Effective leaders stick to their values and work hard to make other people’s work better. Those were the messages relayed by Debbie Storey (AB ‘80 MBA ‘06), the executive vice president for mobility and customer service at AT&T, at a recent Terry Leadership Speaker Series event.
At AT&T, Storey is in charge of 33,000 employees, but it wasn’t always that way. She started at the bottom of the industry, making coffee and relaying messages, and worked her way to the C-Suite through hard work, open communication and an acute understanding of other people’s needs.
“One of the things that gets me up every day is that I want to have a positive impact on people,” she said. “When I think about leadership styles, I think that what made me most successful is that every day I went to work not to impress somebody above me, not to make a big name for myself, but determined to help the people whose careers I was charged with overseeing, to make those people successful.”
“I think of [success] in terms of alchemy. To me, alchemy is the beautiful thing that happens when human beings engage and connect. And when I look back that’s what has happened – I was fortunate enough to get the people I was responsible for to connect in amazing ways, to engage and rally around a vision, and then to walk through walls and accomplish things they never thought possible.”
A native of Boston, Storey holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a criminal justice minor from UGA. She also earned a Terry MBA, and is a graduate of the Leadership Atlanta class of 2008.
“Two of my core values are humility and authenticity,” she said. “One of the bits of advice I give to everyone, especially people in this room because you are exceptionally bright and talented people, is this: When you get out into the working world, never make the mistake of thinking that it’s all about you. Because it never is. Nobody ever exists alone. Any leader who you will ever see on this stage will tell you the same thing. They didn’t do it on their own. They were smart enough to surround themselves with people who were smarter than they were … Humility is the way to go.”
“Authenticity is something I love to talk about because I think this is a lesson that’s always been a core value of mine,” she said. “Authenticity is about being open and honest. It’s about being an individual and being who you are. I have a lot of people come to me for career advice who ask about walking the line between trying to fit into a mold versus being themselves. And I love that conversation because it gives me an opportunity to talk about never, ever giving up who you are. You are an individual, and the most successful people bring that individuality with them into the work place and into everything they do. However, you have to evolve. Your leadership style will absolutely evolve over the course of your career. That doesn’t mean you’re giving up your individuality in the process. You also have to be relatable. We have people at AT&T who are a bit quirky, who come and say ‘I’m being told to tone it down but this is me and I’m an individual.’ And I say to them, you can’t let you appearance be a distraction and keep people from seeing your real capabilities. That’s what it’s really all about. You have to be relatable. You have to communicate in a style that people can understand. Whether it’s your audience, your coworkers, other people, they have to be able to focus on what you’re saying, the messages you want to convey, what you know and what you’re delivering, and not be distracted by thinking ‘Wow. That skirt is just too short.’ So authenticity is important. Nothing makes more of a difference for people than straight, honest communication.”
Storey, who worked her way through the ranks as a single mother, also shared her thoughts on work-life balance.
“I think the term work-life balance needs to go away,” she said. “Work-life balance refers to a time when we didn’t have devices and they weren’t always connected... We all walk around fully connected. When you’re in the working world it’s a good thing, but it’s a challenging thing. The pace of work happens around the clock. I think now it’s about ‘work-life integration.’ It’s 100% a personal accomplishment. I think they way to integrate your work and your life has to be the way you craft it.”
“When you go to work in a business environment, you’re constantly juggling a lot of balls. The way to think about it is that some of those balls are rubber, and if you drop them, they will bounce or somebody else will pick them up or they’ll bounce for a little while and you can pick them back up. But some of those balls are crystal, and if you drop them they don’t bounce, they break. So it’s about staying focused on those balls that are crystal. I think of those as your values, the things that are important to you. You have to stay grounded on those. You don’t make tradeoffs on those. And your career will be a series of tradeoffs, but you don’t compromise on everything.”
Storey serves on the Terry College Alumni Board, the AT&T Performing Arts Center Board, the Baylor Healthcare System Advisory Board, and the National Association of Corporate Directors North Texas Chapter Board. She and her husband, Dr. Jay Mabrey, live in Dallas, Texas.
The Terry Leadership Speaker Series presented by the Institute for Leadership Advancement brings well-known leaders from a variety of organizations to share their unique leadership styles and experiences with students.