovative ideas around technology, the environment and education. I can’t wait to see what they bring to our Changemaker Lab later this year.

Colin Powell: You can't make someone else's choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours. It’s nearly impossible to choose only one leadership lesson from former Secretary of State and four-star general Colin Powell. Throughout his broad experiences in military and civilian life, he has exemplified what it means to lead with emotional intelligence, create conditions of trust within an organization and approach life with a can-do attitude.

Of his own 13 Rules of Leadership, this one about taking ultimate responsibility for the decisions you make resonates most with me. Gen. Powell used to tell his subordinate commanders and staff, “Try to convince me you are right and I am about to go down the wrong path. You owe that to me; that's why you are here. But don't be intimidated when I argue back. A moment will come when I have heard enough and I make a decision.”

I encourage my leaders at T-Mobile to listen and consider all perspectives. But ultimately, we are all responsible for our own decisions. You can’t let pressure from someone else stand in the way of making the choices you need to make (for me, being what’s best for our customers, employees and shareholders). My leadership team and I approach tough decision-making with Gen. Powell’s advice in mind: Get enough information to make an informed decision, and then trust your gut. Also, be willing to learn and grow from your mistakes.

I’m happy to take notes from such strong, empathetic individuals. This is all about embracing an optimistic view of the future — one that’s wide open to possibility. And when we keep learning, we keep improving. That’s what the growth mindset is all about. Because as good as we are, I know we can get even better. And that pursuit is what moves me and my teammates at T-Mobile.

This article first appeared in the Puget Sound Business Journal.