Verizon Business CRO Sampath: The Future of Connectivity in 2022

We interviewed Sowmyanarayan Sampath, Chief Revenue Officer for Verizon Business.

Sampath shares what he’s learned about and from high-growth leaders during his tenures as a “recovering” consulting practice leader as well as in several seats of the C-suite at Verizon – plus what he’s thinking about broadly outside the office.


Adam Conner (01:07):

Sampath, thank you so much for joining me. Talk a little bit about growth. I got a question about that right off the top. But first off, how you doing? Thank you for joining me.

Sampath (01:16):

Thank you Adam for having me.

Adam Conner (01:18):

First, before we get into the nitty gritty of the business, obviously no one's going to be asking the question, what is Verizon? Everybody knows, would love to talk about you to start, just to get a little bit of your background and how you found yourself leading the charge.

Sampath (01:32):

I'm a recovering consultant. Straight out of college, I went into management consulting, I worked at the Boston Consulting Group where I ran the Global Telecom Practice, mostly strategy consulting, typical of what we do there. And then I realized I wanted a real job. Consulting's not really a real job. So that's when I got involved at Verizon. This is I think my fifth job at Verizon in the last six years. I have touched transformation, parts of the network, chief product officer, I was even a chief financial officer, and then now I run the growth and revenue teams.

Adam Conner (02:08):

Which one was your favorite? I guess you got to say the most recent, but what have you liked most about experiencing all of those different leadership positions at one organization? Even though you're recovering consultant, it seems like you certainly touched a lot of pieces like a consultant might.

Sampath (02:21):

Yeah. I did enjoy the product role lot, it's kind of a general manager role but everything comes to you, the good and the bad, you control less than you think you control, but you are the face of the brand, you're the face of the product that goes out there. I found that the most challenging and also this was the time when we were getting ready for 5G. So there was just a lot of action that was going on in the space. And then there was also the video transition where we moved away from Set Top Box face video to online streaming video. So it was just a lot going on. Most fun, I probably have never worked harder than that. But yes, I do like my current job the best, it's the most fun I've had.

Adam Conner (02:58):

I tend to find that that hard work coincides with the fun more times than I'd care to admit because you got to work hard to play hard as they say, but I'm glad you're in the post right now that you find to be your favorite. And I will ask a little bit about that time from which you are recovering a little bit later on, but let me start. When you began the CO role you noted, and this was a quote, "Our three goals going forward, our growth, growth, and growth. And by the way, did I mention growth?" Now, this is a fantastic opportunity for me who leads a show called Growth Culture to ask you to help me break that down and define what the word growth means to you because it's got to be front of mind all the time.

Sampath (03:37):

For me, revenue is just a way of measuring growth, but I think growth for me is how you go and serve our customers and address customer needs. Because at the end of the day, that's where the magic happens, that's what drives growth, that's what brings a new revenue, drives new products. So our focus is what our customer needs. In our case, they want flawless, secure connectivity. And look, we serve everyone from Joe's pizza all the way up to some of the largest companies on earth and some of the largest governments on earth. So it's understanding what their needs are because their businesses are evolving. The Local Deli in my town, their business is evolving. Some of our large retail customers, their business is evolving, manufacturing companies, they are changing. So as their needs change, how do we react to it? How do we bring products that make their lives easy? Either drive more revenue for them or drive more productivity and cost savings for them. For me, that is growth. Purely all the way down to understanding and serving customer needs.

Adam Conner (04:42):

And through that, you get to spend a lot of time with people on your team, people out in the field. I know you've recently noted that those were things for which you had zero regrets in 2021. And that's something that you stated even beyond a year end social media post, "You've noted the need pretty consistently to lead with kindness and integrity." And this is where I want to go next. Between your time at Verizon today of course, and observing other organizations, I'll go back to that recovering period. During your time as a consulting practice leader, where you got to view a whole industry, how have the best leaders you've witnessed accomplished that? The balance between kindness and integrity in leading large organizations growing.

Sampath (05:22):

Look, I don't see a disconnect between kindness and integrity, where sometimes people get into attention is between kindness and performance management. So I want to be very clear. As part of kindness, we need to be straight with people, we need to be honest with people, but we got to be kind to people. They expect it. You want to see change you want to see in the world, you want to behave with people how you want others to behave with you. So I think it's very easy on the kindness part. And when you are kind, people will want to work with you, good talent will come and work with you, customers will want to spend more time with you. Nobody wants to spend time with an ass hole, irrespective of how smart he or she is. So kindness is kind of at the foundation of some of my operating principle.

