View from the Top: Randolph Wheatley, Vice President of Customer Operations, Nortel
Mr. Wheatley received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Arizona State University in 1984, and earned his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1998. He currently serves on the advisory board for the Boys and Girls club of Richardson, Texas where he resides with his wife and three children. Mr. Wheatley also sits on the University of Texas at Dallas School of Management Executive Education Advisory Council.
What is your role within your company and what are some steps that you took to get to the position that you are in now?
My particular position is focused on a specific customer. That customer is Sprint Nextel. I am their single point of contact with responsibility for supporting them from an operations perspective. This encompasses everything from the technical support we provide for the products deployed in their network, to managing the installation of new products in their network. So it spans a broad gamut. Ultimately, you could say that the measure of whether myself and my team are successful is the level of customer satisfaction on the part of Sprint, specifically with a focus on those areas that fall within the scope of what we refer to as operations.
I started here at Nortel in the engineering department. One of the things I did after working at the company for a few years in engineering was to move into another functional area. That’s something that I have done on multiple occasions throughout my career, and it has really allowed me to develop a breadth of knowledge and expand my skill sets. I think it’s particularly hard to move up in an organization in a purely vertical manner. So, branching out, moving outside of my comfort level and going into other functional areas was one key item that’s enabled me to attain my current position in the company.
I also took the opportunity to volunteer for lots of special projects. One of the things that enables a person to move into a position such as the one I have now is to be able to demonstrate to folks the extent of your capabilities, and often you’re best able to demonstrate those capabilities on special projects that have a high degree of visibility. In fact, some of my initial promotions and job opportunities were directly tied to special projects that I had worked on that someone in another function had seen, was impressed by, and therefore considered me for an opening they had in their organization.
At least within Nortel, which is a global company, it’s really important to move around to some degree. I haven’t done an international assignment. All of my assignments have been domestic, but moving to different geographic areas in the States has allowed me to network, and enabled folks to see some of the things that I’m capable of doing. This helps to not only broaden your skill set, but also helps to create an internal professional network that’s often key to gaining access to new opportunities.
And then I went back to school and got my MBA at the University of Texas at Dallas. I really think that did a couple of things for me. For one thing, I acquired new skills I needed to be successful as I advanced in my career —you definitely pick up some general management knowledge when you pursue an MBA—but in addition to that, it also signaled to the corporation that I was willing to invest in myself, and viewed myself as someone that could offer more to the corporation than I was able to offer in the position that I occupied at the time.
What are some things that you learned on the job and not in the classroom?
In general it’s really around all of the soft skills, or people skills. My undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering, from Arizona State. The technical skills to perform the engineering job that I had initially when I came to Nortel are things that you learn in the classroom, but as you begin to move up the management chain and manage people, it’s all about how you motivate those people. How do you effectively communicate to them the things that you need to get done? The further up in the organization you get, the more removed you get from the bulk of the people in the organization, and the more challenging it is to be able to get across to them through middle management the things that are important. The underlying principles that you want to instill in your team and the things you want them to embody in their day to day job are the things that I picked up while working here at Nortel by having the opportunity to manage larger and larger organizations.
Do you think there is a glass ceiling in your industry? If so, how can minorities avoid hitting that glass ceiling?
I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring several different folks, some are minorities, some are not ,and one of the things that I convey to all of them is, to get into a leadership position, the first thing you have to do is get people to envision you as a leader. And that’s often the hardest step. Whether conscious or sub-conscious, a lot of times it’s really hard for certain folks to see other people as a leader, and therefore, automatically, to a certain degree, they discount those people in terms of considering them for a leadership position. Therefore, you have to take every opportunity to display leadership traits in everything that you do, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re entry-level or somebody that’s been in the workforce for awhile. You have to take every opportunity to demonstrate that you have leadership capability.
The other thing is, the higher up you go in the organization is the more important trust becomes .Specifically, knowing exactly what someone is capable of doing so you can confidently delegate critical tasks and responsibilities to them. There are two dimensions to this, I believe. There’s a professional dimension and a social dimension. The professional dimension is the trust you develop over time by folks having worked with you and seeing the things that you’re capable of doing, whether it be within their organization or in another organization. The social one is often a lot more difficult, because that’s playing golf or engaging in other social activities that allow people to see you in a non-professional setting giving them some insight into what you’re about and whether your personality is a good fit with theirs and their teams’.
