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AT&T Executive Charts Course for Leadership at Any Level

by Jane Burns Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Lisa Mitchell-Kastner had to hone her leadership skills fast—and early in her career. After one year as one of only two women in an AT&T engineering department of hundreds of people, the associate director of the department died of a heart attack, and management asked her to lead the team.

“I said, ‘Do you realize I have a psychology degree? We’re talking electrical engineers, uber smart people and you think I can lead them? Do you realize I’m 24?’” Mitchell-Kastner says. “That set a precedent in my career of me doing what I was flat-out not qualified to do and figuring things out along the way.”

Lisa Mitchell-Kastner

Lisa Mitchell-Kastner, Vice President of Talent Acquisition, AT&T. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

This situation led Mitchell-Kastner, a vice president of talent acquisition for AT&T, to an important realization: Leadership is not a title, it’s a role that anyone can play.

She shared her unique perspective on leadership—a message shaped by a 15-year career at AT&T that includes serving as an executive director of AT&T University, the company’s executive development program—with Wisconsin MBA students and Wisconsin School of Business faculty and staff as part of the M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series

Mitchell-Kastner also shared the qualities that she believes make great leaders at any level of any organization:

  • They operate with integrity and values. Good leaders have a framework for what they believe, Mitchell-Kastner says, and it’s not influenced by the word of the day or the boss they have. They have a set of core values from which they never waiver. “You want to be them,” she says. “You want to rise up to their standards.”

  • They’re intentional and purposeful. The best leaders know what to anticipate and always have a plan B and C, she says. “If A works, great,” she says. “But they have two other options.”

  • They value “better” over “blame.” Mitchell-Kastner related a story about how a part didn’t arrive in time to get an entire community its DSL service, and everyone in the department felt as if they were back in school about to get chewed out by the principal. It didn’t happen. The vice president of the department walked into the room and simply asked what she should have done differently to make sure it never happens again. “There was no blame. There was no shame,” Mitchell-Kastner says. “It was 100 percent accountability and asking how we can get better.”

  • They’re always teaching, always learning. Mitchell-Kastner quickly learned that her education wasn’t over when she got her master’s degree; it was continual.  “I’ve spent more time learning and relearning in my career than I did as a graduate student or undergraduate,” she says. “The people who are really good are always, always learning. The people who are always teaching are teaching in the moment.”

  • They have a BS barometer. Or, as Mitchell-Kastner calls it when she’s around her kids, a “baloney barometer.” It’s just a way of weeding out the truth, and a good leader can come by it two ways. Mitchell-Kastner said she honed hers by having nine lateral jobs before she moved into the management ranks and gained an understanding of what happens at the various levels of the company. But, she says, those who climb the executive ladder quickly can gain that understanding a different way. “Put your tennis shoes on, show up at 6 o’clock in the morning and see who’s there,” she says. “The people who are there at 6 a.m. care about the business and are doing it right, that’s why they’re there. Stay late on a Friday night and see who’s there. That’s who you get your information from.”

  • They give credit and take blame. It’s all in how they speak, Mitchell-Kastner says. If someone says “I” instead of “we,” that should be a red flag.  “People who are exceptional leaders in business and who are willing to give credit away create environments where people want to come work for them.  What’s really cool is that the people who are good at this are also good at getting results.”

  • They’re transparent. Good leaders are willing to talk about the things no one else wants to talk about, and don’t let things fester. “They’re very aware that if you don’t talk about it, you don’t have an action plan to address it,” she says.

  • They’re willing to muck the stalls. Mitchell-Kastner considers herself a Texas country girl and says good leaders need to know to do the grunt work like cleaning up after a horse, but how to do it right, too. “They take what needs to come out of the barn but leave what’s healthy,” she says. “They know when there’s a problem and they address it.”

  • They possess self-awareness. They are their own worst critics and are aware of how they come across. “What happens with leaders like this is when there’s a problem, they always already know it and are looking for how to solve it,” she says.

  • They pour into their people. They spend more time with people than with any other part of their business. “You can ask these people how many people they are mentoring and it’s so many people they don’t even know,” Mitchell-Kastner says.

Learn more about the M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series