Sampath (06:07):

Now I don't want to confuse this with; we don't do performance management, we don't hold people accountable. Accountability is the other side of kindness where you've committed to something, you have said you're going to deliver something and we hold you accountable for it. So that's the culture we have, which is highly accountable. People tell you what they're going to get done, get it done. And then on the other hand, you have to do this with kindness, there is no other way to do it. So my whole career has revolved around these two themes, holding people accountable, being very clear on targets. What I find in large companies is expectations are not clear. Because in a large company you have different voices, you get different inputs from people. What you are expected to do is not always clear.

Sampath (06:50):

So I go out of my way to be very clear in terms of what we want get done. Do we want to win the deal? Do we drive margin? Do we want to close that particular product set, you have to be very clear. Once you do that, the commander's intent is clear, teams go out, deliver on it with no problem. And then you as a leadership team, you have to be kind.

Adam Conner (07:11):

When you first took some of these leadership posts on, were there people that you already had in your head like, you know what, that's a commander that I want you like, because that's a great way to put it. And by the way, fantastic quote earlier about who no one wants to work with a ... But I'm curious about those commanders in your mind. Are there a few that come to the top of your head when I even say that word?

Sampath (07:31):

Yes they do. But I have a little bit of a slightly different concept. The concept of the anti-hero. Anti-heroes are people you don't want to be when you grow up. And there are many people who are anti heroes, they either exhibit aggression, they exhibit selfishness, they exhibit poor judgment, and those are people you don't want to be. So one of the things I've been very careful of is this concept of an anti hero. There are many people I don't want to be, which is why my whole concept of kindness and driving accountability with integrity has come, is watching people in my career, in my clients, with my peers in other companies do things that make me cringe. I don't want to be like that. So that's been a very good influence on me in terms of what I don't want to be.

Adam Conner (08:16):

Avoiding the cringe, yeah, very good. I think that is something any leader would a strive for of course, especially if you got to lead a global force forward and everybody is looking at you all the time, whether it be in real life or something different. Here's where I want to go here because next year, and in any subsequent year of a business, new tech will arise, whether it be in the product which is offered or the way in which that product goes to market, of course, the sales tactics beyond that are what the CRO is generally responsible for. But earlier in 2021, you actually attended your first round table conducted completely in VR. So people who got to see you weren't needing to see you in real life, because it was in that virtual environment. I'm curious how you see this type of next generation tech, whether it be VR or something else impacting the way in which companies go to market to sell their products and services going forward.

Sampath (09:06):

Look, VR is going to become definitely big in 2022. I'll give you interesting data point. I think in 2021 more VR headsets was old than Xbox gaming devices, which having two young kids I know is a pretty hot Titan. So I think VR has finally gotten into the mainstream today. I think Oculus is leading the way, but there are a bunch of other players we're going to bring along through that. I do still think we are still a step away from mass adoption on VR. I think the biggest piece is the weight and the heat that is created by these headsets. You tend to get a headache after 24, 25 minutes. So I think it's quite important that these headsets have to come down. I think anything above 100 grams, 110 grams gives you a headache. So there's a lot of work that needs to happen to bring the headsets on, which is why I'm quite excited about 5G.

Sampath (09:58):

Because what 5G could do with edge compute is take some of the compute, the more power intensive compute away from the device and put it at the edge of the network where you can do it through large server. So I do think taking the size of the headsets down will be a very important factor on VR. Second is driving more content. It's always a chicken and egg, enough handset enough content. I do think we are going to start seeing some good content come through in VR. I do think AR or Augmented Reality is a better entree into VR where you use mixed reality type interfaces as a way to get started. We use that in our business. Something as simple as, you want to go home and set up your broadband router, you can shoot up our app, you get an augmented reality app, which can tell you exactly which wire goes into which port. It's just a pretty seamless experience. So I do think 22 is going to be the year of VR, but more content and lighter headsets are needed.

Adam Conner (10:59):

So in the meantime, and I have no headset at my home. Last time I purchased anything like that was probably six or seven years ago, but what other technologies might we not immediately associate with next gen are you excited about? 5G of course, that is now more broadly populated across the US, but you've always got a mind to what's ahead even before other people do. Is there anything else out there that maybe people aren't talking about enough that they should?

