Leading With Grit

Joni Arison

SVP - Finance Services at AT&T

Learning Objectives

Joni Arison, Senior Vice President of Finance Services, AT&T Inc., will share how she navigates through obstacles with passion and perseverance and how she looks for new ways to inspire her organization to succeed. You will learn how important it is to move faster by removing unnecessary barriers and finding ways to infuse data and technology to influence business outcomes.

Key Takeaways:

  • Let’s first start out with why you titled this session…. Leading with Grit?

  • As you said earlier, 2020 was unprecedented for all of us and it impacted not only how we live but impacted every industry and how we work. How did you manage through those uncertain times?

  • You mentioned the importance of not only managing the business, but also caring for the people. What did you do to maintain engagement with your employees?

  • I know you have found a way to infuse data and technology within your organization. Most people probably don’t exactly think of Finance and technology in the same sentence. Can you talk about how you infused data and technology within your organization?

  • As we wrap-up this session, what would you say are the key leadership principles that have guided you throughout your career?

"We get to show up daily being our authentic selves and we get to choose whether we want to live on the side of positivity, or on the side of negativity. "

Joni Arison

SVP - Finance Services at AT&T


Hello, everyone and welcome to the Connect CFO virtual Leadership Summit hosted on quartz network. My name is Britt Erler QN executive correspondent, thank you so much for joining us. We have a fantastic executive speaker joining us today. Joni Arison, SVP of finance services at at&t. Welcome, Joni.

Thank you, Britt. Thanks for inviting me to participate.

It is a pleasure to have you here. And in today’s interview, we will be discussing and having you provide insight on how to inspire an organization to succeed, and also how to find ways to infuse data and technology to influence business outcomes. Let’s first start out with why you titled this session leading with grit.

Well, first of all, who would have thought it rhymes with your name, so that’s perfect. But really, when I sat back, and I thought about this session, Britt, the word grit just resonates with me, you know, life throws you curveballs all the time. And as a leader, you must be able to pivot. So it’s no surprise to any of us that 2020 was one of those years, it was unprecedented. And we were all challenged, both personally and professionally. So grit is about finding that passion that drives you, having the courage to do what others won’t, and then the perseverance to keep going when things get tough. So let me go a little deeper, if you don’t mind, finding the passion that drives you. To me, grit is not just about working hard at something. But it’s more about finding work you love and work you feel is meaningful. So remember that old saying, choose a job you love. And you’ll never have to work a day in your life. This is the foundation of grit for me, as it’s not just about long hours and working harder, but more about the meaning behind the work. The passion can only rub off on your team and help drive the right results. Yeah. Secondly, I would say that courage, you have to have courage to do what others won’t do. And not doing what is easy. But really, you have to think about what is towing, right. Integrity and respect are the cornerstones and foundation of a true leader. And so I think it’s takes courage to make those bold decisions and take risks. But also making those bold decisions and sticking with it is key, you have to be confident that you made the right decision even when others might not agree. Now, I don’t mean that you ignored input from others. But sometimes as a leader, you’re out there in unchartered territory. And so you have to confidently lead your team. The last one I mentioned was perseverance. And really, that’s all about keep going when things get a tub. So I tell you, I always love a good challenge, the tougher, the better. And leading with great means that you can’t let them see you sweat, right, you have to boost the confidence of those around you so that your team will rise to that challenge and conquer it. There’s really no better feeling than seeing your teams realize that breakthrough moment and know how they have found a solution to a problem. And you have to show them strength and of course encouraging them to push on and not give up. So you know, in essence, having passion, courage, and perseverance will help lead with growth.

You are constantly leading by example. And it’s something that your team and everyone else around you will find inspiration from. And as you mentioned earlier, 2020 was unprecedented for everyone. It changed not only the way we live, but the way we work in all of the industries across the board. How did you manage through these uncertain times?

