Verizon CEO brings Verizon Wireless case study to life for MBA students

Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam isn’t likely to be ruffled by the sound of a cellphone’s ringtone – even when he’s the one being interrupted. 

As he opened a talk on the strategies that went into building Verizon Wireless into the nation's largest wireles provider last week at Rutgers Business School, McAdam quipped that it might be the first time they would hear a lecturer say, “Turn your cellphones on.” Please.

McAdam, whose company has turned the cell phone into a tool of modern life, appeared at Rutgers Business School as a guest of his old boss Denny Strigl, who is teaching corporate strategy as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Management and Global Business.

It’s easy to forget that cellphone users once faced sky-high roaming charges, dropped calls and experienced such unreliable service that companies found themselves earning the same level of customer disdain as used car salesmen and lawyers.

“It was a pretty ugly experience,” McAdam said of those early days. “There was a good opportunity for someone to come in and disrupt the environment – to consolidate and create scale.”

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam spoke on the making of Verizon Wireless. 

In an hour-long talk, McAdam described how Verizon seized that opportunity by building Verizon Wireless, which has become the nation's largest wireless, provider and broadband data network.

He explained how the company’s acquisitions led to a less fragmented marketplace and he described the bets it made on developing mobile data services and opening its own retail stores. He also described the effort that went into creating a unique corporate culture.

McAdam, an engineer turned executive who still enjoys tinkering with cars, said the memorable “Can you hear me now?” test man advertisements were a “breakthrough’’ for the company, helping Verizon to establish an enduring brand identity.

For students, the visit by McAdam provided a valuable real-life perspective from the corporate world that supplements theories and practices they study in other classes. “It’s amazing,” said Zita Nececkas, a student in the Flex MBA program, “to see a case study come to life.”

In an interview late last year, Strigl said he was motivated to write a book, “Managers, can you hear me now?” as a way of sharing management insights he gained during several decades of work in the telecommunications business.

During his appearance, McAdam reinforced the value of those insights. “Reading his book is one thing,” he told Strigl’s students, “but having a chance to interact with him is another.” 

Strigl’s class is an example – like the CEO Lecture Series – of the enrichment Rutgers provides to students through its relationships with leading companies like Verizon.  

Norville Barrington, a student in the Flex MBA program, said even as a retired CEO, Strigl brings a “powerful realty’’ to lessons about business strategy.

 McAdam spent part of his visit answering questions from students on everything from his view on a la carte television, the role of labor unions in the company’s continuing transformation and the emergence of fierce new competitors like Google.

Nececkas wanted to know more about how executives take an idea for a culture and instill it throughout an organization. “Where do you begin,” she said.

McAdam had plenty of experience to draw on. Not long after he joined Verizon, he said, Strigl put him in charge of creating a corporate culture for Verizon Wireless, betting that it would help differentiate the company. McAdam served as CEO of Verizon Wireless before he became Verizon's Chief Operating Officer in 2006. He was named Verizon CEO in 2011.

“(Denny) said the culture would determine the longevity and the success of the company as much as the technology would,” McAdam said, recalling Strigl’s response to his own questions at the time.

McAdam poses with Professor Petra Christmann and Strigl.

McAdam explained how employee surveys were used to develop core values to define a company credo. One of the things management learned from those surveys was that their workers wanted to be associated with a company consumers could depend on.

“That was the essence of the company we wanted to be,” McAdam said, adding that once management decided on a set of core values, it had to be “relentless’’ in defining itself in those ways.

“It took four years before we really knew people got it,” he said. 

McAdam, who admitted to being uncertain about the notion when Strigl assigned him the task of creating a culture, urged students who are considering taking a job with a company to “take a hard look” at its culture.    

“I can’t overemphasize,” he said, “how important the culture is to the business.”

-Susan Todd

TAGS: Corporate Partners Dennis Strigl Flex MBA Management and Global Business MBA Thought Leadership