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John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications sat down with Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s Executive Chairman as part of Udacity’s ongoing Thought Leader Series to discuss how to lead through change, leverage your employees to turn invention into innovation, and provide teams the skills needed to build tomorrow’s companies.

John manages over 250,000 people. Which begs the question, what’s the key to running an organization that large? For John, it starts with knowing his values, knowing that you’re only as good as the people who work with you and having a relentless focus on training.

“What I noticed early on was how much invention was going on that wasn’t actually going into the innovation. The distinction is invention is the thought and construction and innovation is when it becomes usable to the end user, ” John reflects.

AT&T recognized early on that it needed workers who were trained and ready for the technologies that would drive tomorrow’s business — artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, and more.

It was a math problem, according to AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan who recounted the challenge to Sebastian. The percentage of the company’s workforce that was highly technical needed to evolve from where it was a few years ago, about 50% who were already highly technical, to some number close to 85% or 90%, according to Donovan.

“You do the basic math,” said Donovan. “You can’t hire your way there and you can’t acquire yourself there. You really have to start with the workforce you have. How can we help our employees know jobs and skills are transforming?”

That’s the problem that many companies are facing as they look to evolve their businesses for a new era. If they don’t have the trained staff today, it’s not really clear how they will get to where they want to be for tomorrow.

Reimagining work requires you to be proactive about y

our workforce planning, according to Donovan. Pivoting the workforce means being able to identify new areas of growth and helping workers acquire the right skills.

AT&T lets employees access an HR system that shows a career path to a future job they may want and lets them plot their course to that job and then map the curriculum needed to get to that job.

“I have to establish competencies along the way just to stay in my current job,” Donovan said. “Then I can add a badge that certifies I’m competent in a new skill. I can add a nanodegree.”

Listen to the entirety of John and Sebastian’s conversation as they discuss:

John’s leadership style and how he deeply cares about relationships
His strategy for getting honest feedback from his peers
The catalysts for workforce transformation

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