Yes, Britta. You’re absolutely right. 2020 was unprecedented and quite honestly, challenging. But being flexible and having the ability to pivot to address whatever came our way whiskey, none of us could have predicted COVID or even the recent weather events that impacted so many of our states. And the fact is we are dealing with a certain level of uncertainty. And at at&t, we rose to the challenge to ensure we met the needs of our customers. And throughout all of that we never lost sight of what was most important, our people. So really, as a leader, you have to lead with your heart and your mind. And you have to be able to manage operations. And make sure you’re caring for your people. As you know many of our employees like I’m sure many people on these, this call have employees that are frontline. And that’s the case at at&t. So we had a lot of people that you had to go into our offices into our stores into our work locations, and be able to care for customers. And other cases, we had absolutely people that were virtual. But in every situation, we had to provide a safe working environment, provide support, and make sure that our folks had what they needed to perform their job successfully. So we leaned in, right, and we had a whole new set of challenges, we move fast to keep our customers connected. One thing that we were charged with was the keep America connected pledge. And that was a direct result from the FCC that asked us to make sure that Americans did not lose their broadband service, their wireline or their wireless connectivity. And it was a huge undertaking. And the best thing about working for at&t in situations like this, we always seem to rise to the occasion, in any disaster situation. So that whole effort to keeping Americans connected, it actually turned out to be one of the largest efforts in at&t history, and to undertake that challenge, and what was a really short timeframe. So we were able to keep our small business customers, our consumer customers in business, and being able to operate with their broadband and their connectivity. And it continues today, right, we have a we have COVID still going on. So we have to make sure that we’re treating our customers differently, and helping to adjust for their needs. So I would just say that as leaders, we set the tone for our organization and how we respond to challenges, you do have to be bold, and adjust course, when needed, you can’t just settle for what you used to do, thinking outside the box and knowing that you might make some mistakes, but you can’t have success. without some failures, I failed more times than I can count. But the key is, wait, what happens next, next, work fast, find out how it happened, find the solution, fix the problem, and kind of test and retest all along the way.

I think all leaders would really resonate with that, you know, the fact that you will make mistakes, but it’s the point of persevering and knowing that you’ll learn from it, grow from it and be able to adapt that much quicker the next time. Now, you mentioned that, you know, just there the importance of not only managing the business, but really caring for your people. It’s the sense of empathy and humanity that we have seen really become a key theme, not only in 2020, but you’re into 2021, how have you maintained the engagement of your employees,

you hit the nail on the head, right? There were so many things going on. And, and it continues today, we learned a lot of lessons that we’ve taken into 2021. At the end of the day, we found new ways of communicating and operating our business with this whole new virtual environment, people at home and work colliding like never before, we were brought into people’s homes, right, we saw glimpses of their lives, you had kids, you know, poking their heads and their cameras. And I thought that that was awesome, you know, you really get to see a different side of your employees. So I know it was challenging for so many, especially those who were caretakers, parents juggling home work, remote learning for their children. But together, we made it, we found ourselves hosting virtual meet and greets with our leaders and our top talent. And you know, for me, that was not only you find out what’s going on and what they’re doing on their teams, but it was a checking, right, we had a one, we wanted to make sure that our folks were okay. And that they were getting engaged with this new environment. And normally, I’m traveling at least two or three times a month visiting our locations across the United States and internationally. But that wasn’t an option last year. So we found ways to virtually visit each location. So I was able to have touch points with the team, not only to hear about the work they’re doing, but again to check in and see how they were holding up. And I felt a great connection with them and being able to do that. And we’re still continuing those things today. Even though we’re in this new environment, and we’re still in it today, we know how important is to invest in our people. I’m such an advocate for investing in our people, whether it’s skills, transformation of existing employees, or investing in new talent with our talent pipeline. I was so proud of us this past summer, at&t made the decision to keep our internship program going during COVID. And then we also made the decision to create what we call a summer Learning Academy. And that’s was for other students whose internships were canceled, so that they were able to join us virtually and receive college credit. So this is extremely important how we foster our employees learning, we build their skills and competencies, and actually help them manage their own careers and their networking within the company. our workforce man modernization program is what we call it, we set the bar high for finance employees, and the whole finance organization. And it really helps lift what we call the employee experience and the career experience. And if we take care of our employees in this manner, and we enhance their experience, then ultimately it will lift the service experience that they provide to our customer base.

I couldn’t agree with you more without happy employees, productive employees, you don’t have an organization, you cannot move forward with the business. So as you mentioned, taking that extra time to communicate with them, whether it’s once a day or checking in throughout the week, to make sure they’re happy, listen to their needs, it’s going to benefit you in the whole in the long run. So fantastic advice. And I want to take a little bit of a shift and talk about how you’ve infused data and technology into your organization. I know for most finance professionals, they probably wouldn’t put technology in the same sentence, but it really has become major for the finance department as a whole. How have you managed to do this?