I don’t feel that being a minority in and of itself has ever precluded me from further advancement. I think it’s more the other things that are the challenge. Getting people to see you as a leader, displaying those leadership traits, and then, based on that, being given the opportunity. My kind of outside-looking-in impression, based upon working with customers, is that I see minorities in leadership positions in the telecommunications industry. Again, I really think the issue with the quote-unquote “glass ceiling” is not the overt attitude of, “You’re a minority therefore I don’t think you’re capable of being a senior leader and therefore I won’t consider you.” It’s more of, “I’m not sure what this person’s capabilities are. I’ve not interacted with them a lot,” and therefore, even before you get to a kind of formal evaluation, it’s possible for folks to be discounted on an informal level. For a person that is starting their career or looking for a new place to continue their career one of the things I would look for is a company that has a formal, structured program for career development and advancement, and a structured approach for doing performance evaluation, so that it becomes a much more objective process to get to senior leadership positions as opposed to it being subjective and based more on comfort level and which people have had the opportunity to work with those individuals that are selecting candidates for senior leadership positions.
What should people do to prove that they can be leaders and that they can handle responsibility?
I know it’s tough because time is at a premium, but I would encourage people to volunteer for high-profile special projects, where it’s clear that it’s something of substance that would have visibility at a senior level, and that gives you an opportunity to really demonstrate your ability to generate tangible results. I think the other thing is, oftentimes folks can assume that there is a “glass ceiling” and that they would not be considered for particular opportunities. It’s important to give yourself the maximum number of “at bats,” to use a baseball analogy. Don’t take yourself out of the game by assuming that a particular position is unattainable. Yes, it can get frustrating, especially when you feel you are repeatedly hitting the quote-unquote “glass ceiling,” but putting yourself out there makes it clear that you see yourself as having the requisite leadership abilities. It begins to force folks to have to come back and tell you in clear, specific terms why you are not the person being considered for a particular opportunity. I think those are the type of things that can improve the chances of minorities being able to move into senior leadership positions.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your career? What would you most like to change?
Most rewarding are those opportunities where I’ve had or felt I’ve had a positive influence on someone else’s career. As I mentioned previously, I mentor several individuals. I don’t have such a high opinion of myself to think I’m giving them great words of wisdom and that that is the difference between their succeeding or not being as successful as they could be. But I do like to think that I give them some nuggets of insight that when added together, or added with other insights of their own or pieces of advice they get from other folks, have allowed them to progress in their career and add real value to the corporation. So that, to me, is the most rewarding aspect of my career, especially at this stage.
What I’d most like to change is to be a little bit tougher, because, to a degree, every experience you have, be it positive or negative, moves you forward. The negative ones help you to understand what doesn’t work, and what things you need to do better. I think the career path I’ve traveled has worked well for me and I like where it’s taken me thus far.
What impact has your career had on your personal and family life? Do you have any special techniques, methods and philosophies that help you maintain a work/life balance and be a successful professional?
I didn’t always have work and my life in balance. That was especially true early on in my career, because it’s a time when all of the opportunity you crave is out there in front of you. If you have high aspirations and you’re ambitious, it’s quite easy to spend a disproportionate amount of your time on work. Now as I’ve progressed in my career and gotten a bit more perspective, I do a much better job of work/life balance. Part of what I do is to create some boundaries between the two. Now I don’t miss my kids’ birthdays or my wedding anniversary due to work activities. There are always those rare occasions where there’s some sort of one-time event that you really can’t circumvent, but 99 percent of the time, I carve out time for those special events and I don’t let work infringe upon them.
Early on in my career I would tend to work at least six day weeks. I’d work the regular five day week and then typically work on Sundays as well. What I’ve found, over time, is that your work will expand to the amount of time that you allot to it. And so, by drawing a hard line and saying, I have a five-day work week, it forces you to be more efficient, and you actually get the same amount of quality work done in less time. In terms of the impact on my personal and family life, early on in my career, it was a mixed bag. Moving from one place to another I think was actually positive for my family. They were able to see different parts of the country, get a little bit of breadth of perspective in terms of different areas in the country and what those cultures are like. However, there was a trade off in terms of the amount of time spent at work and away from my family. Now, later on, I think it’s overwhelmingly positive. At this point I’ve now achieved the right work/life balance, and having advanced in my career I’m in a position to be able to do things with and for my family that I couldn’t do otherwise.
