From the start of his career, Tom Griffin, vice president of organizational learning and chief teaching officer at U.S. Cellular, realized that “what separates the good from the great” is character. This also happens to be the underlying component of U.S. Cellular’s servant-leader philosophy.
As a young infantry officer in the U.S. Army, Tom Griffin learned a lifelong lesson: Great leaders have strong character. Little did he know this lesson would play itself out many times in the course of his career and ultimately would become the foundation of the leadership model he deployed at U.S. Cellular.
“As a military officer, what stood out for me in my career was the importance of character; character is what separates the good from the great and, at the end of the day, what defines you,” said Griffin, vice president of organizational learning and chief teaching officer at U.S. Cellular. “To be successful as a leader at U.S. Cellular, you have to be strong of character, highly ethical and, most of all, you [have] to be authentic. That was a lesson I began to learn early in my career, and I’ve just seen [the merits of] that lesson play out in our leadership development efforts here at U.S. Cellular. That’s why our model is effective because it’s predicated on [principles], values and behaviors that have withstood the test of time and will continue to stand the test of time.”
Before coming to the wireless service carrier, Griffin took a circuitous path to learning. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts and spending four years in the military, he took a job at Texas Instruments (TI) as a quality and reliability engineer. Griffin eventually moved from the technical side to human resources, where he found his true passion in learning. After 14 years at TI, Griffin took a position at SBC-Ameritech, where he met John E. Rooney, who eventually left Ameritech to become the president and CEO of U.S. Cellular.
About 10 months after Rooney’s departure, Griffin was offered a job at U.S. Cellular, where he helped develop the dynamic organization (DO), which starts with effective leadership.
“Tom is a true partner in implementing the DO here at U.S. Cellular,” Rooney said. “His ability to make connections and see the potential in people helps him develop programs that are tied to strategic business initiatives and prepare people to be leaders. He is continually looking at how we get better [and] how we develop better leadership.”
When asked why he left Ameritech, Griffin referred to the opportunity he has at U.S. Cellular to work in a place where learning and the business are harmonized, operating in coexistence rather than independence.
“To be truthful, I have many peers in [this] field who do similar work, but they do not have the opportunity to do the things [that we do at] U.S. Cellular around developing culture, fostering change and organizational alignment [and] creating higher degrees of capability in people,” he explained. “In many ways, you can say I’m living out a dream here.”
U.S. Cellular, which has approximately 8,700 employees, employs a servant-leader strategy, an ideology that encourages leaders and associates to move beyond self-interest to embrace a synergistic vision of high personal and organizational performance. Griffin said U.S. Cellular’s leadership model has been organically cultivated, as each senior leader contributed to its five tenets through interviews and group dialogue sessions. Similar to what Griffin’s military service demonstrated, character surfaced as one of the most critical aspects of leadership.
“At the heart of our leadership model is what we call ‘leader as self.’ That’s being a leader of high integrity and high character,” Griffin said. “Leadership starts and ends with self, so that’s our center point. To drive the people results, you’ve also got to be an extraordinary relationship builder, and you’ve got to be a great teacher. [To drive the business results], you have to be a good strategist, and you have to be a superior results driver.”
After interviewing the senior leadership, the organizational learning department had the components of the model validated by every successive level of leadership in the organization. Core competencies and behaviors were established for each of the roles: leader as self, leader as teacher, leader as relationship builder, leader as strategist and leader as results driver. Then the model was embedded into other strategic human resources processes such as performance appraisal and succession planning. Integrating this philosophy into other aspects of the organization makes it an operational priority, ensures implementation and creates accountability.
“We can’t empower until we create the capability, so our servant-leader philosophy at its core is about [creating] capability [and then having] leaders lead from this perspective each and every day, in each and every interaction with an associate, a peer, a customer, a supplier or anybody else,” Griffin said.
Because learners crave dialogue, and learning often is the offshoot of discussion, it’s important to Griffin that U.S. Cellular creates a safe space for conversation by immersing its leaders in four- to five-day transformational learning programs.
“We believe that in many cases transformation happens through substantive dialogue,” he said. “The lightbulb may not go on for me today, it may not go on for me tomorrow, but it may happen the next day. It may not happen from the instructor who’s doing the teaching. It may happen through a side conversation, it may happen through peer coaching or it may happen through a guest speaker talking about their own personal experiences.”
With discussion comes the need for reflection. As a result, U.S. Cellular carves out time for cogitation.
“In all of our work, people will engage in active learning. They’ll have the opportunity to practice what they learned, and then they’ll have to demonstrate competence of that learning,” Griffin said. “In our servant-leader program, a big part of that is what we call ‘action reflection.’ One of the most important leadership behaviors that [defines] success is the ability to take the time to engage in reflection.
“In some of our higher-level programs, we’ve actually built in time for purposeful reflection because we like to say, ‘Meaningful reflection leads to more purposeful action.’ We create opportunities for people to dialogue and then to reflect on what they’re learning and then say, ‘How does this apply to me on an everyday basis, and what [can I do differently] as a result of what I’m learning?’”
The philosophy of the learning organization works in tandem with the company’s overall goal to be a dynamic organization. If the leaders are effective, the associates will be satisfied. Then, customers will be satisfied, and ultimately, the business will be successful.
“Learning is very important to the DO,” Rooney said. “You can’t manage results unless you manage the things that go into making the results. The [DO] model emphasizes values and principles, as well as leadership skills. We don’t want managers; we want people who motivate.”
Because of the close alignment between the learning organization’s philosophy and the company’s overall vision, Griffin enjoys a close relationship with senior officers.
“For my entire tenure here at U.S. Cellular, I’ve always had a strong relationship with all of the company officers because of the importance of leadership,” he said. “We engage in very powerful conversations with our senior officers, and I get lots of direction from them about their goals, needs and wishes. Again, the first two components of the business model are leadership effectiveness and associate satisfaction. To be able to deliver on that, I have to have access and availability to our most senior leaders, and I have that whenever I need it.”
To measure how well the organization is doing, there’s the Culture Survey, in which associates have the opportunity to give feedback, and the Customer Beat Index (CBI). The most successful year in terms of business results was 2007, and it also was U.S. Cellular’s highest performance on the Culture Survey. In that survey, 97 percent of U.S. Cellular’s associates participated, and of those, 97 percent said, “I am proud of what we are accomplishing.”
“We have all the financial measures of any other telecom, but the two key things that we pay attention to most are an internal measure of health, the Culture Survey, and an external measure of health, the Customer Beat Index,” Griffin said. “We deploy a third-party vendor to contact customers after they’ve had an interaction with U.S. Cellular, and we ask them to evaluate how effective that interaction was. The CBI data and metrics give us an indication of where we need to teach better and where we need to create more capability in our associates.”
True to his military background, Griffin persists in practicing the motto of “second to none.” As he looks to the future, he ticks off a list of additional improvements: instituting more e-learning activities, assessing and improving the business model and linking organizational learning to business performance.
“We want to make the explicit connection between learning and business performance. We’re going to connect our work to elements of the business more concretely in the future than we’ve ever done in the past. One of the best compliments our CEO can ever give any part of the organization is to refer to them as a contributor, so I want to make sure that as we move forward into the future, we are contributing at a very high level.”