Sampath (11:28):

Look, I think edge computing is going to take on a life of its own. It's going to be pretty magical. What happens is, and this you can go back 50 years where you had the mainframe, then you got the client server models, then you went into cloud computing. And now we are going into edge computing where lot of the intelligence is going to be put at the edge of the network. And the edge can be either a factory wireless cell site, an interconnect point or somewhere in the city. And what it does is it reduces latency. That capability is going to be able to take a lot of compute out of the device and put it in the edge of the network, whether it's in hospitals, whether it's with first responders, whether it's in education.

Sampath (12:11):

I think edge computing is definitely going to be one of the harder technologies over the next five to seven years. So I think we are very excited about what it can do. Right now, everyone's bringing tools that make it work. The 5G portion, which is connectivity, tools around Kubernetes and moving workloads, security, managing those tools. So there's a lot of going on and bringing that, but there will be some end toed services that I think we didn't anticipate before.

Adam Conner (12:40):

Okay, interesting. I'm learning things here that frankly some of this is going over my head. So let me ask this because I know wireless probably in a very simplified way, but my guess is that even within wireless, there are new things happening going forward that maybe nobody sees yet. What's going to be new in, let's say 2022 for wireless specifically? Could you help me with that?

Sampath (13:02):

Adam, we've gotten access to what we call beachfront. It's combination of beachfront and central park. That's the quality of real estate we have in terms of spectrum that we're going to launch. What does this mean for us? The biggest advantage for us is it adds massive amounts of capacity and speed to a point where historically wireless and wire line economics never matched. It was always much cheaper to do something on the wire line side than wireless. We're going to bring that together and launch fixed wireless access, which is a home broadband and and a business broadband solution. Second for us is the big launch of 5G Ultra, which is a really low latency network that we have.

Sampath (13:58):

Where can you use this? Where we get most excited about is things like autonomous cars, healthcare, first responders, factories, they all need seamless low latency connectivity. And this is exactly the foundation for doing that. We are a network company. We don't want to win the Emmys, we don't want to win the Grammys, we just want to win root, which is kind of the gold standard for network reliability. We want to be the winner in root every year. So it's just a focus. A company our size is so laser-focused on building the best networks. We are very excited it and we are going to create a foundation where trillions of dollars of enterprise value are going to get created on top of it. The next autonomous car company, the next AI company, the next VR company, the next healthcare company, is going to get created on the foundation of our network. So this is our way of giving back to society and to America, the greatest network in the world. So I, as you can see, really excited about

Adam Conner (15:00):

Well, it sounds exciting. That means that you'll presumably be the backbone of a lot of these critical, helpful processes that we live and breathe and see every single the day. And hey, for me, somebody who just thinks about wireless as what's coming out of my cell phone and just getting around the concept of 5G, that sounds very exciting. But this is actually very, very helpful because it actually transitions well into a question that I have about working styles, but it relates to that wireless technology. So similar to the technical differences in mind, I'm not there all day at Verizon, but similar to the technical differences between 5G and 4G, some teams today, even sales teams, find themselves spread out across thousands of homes and remote settings rather than operating primarily in 4G style onsite in office environments. Now, anyone following you on LinkedIn knows that you've noted that hybrid environments are tough. But in keeping with that metaphor that I've just maybe clumsily put out there, are there ways in which this distributed workforce can actually provide advantages and performance much in a similar way as 5G is superior to 4G?

Sampath (16:04):

Definitely. Hybrid is the way to go. I'm going to stick my neck out and make a prediction. 25% of people will never ever come back to an office. 25-30% of all corporate real estate will never be occupied. So they may either be converted to malls, to apartments, to studios, to something else. But you're going to see a quarter of people not come back into office anymore. The rest are going to come in and out when they want to, which is anywhere from one day a week to three days a week. So that's kind of the landscape of what we are going to see for the next couple of years. Long term, will it come back? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? In that environment, I think one of the biggest things we see is how do you drive collaboration in a hybrid environment? It is very awkward today in hybrid environment where you are in an office with seven of your colleagues, seven people are at home in different parts of the world and making that a seamless conversation. It's very difficult today.

