As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Chet Patel.
Chet Patel is Chief Commercial Officer, Managing Director, technology, life sciences and business services, and President, Americas at BT Global. He is an experienced commercial, sales, marketing and portfolio leader with global experience in the Telecom, IT and Software in business to business markets. Previously, Chet served as the President of Europe, running sales, marketing and operations and managing a complex set of operations across numerous legal entities to deliver growth.
Thank you so much for your time! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My career story begins well before I was old enough to start working. From a young age, my mother would bring me along to her workplace, a silversmith. She showed me day after day what the true meaning of hard work, resilience and determination really meant and, even at an early age, I clearly understood the sacrifices that she made so that I would be afforded opportunities. From those humble beginnings, I was determined to excel — and quickly. At 17, I took a part-time job as a “runner” for the trading desk at Charles Schwab and worked there throughout my time at university. Drawing from my working-class background, I put my all into the role, determined to not just get my foot in the door, but make an impact. Before long, I’d made a positive impression on my colleagues and landed a full-time role in wealth management at Charles Schwab just as I was finishing university.
My passion for technology and innovation then led my career toward BT, where I’ve developed with the company for more than 20 deeply fulfilling years. From my early days running call service environments to leading large-scale customer programs as Chief Transformation Officer to my globally impactful work today as BT’s Chief Commercial Officer and Managing Director of the Americas, the inspiration of my parents’ working-class background has remained a driving force in my career.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
My first job at BT was managing a service environment — think of teams of people answering customer calls and getting them the information they need. I had initially asked to be based in one location but ended up being placed on the opposite end of the country, thousands of miles from the city of my dreams. It was a great opportunity though, so I jumped on it. It turned out that the reason I was sent to this location was because I had made an impactful impression on the manager that interviewed me, and he wanted me on his home turf. I only found this out later and he retired soon after I joined, so I never had a real working relationship with him, but I think he was probably chuckling because I was thrown into the deep end managing the night shift. The people I managed handled emergency services and directory enquiries, clocking in at 10:00 PM and finishing work at 6:00 AM.
The funny and endearing side of this story is that, even though all these people reported to me and I was supposed to be overseeing them, they really were the ones looking after me. I was 22, trying to earn my chops as a manager, and they were busy making sure I had eaten and I had somewhere to live in my new city. So whilst I was having serious conversations around performance management, they were more focused on making sure I had had a proper breakfast.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are a few people that have had a significant role in shaping who I am today, though one mentor in particular really stands out. He instilled in me that everything can always be improved and helped me realize that it’s okay to be hard on myself because that shows ambition and the desire to grow. He taught me to always try and learn from and emulate people others are doing brilliant things. He also underscored the importance of asking for feedback — whether that be from mentors, bosses or business leaders. People are busy and won’t always actively go out of their way to offer feedback, but asking for it shows ambition and that you are actively trying to better yourself.
This mentor also taught me how to mentor others. I’ve carried his philosophy with me that, although it’s okay to be hard on oneself, you have to take a different approach when managing people. Everyone is different and reacts to feedback in different ways. This mentor highlighted the importance of understanding each individual’s personality type and receptiveness to feedback. I attribute a lot of the success I’ve had throughout my career to him.
Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Throughout the Covid crisis, I’ve heard stories within BT and from other organizations across all sectors around the world, about people doing the most amazing things to help each other. It’s highlighted again that the more compassion and empathy you have for the safety and wellbeing of your colleagues and their loved ones, the more resilient, helpful and loyal people will be in return. I’ve prioritized providing colleagues with the tools, flexibility and understanding that people can and will need to work non-traditional schedules to manage new pressures, such as caring for elderly parents or home-schooling children. This has made a huge difference to how we’ve adapted as a team through the crisis. As leaders, we have to keep communicating to our people, seeing what’s on their minds, listening more than talking, and giving them new platforms to engage.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Continuous learning really is what sustains my drive and motivates me to continue through challenging times. I truly believe in the old adage that within difficulty lies opportunity. Unless there’s a big chance of failure, it’s easy to coast through a project and that can stunt anyone’s growth. As a result, I’ve always pursued roles and tasks that really test my skills and limits. I’ve found that the more challenging the task, the more I’ll likely learn from it and that both excites me and keeps me on the edge.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I believe there are three key pillars of effective leadership through challenging times. First and foremost, it’s vital that business leaders are seen to lead by example. They need to invest time in sharing their stories — both professional and personal — to reassure people that they’re all in it together, and show empathy toward their employees to boost morale, and to keep people connected.
Second, it’s clear that our Covid recovery process will be a marathon, not a sprint, and that we need to adopt ways of working — top-down and bottom-up — that let people engage with each other virtually where physical connections are no longer possible. And the focus shouldn’t just be on work. It’s also important in times of massive upheaval for leaders to check in on employees’ overall wellbeing, making sure they have someone to speak to other than family, and particularly look out for those colleagues who may not have support at home.
