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Women in Business Q&A: Tami Erwin, COO National Operations at Verizon

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Tami Erwin, COO of National Operations, Verizon Consumer and Mass Business (CMB) Markets.

Erwin is responsible for the support teams leading sales, field operations, and technical support, and directly manages global technical support centers, alternate channel sales vendors, call center vendor teams, and 411 information operations for Verizon Consumer and Mass Business Markets. Previously, she was Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Verizon Wireless, responsible for all marketing initiatives, and for the management and development of mobile products and services. She also led the company's brand management, media buying, agency management, and website integration. Erwin attended Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, majoring in Business Administration, and graduated from the Executive Program at the Stanford School of Business.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My father was the greatest influence in my life; he was one of the only family practice doctors in Sedro-Woolley, WA and I was inspired by watching him provide empathetic care to everyone, regardless of who they were or what circumstances they came from. We also spent a year and a half in Benghazi. My father had a passion for catering to the underserved in that community, which really helped to instill in me a strong sense of compassion for others.

I think these human qualities have informed my leadership abilities throughout the years.

As a leader, I'm known for having high expectations for myself and others, and for also being committed to the development of leadership talent within the organization. When I managed the West Area, I had the opportunity to be a part of and present at Maria Shriver's Women's Conference to talk about "Empowering Women Through Technology." Inspired, I spearheaded the development of a comprehensive leadership program to help develop and train female and multi-cultural talent by hosting development conferences in the West. In March, we've taken what was once a program for the West and expanded it across the country and around the globe with our first Global Woman's Summit. It's perhaps one of the unexpected opportunities of working for a company like Verizon, where there is freedom to develop areas of your personality like a sense of compassion or an interest in talent development.

Working for an organization like Verizon that embodies a rapid growth, kinetic work environment and culture has also greatly shaped the way I lead today. It's not only made me realize how invaluable it is to have a strong team, but it's created a culture where there is room to make mistakes, try new things and learn together.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at Verizon?
My experience is at Verizon where I've worked for 27 years, I like to say "I grew up here." However, this question is timely as Verizon builds on our strong network foundation to deliver an even stronger commitment to service excellence. My very first job at the organization was a customer service representative for Verizon Wireless. Ironically, at the time, I had never even held a wireless phone!

Through the years, I've always thought back on my time as a customer service representative as one of the most important and informative experiences in my career. Customer service can be a tough job in any company because you're truly on the front lines with your customers. From this experience I learned the valuable lesson: employees who interact with customers are the true representation of the brand. As a leader, I continue to recognize this and I am committed to ensuring our front line employees are equipped with the knowledge and tools they need to effectively steward our customer relationships.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Verizon?
On a personal level, seeing people that I hired and/or mentored promoted within the company is one of the best parts of my job. On a professional level, one of the biggest highlights has been driving growth for the organization.

It's always exciting when I have been given an opportunity by the company to tackle something new and I've been fortunate to have a lot of those opportunities in my career. However it's difficult to bring family along this journey and continually ask them to pick up and move. In the last 27 years we've lived in 5 different cities. As a mother of two, I believe you can only be as happy as your happiest child, so it's not easy to ask them to pick up their lives, leave their friends and start at a new school. Thankfully, early on my husband and I decided together that he would be a stay at home dad, , what an incredible gift for our family

What advice can you offer women who are working in traditionally considered male fields?
One of the most significant pieces of advice I give is -- "don't feel like you need to be a man to succeed."

Women in male dominated fields have a tendency to think that they have to change who they are to get ahead. I think it's less about changing who you are and more about recognizing the differences between men and women and learning to adapt in ways that work for you. Sometimes you need to trade in four-inch heels for the work boots if it will help you build consensus or rapport with the team.

It's also important to recognize the difference in communication styles between men and women. As an example, women have a tendency to be more verbose, whereas men cut directly to the chase. So in a setting where you're talking to a room full of men, it might make sense to adapt your conversation style so it's more direct. You're not changing what you're saying, just the way it's being delivered.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This is a tough question because there are days that I think I've mastered work/life balance and days where I think I'm terrible at it. I've found that it's key to make sure you take time for yourself, however you can. That might mean getting up to workout at 5 a.m., like I do, or taking an hour at the end of the day to relax with a book. You can't be helpful to anyone if you don't take time to recharge yourself.

Along these same lines, I think as a working parent you have a responsibility not to give your family your "leftovers." Working all day can be invigorating but stressful, and let's admit it, often exhausting, but it's important that you don't bring this home with you. You have to find ways to unwind during your commute so that you're bringing the best version of yourself home.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
In my industry in particular, which is heavily male-dominated, one of the biggest challenges for some women can be feeling comfortable to speak up. I think the most effective way to address this challenge is two-fold. 1) From an organizational perspective we need to strive to create more inclusive workplaces where everyone feels comfortable to contribute and 2) from a personal perspective, women must take ownership of their careers and approach the work environment with confidence.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I admire Sheryl. I've shared her book with a few people I mentor. I've also been known to forward links to her first TED talk (the basis for Lean In) to men in the office that I think would appreciate the concepts but are unlikely to read the full book.

Her book has been a powerful way to restart the conversation by telling woman they need to take responsibility and accountability for their advancement, be the most qualified candidate and take a "seat at the table."

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has had a real impact on my professional development, but it goes beyond the workplace. People understand the value of having professional mentors and sponsors, but may not realize the importance of having advisors in your personal life. I tell the young women that I mentor to make sure you have your own "board of directors," a core group of those you trust most from across your life that you can rely on to provide good counsel on major life decisions, both professional and personal.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
This is a tough one to narrow down, because I admire so many! Madeleine Albright is one of my favorites, because of the support she shows for other women. I am fortunate that I can draw inspiration from the many women around me who are in leadership roles. For example, there are four women who serve on our board of directors, and as a cohost of Verizon's annual Global Women's Summit my colleagues and I often collaborate on issues of leadership and talent development. Ladies, we will never truly level the playing field if we can't help each other.

I think within every woman there is unique potential because we excel at showing empathy, which is the first step to addressing most issues and challenges.

What are your hopes for the future of Verizon?
As I said previously, I'm really enthusiastic about the future of Verizon because we're expanding our focus from network technology, which will always be core to who we are, to a company that is relentlessly driven by our quality of services and the customer experience we deliver. As a former customer service representative I think this is powerful.