Sowmyanarayan Sampath, executive vice president of Verizon and CEO of Verizon Business, now leads a $31 billion organization focused on winning with 5G. We recently talked about his vision, the current state of the industry, and what it takes to become a successful leader.
Karen Walker: Congratulations on your new role! In our last conversation, you said you were at Verizon because you wanted to be in “the business enterprise” and you wanted to shape the future of the telecommunications industry. What is your vision for achieving this in your new role as CEO of Verizon Business?
Sowmyanarayan Sampath: We have a unique opportunity for this company. Three big things are happening: cloud, broadband and mobility. Almost everything that happens in the tech space touches on one of these three things. And Verizon is in the business of those three things. We’re enabling some of the smallest businesses – like the pizzeria around the corner – to medium-sized businesses, to some of the biggest companies in the world to be on this digital journey. COVID accelerated some of that, but when the transformations don’t happen, it’s because the underlying network wasn’t right. So we are very busy and focused.
Walker: 5G technology is driving some, if not all, of this. What is the current state of 5G, and where and when are we going?
Sampath: We bet the farm on 5G and are pretty confident about it. There are three companies with 5G. First, our mobility activity. These are the cell phones in our pockets. It’s the tablets, the IoT space. And it works well. 5G is rolling out in this sector faster than 4G. We’ve been in this business for a long time and we continue to take part in this space as we add capacity.
Then we have a new business called enterprise internet or fixed wireless access. As a general rule, we only provide internet in the eastern corridor of the country – the Amtrak corridor. Now, with this fixed wireless access, we are using 5G to deliver professional Internet across the country. It’s a new market, relatively close to our space, and we’ve never grown so fast.
The third is an entirely new market: mobile edge computing and private networks. It’s about bringing computing into low-latency areas at the edge of the network. We have just launched production, so we still have work to do, but we are creating a market from scratch.
Walker: What is a sample Mobile Edge client?
Sampath: Here is one of hundreds. One of the most technologically advanced manufacturing facilities in the United States is Corning’s plant in Hickory, North Carolina. They use our mobile edge computing for quality assurance on very high quality fiber optic cables. They take pictures of different pieces of fiber as they pass at very high speeds and then compare them to a sample. If they are not good, they cut them. If they are good, they let them pass. Previously, they had to batch everything and then do quality control. But it’s happening in real time now.
Walker: Are there any headwinds in the industry that are holding people back from 5G?
Sampath: With any deployment, many things need to come together. We need to build the network, the devices need to be ready, and you need apps. When the three come together, the magic happens. With 4G/LTE, trillions of dollars of business value have been created when network meets devices and applications. 5G is no different.
We have the network, we have the devices, and a lot of work goes into creating use cases and applications.
Walker: Let’s talk about you and leadership. When we last spoke, you said your leadership style was to “lead with kindness.” I’m sure your employees like it. How critical is this in your new position?
Sampath: People like to work with nice people. You don’t have to be a jerk to get things done. But that doesn’t mean not holding people accountable for results. We have incredibly high standards – we are the world’s largest carrier and the benchmark for carrier operation. We take this seriously.
Bringing these two people together with a common mission to drive results has been a success, and I will continue to do so.
Walker: Once these three things are in the DNA of a system, it’s a winning combination. Now that you oversee more than 22,000 employees, how do you reinforce these skills within the organization as a whole?
Sampath: We start with our concept of shared success. We are a reasonably matrix organization, which is not typical of large multinationals like ours. The question is how to get everyone to focus on the right priorities. We achieve this through shared success goals. We have four things we care about: Revenue/Revenue Growth, Margin, Product NPS, and Employee Engagement Score.
Everything people do must achieve these four things. You can never be in a position where you have green on your dashboard when those metrics are red. This allows us to lead a large organization towards a common goal.
The second is focus. It seems fundamental, but in big companies like ours, focus on how to win, because so many things can distract us.
Walker: You were most recently the CRO before your promotion to CEO. I see this happening in the industry, both in terms of the hyper-growth tech companies that I work with a lot, and large organizations like yours. How have your market skills prepared you for this new role?
Sampath: I was an accidental CRO. My background is primarily focused on product management strategy and business transformation. I also did a stint as CFO. But I needed to better understand the markets and customers, which is why I was very keen to take on the role of CRO. As a CRO, you spend 90% of your time with customers, so everything you do is looked at through that lens. It helped me, because I understand very well what customers want and like (sometimes a little too much). Still, I think it’s good because around me, everything revolves around this vision, and customers become the focus of an organization.
Walker: Do you have any advice for other members of large organizations who aspire to your position or another high position in a large company?
Sampath: Advice is a strong word. One suggestion is to take risks early in your career. Every year, the cost of risk taking increases exponentially. You have to complement each other and try to play many different roles. Everyone has to be known for something. Often people ask me, “How can I be promoted to the next level?” I have done such a good job in my current role. No one gets promoted for doing a great job in their current role. That’s why you get paid. Find your superpower and harness it massively.
Walker: Absolutely. One of Dorie Clark’s books, stand out, is a great resource for those looking to do so. Nobody else will do it for you.
Sampath: It’s a very competitive landscape. Go to the upper right corner of the performance/potential matrix. Take care of both areas, not just your current job.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.