After spending nearly a decade in various executive roles at Verizon, Sowmyanarayan Sampath was named the CEO of Verizon Consumer in 2023. People + Strategy articles editor Adam Bryant sat down with Sampath to discuss his strategies for creating alignment of purpose and strategy throughout the company’s workforce.
People + Strategy: What does alignment mean to you in a leadership context?
SAMPATH: To me, alignment means, “What is the mountain you need to climb?” But how you climb the mountain is just as important. In a post-COVID environment, people are not always together—they are distributed by space, by time and even by purpose. Adding to the challenge is the fact that we have multi-generational leaders working together, and they work very differently. So, you have to manage through the inevitable points of friction.
P+S: Can you elaborate?
SAMPATH: The highest value that a leader can provide is to take out friction. There can be friction over resources or over budgets. It can be because of personalities or because people are working toward different purposes. If I have any extra time in a day, I use it to take friction out. It just frees up headspace for people to do their jobs much better, and it helps build alignment.
P+S: What are some fundamentals for creating alignment?
SAMPATH: One is prioritization. Prioritization is important at every level in an organization, from the CEO to the front lines. What are the three or four things you are going to focus on? Many companies say things like “Grow revenue,” “Reduce our expenses” and “Talent is our biggest asset."
Those are not priorities because a priority has to have a hidden trade-off built in. If you just tell people the priorities without acknowledging the trade-offs, then they will try to do everything, which means they will do nothing, and you are back to square one.
P+S: We are living in an age in which employees are much more vocal about their expectations of their companies, and often, they have a wide range of opinions. Part of your role as a leader is to create a shared narrative for everyone that they can agree on.
SAMPATH: It takes time. It takes a lot of patience. Something may be obvious to you because you’ve been repeating it for three months, but others might be hearing it for the first time. So you have to tell people the “why” of your decisions, and you have to be consistent and genuine in the way you tell the story.
People want to work for companies that have a purpose. If you tell them, “This is your priority,” they want to understand the “why.” They want to know how it impacts them, how it impacts society and how it balances out all the stakeholders.
P+S: What are your observations on how to make sure that a matrix structure actually provides a competitive advantage?
SAMPATH: Matrixes are designed for scale, and they are designed for expertise, with centers of excellence. If you don’t exploit your matrix to scale or to take advantage of specialized competencies, you’re fighting it. And fighting a matrix is not a good thing. We saw that in the Keanu Reeves movie [“The Matrix”]. It’s true in life as well. The matrix will win.
Matrixes don’t work for two reasons. One is people are working on different goals. Let’s say part of the organization is driving sales, while another is trying to drive margin.
You don’t need to be an organizational psychologist to know that you’re going to create tension. That’s why you have to
be so clear about goals and targets, and also what the trade-offs are.
And when there is friction, you have to address it. Sometimes that means picking up the phone and talking to your peers. That’s why friction in a matrix often doesn’t get resolved, because people are uncomfortable picking up the phone. So, when you see something, you have to say something.