AT&T Business CEO Anne Chow Embodies Courageous Leadership.
by Ashley Bradshaw
September 29, 2021
Photo courtesy of AT&T
CEO. Author. Mentor. Southlake mom. Anne Chow isn’t just one of these important roles — she’s all of them. Rather than compartmentalizing her responsibilities and juggling different hats, Anne has found success by forging her own path and embracing all aspects of herself along the way.
That approach landed her in a historical seat. In September 2019, Anne was appointed the CEO of AT&T Business, becoming the first woman in the position and the first woman of color CEO at AT&T. Now, in her 32nd year with AT&T, Anne’s responsible for a $36 billion operating unit, serving 3 million global business customers.
Whether you know her as an executive, neighbor or one of “Fortune’s” 2020 Most Powerful Women in Business, what you see is what you get with Anne.
PAVING HER PATH
Anne has always been fascinated with learning how things worked, so it’s no surprise she followed her father’s footsteps and pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. After graduating from Cornell University, the self-proclaimed lifelong learner landed a role with AT&T as a network architect, unaware that she would spend more than three decades rising the ranks of the world’s largest telecommunications company.
“I love working at the intersection of people and technology,” Anne says. “I was hooked on this idea of being a business leader, not only a technology leader.”
During those initial years, Anne saw AT&T’s scope of services firsthand, and the diversity of opportunities ahead resonated with Anne’s love of learning. By taking management positions in different operating units ranging from product management and indirect sales to international operations and strategy and planning, Anne started to understand how different teams left an impact on various stakeholders.
As Anne started to pave her own path in the workplace, she saw that it took courage to embrace being different.
“When I achieved middle management, the role I had as I was moving up on the corporate ladder, there were not a lot of people who looked like me,” Anne says. “Whether I was the only woman in the room, the only minority or the only woman minority in a room, I always had this notion of, ‘Yes, I am different.’ As a result, the development of my leadership style naturally brought me to being courageous.”
Anne’s authenticity and eagerness to get to know her teammates on a personal level dropped walls, and it encouraged her employees to feel like they could bring up any ideas for consideration, which in turn helped shape more inclusive conversations.
“Anne does that by being true to herself and knowing a person is bigger than what they do in their job,” says Stacey Marx, AT&T National Business and Channel President. “Not only does she encourage them to be their authentic self, but she will truly ask [about their lives] and mean it.”
Seeing her employees flourish when they brought their full selves to the table and felt inspired to get involved pushed Anne to keep inspiring others.
“Trust is the most important currency in business,” Anne says. “My job is to support them in their learning, in their areas of expertise and in their achievements, both personal and professional. I always found I would get the most reward from helping others be great — helping others realize their potential.”
Vice President of National Business Chris Donan says he felt seen by Anne even before they started closely working together. While working in the Houston office, Chris and his wife welcomed their second daughter into the family. In his first few days at home juggling a new baby and his job responsibilities, Chris received an unexpected package from Anne filled with clothes, colorful books and a stuffed animal, congratulating the Donan family on their newborn.
Years later, that thoughtful gift still touches Chris. Even though they didn’t know each other well, Anne showed she was thinking of him.
“I thought, ‘Wow. I could work for someone like this for a while,’” Chris says. “The capacity for authentic personal connections has to be something that is driven within someone’s character.”
Chris says that one of the biggest takeaways he has after working alongside Anne for years is that people should be at the center of every decision.
“Something she’s passed along to me is, ‘If your No. 1 priority is not people, there’s something wrong,’” Chris says. “What you see is what you get. She’s a mom, she’s a human being and she’s probably the most authentic person I know.”
While creating an open environment sets the foundation, Anne knows that it still takes courage to be open to sharing and hearing new perspectives. Anne credits her parents’ bravery for sparking her courage, stating, “courageousness is within my DNA.”
“My parents immigrated to this country from Taiwan in the ’60s,” Anne says. “They didn’t speak the language. When I think about their courage… anything I do pales in comparison. I have a higher risk aperture than most.”
Growing up and watching her parents work tirelessly and pour everything they had into her and her brother instilled kernels of courage that she would later draw on when taking on new uncharted territory.
“I was not always this courageous, as much as I would like to deny it,” Anne says. “As you develop more structural responsibility and your scope of responsibility grows, I feel that your level of courageousness grows too.”
Anne says courage needs to be tested to grow.
“Some people think being courageous means you are not afraid or you are extremely certain about your set of actions,” Anne explains. “Courage is being able to move forward — being able to make the best decisions in the face of fear and doubt. [It’s] being resilient and having grit — being able to get knocked down and getting back up again.”
Anne has seen the power of nurturing a positive work environment and building trust among employees in helping teams move forward together.
“If you can find people and surround yourself with those who see the best in you and see that potential, you develop more courage,” Anne says. “I don’t subscribe to the idea of failure anymore. There are only two outcomes: success and learning. That failure helps us learn and increase the probability of success.”