Here? You’re so correct. I mean, you know, who would have thought, five years ago, 10 years ago, that our finance organizations would have data scientist, artificial intelligence folks that build bots, you name it. You know, that’s where we find ourselves today, as a company, we’ve become a premium entertainment media and technology company. And it’s become apparent that our organization needed to transform. So our teams have been on this digital transformation journey for quite some time and shifting our work, to infuse data and technology and all that we do. So we have fully immersed in the space of automation and robotics. Really, the idea is to take away manual and repetitive tasks, and have employees focus more on their strategic thinking, the industry and the business are changing so fast, and we have to continue to fight to find the next it thing. Whether it’s using Power BI, robotics, artificial intelligence machine learning, we know that we have to be on the cutting edge of using innovation and technology to do our jobs. So we found ways to improve not only the customer experience with automation, but even things in finance on my team, such as payment arrangements or on our global fraud team, we’re using artificial intelligence, and machine learning to fight fraud. This automation provides options for even for our customers that really make them feel valued. And we actually launched our first virtual assistant for handling customer calls. So the industry continues to rapidly change. And we have to be ready to pivot quickly. By thinking ahead and accelerating our modernization, we were able to get our ideas to market faster, and always as quick as possible. So we’re still on this journey where we are expanding our data and technology capabilities. And it’s helping us make the right strategic decisions. So we’re laser focused overall on this and streamlining our processes, of course, and allows us to complete work faster, and even be a better partner not only to our customers, but our internal clients.

And I think if we find one silver lining of everything that happened last year, it was that it forced finance teams and departments to really come out of the Stone Age and as you mentioned, immerse themselves into all of these new technologies and make sure that they’re moving the department forward, especially in this new virtual world where as you said, it is constantly changing day to day. So I think a lot of companies do need to start this journey and exactly utilize the insights that you provided.

Who would have thought we could get to a virtual environment. But no, I always will remember Friday, March 13, and literally shutting down operations across the world and telling people you know, bring your laptop home and we’ll you know, we’re gonna figure this out and and never have, you know, we’ve pivoted that fast to making accommodations for folks and still getting work done and keeping productivity levels high. So you hit the nail on the head there. It’s it really has changed the way we work.

It has. And I think most companies when it first hit back in March expected it to be a few weeks, not, you know, a full year, it’s just been a very crazy time. But as you said, you were able to take your organization and pivot very quickly and understand that you needed to make the change right away, it wasn’t something you could wait for. And there are still companies that are attempting to do that. So you know, hopefully, they’ll be able to take some of these insights and really kickstart it within their organization and show the importance for the success of the company as a whole. Now, I want to talk a little bit about leadership, because clearly, you have expansive experience. And I want to know what some of the key principles have been for you, that have really helped guide you through your career.

Sure, as I think about my own career, I’ve learned so much about what to do, and what not to do from the people that have crossed my path. My biggest life lessons, the great and not so great have come from my past experiences, continuous learning and self development. I mean, how many times have you worked for someone that maybe you didn’t really like, or worked on a project team where things weren’t going so well. So some of those lessons from experiences like that have helped shape my career. But most importantly, I learned what to do, and what not to do as a leader. With every assignment, you pick up new skills and experiences that you can take to your next next assignment. So a few leadership principles that resonate to me is number one, operating with integrity and respect for others. That is the foundation of all that I do as a leader, we must have an integrity, everything we do, and how we operate as a team. And we have to have respect for one another and use that old adage of treat others the way you want to be treated. That means with each other, as leaders, with our partners, and absolutely with our customers, we cannot have a team without integrity and respect as our foundation for me is it’s all about driving results, right? That’s what we’re doing. And so as a leader in finance services, I have to ensure that the vision and the key priorities for our organization aligns with finance as a whole. And then of course, at&t as a whole. So our vision, the key priorities are developed in collaboration with my leadership team. And this effort provides direction as to what we’re going to be focused on. And of course, what we need to accomplish. We then cascade that plan down throughout our organization. So each of our team members know exactly where they’re headed. And they can identify how their responsibilities help drive results that we’re seeking to achieve. We can’t be successful without all of us doing our part to meet our financial and operational commitments to our company. And then lastly, brick. For me, attitude is everything. I mean, recent studies show that optimists are likely to live longer than pessimists. And I’ve learned that having a positive attitude and outlook on my not only impacts how I act, but it also impacts my mind, my body and my soul. So my motto is let optimism roll. And if I can influence what we what we think, what we say and what we do, if it’s the one thing that we really have control over. We each own our own attitude. And it’s a wonderful thing. That’s just how powerful it is. So we get to show up daily being our authentic selves. And we get to choose whether we want to live on the side of positivity, or on the side of negativity. I know it sounds easy, but sometimes we’re faced with challenges, or circumstances that push us off our square, causing our attitude to change. And we just have to readjust. And it just requires working through the negative in order to get back to the positive attitude really is everything and you must exercise the muscle in order to make it a habit. So those are a few of my leadership principles that have guided me throughout my career.