Finally, managing risk is also a critical role for leaders during challenging times. I’m proud to say that many customers have told BT how much they value our partnership because we have stepped up when the going was tough and helped them urgently and efficiently transition to remote working, while keenly mitigating risk along the way.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think one of the best ways to boost morale is by linking the little jobs that we all do on a day-to-day basis to how they’re making a difference for the customer. Recently, I was speaking with a pharmaceutical customer and they were telling me about an individual who has a life-threatening condition, who relies on them to live a quality life. They told me how what we do at BT helps them to operate and produce the pharmaceutical products that make a profound everyday difference for their patients. Hearing that your work is making that kind of impact is really motivating and inspiring. It shows employees that they’re not just a number on a balance sheet, they’re improving society and connecting for good.
Additionally, meaningfully recognizing employees can be a huge morale booster, and it’s something I try to do as often as possible. Close to home for me, I want to recognize engineers, call center agents, helpdesk staff, coders, tech, IT, security professionals, and all the incredible front line workers for the crucial role they’ve all played in keeping businesses and economies around the globe afloat. These people have helped deliver the world’s largest working from home experiment. I hope these career paths will be put on a higher pedestal in the future, knowing the immeasurable difference they’ve made over the last year.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Most importantly, with lots of empathy and honesty. This means not shying away from difficult conversations and making things personal. I’ve found that explaining how the decision was made clearly, concisely and with conviction makes people more willing to accept the outcome if they believe the decision-making process was sound.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As leaders, we have to be careful that we’re not making decisions now that we’ll regret in the medium to long term. What we thought may be a short-term disruption has now become long-term. The vaccines should hopefully bring us back to a more controlled situation, but we have to keep coping, adapting and learning to live with the impact of the pandemic. Leaders need to stop thinking in emergency mode and instead start reviewing the decisions that were made under extreme circumstances. It’s vital that we make sure any further decisions are based on reliable sources, grounded in fact and science, aligned with the organization’s long-term goals, well thought out, and sustainable. If uncertainty brings one good thing, it’s the opportunities and insight that leaders and organizations can leverage in the future to make sound judgement calls.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
There’s no blueprint for dealing with turbulent times, but a guiding principle I like is to think big and act fast. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that we’re going to deal with more uncertainty in the short-term and medium-term, and also potentially in the long-term. We’ve learned so much from organizations transforming themselves in 2020 and achieving change they didn’t think was possible. Thankfully, severe challenges like the pandemic don’t happen often, but history has shown that it’s unlikely to be a one-off, so we need to be better prepared next time to move forward.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
So many businesses are worrying about current IT change programs or trying to sell more, but we’ve found great success comes from just listening to colleagues, customers and partners, asking what we can do to help, and then really listening to their answers to come up with solutions. It’s so important to communicate with customers, to share information, experience and ideas to help with strategies and planning. The communications need to be super clear and really straightforward.
We’re working with our customers in this way to help them rapidly implement changes to their operations — particularly around connectivity, collaboration and security. For example, we recently supported a financial services company through business continuity management, letting them rapidly transition their office-based workers, branch staff and contact center agents to remote working. We diligently reviewed their delivery programs and in close consultation with the company, were able to quickly prioritize the supply of services they needed to succeed, such as new 10G internet, laptops and mobile devices for contact center users.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times?
First, maintain a positive attitude. I believe leading through turbulent times requires a high level of confidence, positivity, and tenacity. Having an unwavering faith in yourself and your employees in the face of resistance and rejection is vital.
Second, make sure to actively listen and understand the needs of your customers and employees. Communication is fundamental in building trust and creating a rapport. It’s critical to avoid personal filters, assumptions, judgements, and belief, and instead treat others with the respect and attention you’d like to receive in a conversation. This will help them feel their requirements are understood and will be adhered to.
Third, learn from difficulty. Across the board, the pandemic has forced us to find new ways of living, connecting and staying in touch when face-to-face contact is limited. It’s created new opportunities to be more efficient and creative. Leaders should consider all that we have learned over the past year and adjust ways of working accordingly.
Fourth, seek to collaborate with individuals who may sit outside of your everyday working circle. Embracing new and diverse perspectives can help enormously, especially in turbulent and uncertain times, because diversity of thought almost always results in the most robust plans and creative solutions.
Lastly, embrace technology. Virtual is going to be the way forward and will dominate more as we go along, so the sooner leaders embrace it, the better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” — Maya Angelou
How can our readers further follow your work?
Please feel free to follow me on LinkedIn via https://uk.linkedin.com/in/chet-patel-2b68741