• United States

At the heart of a new AT&T

Dec 23, 20025 mins

While competitors are weak, AT&T President Betsy Bernard plans to move swiftly to capture business service market share, crucial to the carrier’s long-term health.

The decision Betsy Bernard made six years ago to leave her 18-year career with AT&T to head Pacific Telesis’ Business Market Group under then-CEO David Dorman is one she likely won’t ever regret. Ultimately, that move landed her where she is today, newly named AT&T president – and makes her one of the 50 most powerful women in business, according to Fortune magazine. (Despite this recognition, Bernard downplays her role as a female executive.)

While Bernard’s and Dorman’s paths diverged after SBC Communications bought Pacific Tel and they both ultimately left the company, they met up again two years ago. Again, Dorman came knocking, this time as AT&T president wooing Bernard to return to her corporate roots as head of the carrier’s consumer business. In a sign of her allegiance, she gave up her position as executive vice president, national mass markets, at Qwest to join Dorman at AT&T. She had been at US West for two years as executive vice president of retail operations, before the company merged with Qwest.

From Albany to NYC

Bernard returned to AT&T a respected executive, 25 years after she joined AT&T Longline in Albany, N.Y., as an intern from St. Lawrence University. Now, two years since Bernard’s return, AT&T’s heart and soul, the business group, is in her hands.

AT&T is betting its future on this group, with its 4 million business customers and $28 billion in revenue last year. The company needs to drive demand and increase market share within its managed services, IP and even traditional data service groups to compensate for shrinking margins in the residential voice market. The expectations don’t faze her.

“The great thing about me taking over is there’s no change in strategy, vision or priority. That’s a great testament to a very thoughtful restructuring . . . [and to] Dorman, the last person to head up AT&T Business,” Bernard says.

Bernard will make a formidable competitor in the business services market. “The priorities are, first and foremost, to take advantage of the unique market we find ourselves in,” she says. “With our competitors focusing on testifying and dealing with creditors, we are focused very much on . . . gaining market share and taking business away from our competitors.”

As AT&T president, Bernard calls the shots for about 55,000 employees who work for AT&T Business and AT&T Labs, the company’s network services group and international ventures. They’ll need to be on the ball, because Bernard is known as a hard worker who puts in long hours and runs a tight ship in terms of punctuality, staying the course and leading by example.

“Betsy is immensely focused, intense and high-energy,” says Kevin Crull, senior vice president at AT&T Consumer. She is “very hands-on, in a good way,” he adds.

“She wants to know what your plan is, how you’re measuring performance, how you will know how well your plan is doing, what your contingency plans are and when those contingency plans will go into place. She makes you think three or four moves ahead – that’s how hands-on she is. She doesn’t try to run your business, but forces you to think about everything,” says Crull, who worked with Bernard at US West and jumped to AT&T at her request.

If she compliments your work, you know she’s being genuine, he says. “She’s not big into rah-rah; she’s not about a lot of hype.”

The mark of a great leader

Bernard describes her management style as “pretty simple.” She follows this philosophy: First a leader defines the vision, describes how the company gets there and then describes the employees’ roles in that journey.

“The power of 55,000 employees . . . all heading in the same direction and knowing why they are heading there and what they are trying to accomplish, that’s what creates ‘executional’ success. That’s what great leadership is all about,” Bernard says.

John Kelly, McData CEO, recounts Bernard’s role during a succession-planning panel they participated in while peers at US West. “Without fail, Betsy would have in-depth knowledge and understanding of candidates as human beings and their leadership as well as their performance,” Kelly says, adding that she took time to get to know people, and this knowledge “made the likelihood of those people getting a promotion better.”

Business-focused though she might be, Bernard enjoys jogging and downhill skiing – she even used to ski competitively, she says. If she had more time away from work, Bernard says she would travel for fun, play more sports and volunteer for child welfare.

Former co-workers describe Bernard as someone who likes to have a beer and go to hockey games, and who has a competitive streak.

Bernard’s focus on the prize – now growth and revenue in AT&T Business – likely will provide crucial success for AT&T. And this longtime telecom professional will get there with integrity and the power of her employees behind her.