Chris says that Anne taught him it’s OK not to have all the answers. By surrounding yourself with intelligent people who think differently, it’s easier to flesh out concepts and think through potential pitfalls.
“What I now do is surround myself with people that make me better,” Chris says. “Anne has taught me you don’t need to be the only person with a 360-degree view. They bring it for you.”
Anne found that celebrating diversity benefits more than individual teams. Early on in her career, Anne found safe spaces through AT&T’s employee resource organizations. After seeing how these groups could benefit not only its members but also the community at large, she felt inspired to get more involved.
It eventually led her to form the AT&T Women of Business employee network, which is now nearly 5,000 women strong. By connecting with an even larger audience of women, Anne is showing the next generation of leaders how to pave their own pathways.
While she knows it won’t always be easy, she’s taught thousands of women that embracing the uncomfortable helps push things forward.
EMBRACING THE UNCOMFORTABLE
As AT&T Business’ CEO, Anne has had to navigate through her own share of uncomfortable conversations, whether they’re about diversity or COVID-19 protocols. But by remaining open, authentic and putting people first, Anne helps others feel like no question is off the table.
“As a group, I try to create an open environment where communication is safe,” Anne says. “We talk about difficult things.”
Anne also puts in the work by initiating conversations. Looking for a way to scale her impact, Anne started a weekly internal company blog that includes both professional and personal advice, drawing inspiration from her breadth of life experiences. What started as an intimidating task from the once-novice writer became a routine that has helped AT&T members throughout the organization feel like they knew the real Anne.
The blog that started as a courageous new venture has now been voted “Best Blog” across the company for the past nine years.
“Ultimately being courageous is being uncomfortable,” Anne says. “If you are comfortable, what are you doing? You are not growing; You are stagnating. No one is perfect. Being able to survive those uncomfortable topics is vitally important. Otherwise, how do you improve a process? How do you improve your customer experience?”
Anne has also expanded her reach beyond AT&T by engaging with others on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Anne shares everything with her followers, from participating in a virtual panel discussing the importance of diversity to dropping off her kids at school. She also helps build connections by encouraging conversations among her circles.
“Social platforms are professional platforms for connecting,” Anne says. “I am always looking to try to harness my network to support others and help my people develop their own network.”
While penning a book was never on Anne’s mind, when she was presented with the chance to join a book partnership with FranklinCovey, she knew she had to take the opportunity. In 2020, she co-wrote “The Leader’s Guide To Unconscious Bias: How To Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection And Create High-Performing Teams,” tackling the notion of bias with facts and real-life experiences.
“All humans have bias, so to have bias is human,” Anne says. “The danger of unconscious bias is we have this bias to be people who are like us. For me, this is why creating that open environment in a trusted way is key. Each person’s perspective is as equally important as each other.”
Anne knows it takes bravery to engage in these conversations, but it’s what’s necessary to progress.
“Here we are in 2021, and there’s so much strife in the world. What’s needed in every facet of society is courageous leadership,” Anne says. “I’m looking to create that dialogue, that open, safe space in different structures both inside and outside the company.”
At AT&T, Anne not only showcases her courageous leadership but ensures her employees of color feel like they have the tools necessary to be successful. Anne partnered with AT&T’s chief diversity officer to create the organization’s Women of Color initiative, an employee network group consisting of approximately 200 women and their supervisors.
“I’m focused on next-generation leadership,” Anne says. “We work through challenging topics, like the emotional tax of being a woman of color at work, how to engage with others and how to encounter bias.”
Anne says the importance of including the supervisors is to ensure that they too can learn from the perspectives of these women. It’s one of the steps Anne is taking to ensure that she is not the last woman of color to hold a CEO position with AT&T.
“This program will be in place long after I am gone,” Anne says. “It’s what I am doing to make sure I’m not the last one. So the next generation of women leaders and multicultural women leaders don’t have to pave the same kind of ground that I did — that they can show up more quickly in their careers as their authentic selves.”
Anne knows the benefit when she shows others that they are not alone.
“By telling some of my stories, it helps others,” Anne says. “When you’re going through it, you think you are the problem and you’re the only one. That’s so far from the truth.”
Anne aspires to keep moving forward, not only by taking on new challenges but by finding new ways to be there for her employees. Because she knows that if she empowers them to achieve their goals, it will make the overall group more successful.
“Leadership is not only a science in which you master,” Anne says. “It’s part art. It’s this constant practice.”
Be a part of the conversation about “Leading Courageously” with Anne Chow at our fifth annual Women’s Luncheon, presented by Texas Health Southlake, on Oct. 8. Reserve your tickets today at 817Tix.com.
by Ashley Bradshaw
September 29, 2021
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AT&T Business CEO Anne Chow Embodies Courageous Leadership.