I couldn’t agree with you more on positivity, it is so addictive. within an organization, especially when your leader has an optimistic outlook, when times are tough, everybody’s roles are expanding. So for you to be able to do that and showcase that to your team, it really makes a difference and can turn someone’s day completely around and make them that much more productive. So I think that is such a key idea. That may seem like common sense, but at the same time, it’s probably one of the most difficult. So I think that’s an incredible key takeaway for leaders to take a look at. And as we wrap up this discussion with all of the changes that we are seeing in the industry, how do you find it best to stay on Rest of what’s going on?

Yeah, great question. I think a key to success as a leader is really having a knowledge of your industry and really keeping pace with the changes. And for me, I really rely on a few key things. Number one, in our space in our industry, we call the TMT space technology, media and telecommunications. I really look to not only news feeds that I get internally at at&t, but I also rely on other news sources. So you know, I try to start my day by opening up my news app, and look, you know, looking at headline news and other things, as well as news items in the category of our business. So I’m just in the know of any current deals that are out there, or if 18 T is in the news, certainly, that’s always such a big thing to to know what’s going on in your own company. And it’s funny now, Brett, we’re now an owner of CNN, once we acquired Time Warner, which is now our Warner media, subsidiary, if we’re owners of a news operation, and so a lot of times you can find that or CNBC and some of the other stations on in my office. So I really, really find that it’s important, at least for me, quiet time before the day gets really hectic, to really, you know, go through the news app and see what out there going on. I also like a couple other things, the skim. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. Yeah. Okay. So I think that’s a great piece of information. It’s a daily email that I get, it’s got a quirky nature to it. And it gives me snippets of information on the biggest stories of the day. And so I enjoy looking at that. And then lastly, something that is interesting in our business. I actually several years ago in one of my previous roles, got hooked on the Reddit app. Because as strange as it sounds, you know, you can find out what’s going on and customer minds by searching like at&t or your competitors, on Reddit, and you have all this content at your fingertips. I know, if it’s, you know, negativity out there in regards to our brand, or if there’s some issue that’s going on. So that’s another area. But I do believe in saying all this, that you have to really, as a leader, find time to have that learning, stay up on what’s in the news and current trends, and making sure that your organization is prepared to respond to industry trends. So I also try to make sure that I block time on my calendar to do just that. We all have crazy days, and meetings are back to back to back in some cases. And so when I was cmo for consumer business, several years ago, I learned a little trick, which I call a daily think time, where I just block out time on my calendar that allows me to prepare for an upcoming meeting, or for the next day, or to catch up on, you know, important, current events. So that helps me manage my week much better and go into it feeling like, Okay, I’ve got this and I can handle whatever challenge that comes my way.

I think that’s a fantastic idea, especially right now, when everyone’s schedules are just back to back meetings, you really forget to take that time for yourself, even if it’s just a short break, as you mentioned, to do some research to prepare your thoughts. And that’s something I’ve noticed time and time again, that successful leaders are doing that they’re making sure they take time blocks out for themselves. So that’s really something I need to start implementing into my own schedule as well. So I highly recommend it. I think it’s incredible, even if it’s just a minute to sit there and take a breath, you know, because everybody is so fast paced right now. But as you said, and I want to finalize on this point, if you do not take the time to do your research to know what’s going on in your market, you cannot effectively know that you are leading your team in the right direction. So I you know, I think as I said time and time again, these insights you provided are really so valuable to not only our finance audience, but a lot of other leaders and other departments. So, Joanie, thank you so much for being here and for taking the time and thank you to everyone who has joined us as well. If you have any further questions for Joanie, there will be a discussion forum underneath this presentation. Please stay safe everyone and be healthy and enjoy the rest of the Connect CFO summit.

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