Another thing I’m very cognizant of is the role model that I play for my kids, because one of the hardest things to being able to aspire to something is to believe that it’s possible. For them to be able to see that I’m at a relatively senior management level, I think causes them to view attaining a position of that type as being within the norm.
Have you found that it’s easier to set aside time and balance work and life issues as you have moved up in the company? Or has it become more difficult because you now have more responsibility?
I actually find it easier. As you move up in a company, if you manage things well, you have more resources at your disposal, and if you delegate appropriately the job won’t demand the same amount of your personal time. And the other thing for me is really just having a more mature perspective and keeping things in balance.
Who is/was the most inspiring person to you in your career path?
I have worked with and for lots of great people, and in every instance, they offered me something that I took with me and helped to make me who I am today. I think I’d be disingenuous to say that there was a single person that was most inspiring to me. It’s really kind of an amalgamation of all the folks that I’ve worked with and worked for.
What advice do you have for a young person considering a career within your company/industry?
This really is applicable to working at Nortel, working in the telecom industry, or any other company or industry. First of all, I would encourage people that are interviewing for jobs to turn it around and really interview the company, and even interview multiple companies in an industry to find out, “Is this a fit for me? Is this a place I’m going to be happy with? Is this a place where the job atmosphere, the culture, the people are things that I will enjoy? Can I get passionate about the products, the customers and the technology, and want to wake up every day and come to work feeling excited about the things I’m going to do?” Make sure that as you pursue job opportunities, you understand whether they will allow you to grow and learn and progress in your career in a manner that’s aligned with what you want to do.
Have you seen people that haven’t done that?
I see that all the time. Typically it’s not as pronounced as someone hating their job, but it is often just a lack of excitement. It’s pretty rare for people to have a true passion for what they do, but it is the ultimate win-win. Find what you’re passionate about. Find a place that fits you. When you find it you can feel it. If they bring you on site for a second or third or fourth job interview and you walk the halls and it just doesn’t feel good, it’s the wrong place for you. It doesn’t matter how much money they offer you.
Have you ever been mentored, or mentored others? How can someone find a mentor within their company/industry?
I was never formally mentored, though I clearly have had multiple instances where folks took a personal interest in me, and in some cases helped me not only with advice, but also in terms of steering my career path. In terms of somebody securing a mentor, I think some of it is identifying folks that would be a good mentor. Where a person is in their career will often dictate whether they are ready to be a mentor. Not just from the standpoint of breadth of experience, but also, are they at a stage of their career where mentoring is something that’s important for them to do? Now, it not only is something that’s important to me, it’s the right thing for me to do at this stage of my career as well.
Mentoring is really a two way street. Everybody I mentor helps me to learn something. In part that is because you can’t regain the perspective that young people have. In terms of finding the right people, often more senior people in the organization that an individual is part of make good mentors. Part of securing a mentor is to not be afraid to approach someone and ask them to be your mentor. Even if you’re not necessarily very familiar with the individual, it shows a lot of initiative to pick up the phone and call them.
If you were not in your current position, what would your dream career be?
I love to read science fiction, and I’ve always been interested in things like outer space. Doing something at NASA would be neat.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
There are lots of different paths to a successful career, but I do think that there are certain characteristics that are common irrespective of the path traveled. The fundamental basis of a successful career is maintaining honesty and integrity in everything you do. Without that, there is no success in business or in life. Tolerance and empathy are two additional character traits that are important to me. I really think that’s one of the things that’s allowed me to be very successful. It’s the ability to step outside of my skin and step into the skin of other people, and understand what’s important to them, what they find rewarding and motivating, and what they find de-motivating. Find a way to work with people not like you in a manner that allows them to be successful and you to be successful as well. Generate the trust with your employees, co-workers and customers that form the basis of an effective working relationship, and then focus on execution. You see lots of books out there about strategy and coming up with the right plan. I think more often than not it’s not that you have the wrong plan; it’s that you’re not executing any plan.