Sampath (17:02):

Two things come in the way. The first is connectivity. Everyone does not have access to the same level of connectivity, reliable connectivity, that's low latency. So that's one thing we should talk about. And the second is etiquette. When everyone's on a BlueJeans call or a Zoom call, everyone gets the same real estate on the screen, which is a size of a large postage stamp. When you're in a room, your real estate goes up. How do you manage between that? Second, how do you manage in an environment where people have not worked with each other? They don't know each other's styles. How do you make that piece work? So I do think there's a lot of work that's going to have to happen around etiquette. And remember, the etiquette we have right now has been in place for decades. At least for the last 20, 30 years, we are in a particular etiquette in the office.

Sampath (17:50):

We are going to have to change that. When can people interrupt a conversation? When do you know someone has finished? How do you pick up a tone of a conversation? How do you collaborate remotely? We are going to have to set those rules together. I don't think the rules have been set. I think connectivity is the easy part. At Verizon we are very excited. We have something called fixed wireless access, which is essentially broadband for your home office. I think we're going to get 30 million homes lit up before the year ends, and then 15 million soon after that. So almost half the country is going to have a new broadband option, which is going to improve quality everywhere. But the other piece around etiquette and social customs, we are going to have to wade our way through it.

Adam Conner (18:35):

Well, then let me ask you a question as a leader who has experienced all of these different types of environments and of course has your preferences within them. And by the way, that is a pretty staunch prediction that 25-30% of offices just simply won't be entered again, or won't be used again, converted into something else. I'd be interested to know how you, or maybe how one compensates their style of leadership or mentorship given these new models. Is there something which adds another layer to leading with kindness, given this ambiguity of, am I going to look at you in real life? Or am I going to look at you at a postage stamp, how does that translate for you?

Sampath (19:14):

I think one of the things, I've had to adapt my leadership style as well over the last couple of years. The first is moving away from command and control. Historically, most large organizations have had a very command and control approach where the leader dictates what needs to happen in a fair amount of specificity and the team goes and does it, and then the leader gives you the next action item and you go and work. It's almost like a waterfall approach where you finish one item and pick up the other. I think that has fundamentally changed as a leader. I think the whole concept of commanders intent come in mind where the leader has to lay out why they're doing something and what is the end goal they want to do. And there's going to be a lot of flexibility on the teams to go and achieve that piece, which is why communication is critical.

Sampath (20:02):

How clearly you communicate your commander's intent is something that previous lives didn't matter much because you were in front of your teams every day or every week. Now you are not, because you're more asynchronous. So you are written and your spoken communication around intent and commander's intent is going to have to be very important to do that. The second is, people are going to work when they want to work in their own style, because they are going to work out of home in a hybrid environment. So I think having one-on-ones is going to become fashionable once again. One of the things we've noted is, there's been a pretty marked increase in one-on-ones that we've seen across our teams, I find them force multipliers. Because you get time with your team to understand what's going on in their mind, and more importantly, what blockages can you remove for them? What can you make easier for them?

Sampath (20:54):

So that's another major trend in leadership style that you do. The third is, we have to be kind. Everyone is going through something you don't know about. It could be a situation where someone doesn't have childcare, someone's taking care of an elderly parent, someone's not well, someone's spouse has lost his or her job. There are just various situations that become more stuck in a COVID pandemic environment. So we are not going to know what they are. So I think being kind, listening, understanding how you can help going to be a great piece and you're going to see leaders get attracted by that and people who are not going to get attracted if that doesn't happen. So it's going to be a differentiator in the leadership environment.

Adam Conner (21:40):

I agree. I'm personally highly interested to see how leadership changes in 22, but going forward of course given this new method of work and where that work is done. And then on the other side, how broad workforces react, where they're attracted to and where they're not, I do want to look forward just a little bit. We're going to look ahead to this year that we have before us for 22.

Adam Conner (22:03):

Now, anybody who follows you on LinkedIn once again, would've seen that there are a number of things as I hinted before for which you had no regret to doing in 21, like spending time with customers, people in the field, but also spending a lot of time with your family and reading books. You note that's a way in which you clearly plan to spend your time in 22, but I also happen to know that you take time every year to learn about one thing outside of work, whether it be the Italian Renaissance on gene editing. Before I ask about what that study is for 22, I want to first ask, do you find that your separate studies end up informing the work you do in the office in some way? And if so, how?

Sampath (22:40):