SB Note: If you missed our interview with Joelle Phillips when it first ran, we are happy to share it with you again today:
Smart and savvy, Joelle Phillips is AT&T’s newly appointed president. Having dug in her heels and worked her way up through the company, she knows the business inside and out. As the former general counsel for the organization, Joelle will continue to work closely with the community and business leaders to bring advanced communication technologies to our region.
At StyleBlueprint, we’re proud to say congrats to one of Nashville’s most accomplished women, and it is with great pleasure that we introduce you to Joelle to you today.
My understanding is that you didn’t grow up in Nashville; can you tell us a little about where you grew up and your childhood?
I grew up in Auburn, Alabama, where my father taught electrical engineering for 35 years. Auburn was small enough that I could ride a bike anywhere I wanted to go, and the presence of the University gave the town many advantages–our public schools enjoyed the benefit of a steady stream of student teachers, and my classmates often included children from other countries who were in Auburn while parents were pursuing a degree. Kids took music lessons from talented college professors, learned to swim with Olympic swim coaches and, of course, enjoyed a whole lot of football.
As the daughter of a college professor, what did you learn from your father?
My father loved that H.L. Mencken quote: “There’s a simple solution to every problem–and it’s usually wrong.” He wanted to be sure that my sister Jeanne (who is a doctor living in Atlanta) and I had the confidence to tackle problems that might require solutions with more than one step. That meant developing good organizational skills and some patience.
My father never tried to add complexity that wasn’t necessary (and he always admired an innovative, elegant solution), but he was wary of simplistic approaches. It was inspiring to watch the way he tackled complex tasks, from teaching engineers to working on the Apollo missions at NASA. I’m optimistic you can resolve even the hairiest issues with the right combination of drive and graph paper.
Your recent promotion to president of AT&T Tennessee is a huge coup. As a woman in a traditionally-dominated male role, what advice do you have for women trying to break through the proverbial glass ceiling?
I have always been confident that women can succeed at AT&T, because there are so many women doing exactly that. I may be the first woman to serve as State President in Tennessee, but I have several female colleagues serving as State Presidents in other states, including North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana.
AT&T is a company that knows the value of innovation, and the company believes that working within a diverse group of people makes all of us more creative and productive.
The best advice I can offer is that women should think about the issue when deciding where they hope to build a career. If the company is one that values diversity and is committed to treating people fairly, then women are far less likely to find their progress limited. Moreover, companies with that type of philosophy are more likely to be vibrant and collaborative places where anyone has a better chance to succeed.
You are a lawyer, and your previous position with AT&T was heading the Tennessee Legal Office for the company. That seems like an unusual path to the role of State President. Why did they select you?
It may seem unusual, but several of the State Presidents and senior executives at AT&T are actually lawyers, and the External & Legislative Affairs organization (that leads AT&T’s public policy efforts) includes several lawyers as well. There’s a natural intersection between law, policy and business, and that’s especially true for telecommunications companies managing the demands of changing technology, complex regulatory requirements, and evolving consumer demands.
I think lawyers are basically “problem solvers,” and I’m hoping that my experience solving problems within the context of lawsuits and regulatory cases has developed skills that will serve me well in my new role. I admire lawyers who apply those skills to public policy issues, and we’re lucky to have so many in Tennessee who are active on both state and local levels. I think Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and Counsel to the Governor Herbert Slatery are all great examples of lawyers who apply their problem solving skills in the government arena.
What are some of the challenges facing you in your new role?
This is a transformative time for our industry because of the evolution to IP (Internet Protocol) technology. Today our customers look to AT&T to provide so much more than just voice service to their homes. Instead, they rely on our wireless and wired networks to deliver broadband, video, and IP-based services.
The transition to this new technology means great new capability for our customers, and we’re driven to deliver it. That means a massive investment in our networks. This year alone, AT&T has invested $175 million in our Tennessee wireless and wire-line networks to meet this challenge, and we’ve invested nearly $1.4 billion since 2010. For perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the cost of three Music City Centers!
I’ll be spending a lot of time in the coming year talking with public policy leaders about the value of this IP transition and about the importance of ensuring that Tennessee’s laws and regulations make sense for this new technology. We are all fortunate in Tennessee that elected leaders like House Speaker Beth Harwell and Governor Bill Haslam intuitively understand the connection between telecom policy and our Tennessee economy. As a result of their forward-looking approach, Tennessee has seen telecom infrastructure and investment that rivals much larger states.
By the way, how many people are employed by AT&T Tennessee?
AT&T employs about 5,400 Tennesseans, and Tennessee is home to more than 8,500 AT&T retirees and to far more AT&T shareholders. Our entire AT&T family is growing, as we recently announced that we are hiring to fill nearly 200 job openings across the state. I enjoyed meeting some of our newest employees at our ribbon cutting to open our new store on West End Avenue.
Your sense of style is compelling. When did you decide it was ok not to dress like a man in corporate America?
If I were to close my eyes and imagine the perfect ensemble for some occasion, there would be a high probability of it looking like my mother circa 1968 to 1972. She’s the number one influence on my sense of style. I admire the way she looks feminine and capable at the same time.
What books are on your bedside table?
I’m halfway through three books: Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell’s book about factors that drive success), Back to Blood (a satire set in Miami by fellow Washington & Lee alum Tom Wolfe), and Secrets of the Hopewell Box (James D. Squire’s fascinating window into a different political era in the Nashville area). Best of all, I have the most recent draft of my sister-in-law’s (Elizabeth Carden Phillips) work-in-progress. It’s a terrific novel based on the life of Margaret Roper, daughter of Sir Thomas More.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
Brant and I are terrible about planning vacations, but we enjoy quick trips to the beach at Amelia Island or to shop the Scott Antique Show in Atlanta. I visited New York last fall for a girls’ weekend celebrating with birthday girls Betsy Hindman and Judy Lewis.
Describe how you entertain when at home.
Brant and I love to spend time with friends on our screened porch. We were so lucky to work with Nashville architect Van Pond when we renovated our house several years ago. Van identified the best attributes of the house and then designed the renovation to build on them. As a result of his terrific work, our screened porch was transformed into a great place for gathering with friends. Van’s design makes it easy for people to circulate from other rooms onto the porch without getting stuck in traffic.
When it comes to fall fashion is there something that has piqued your interest?
I treated myself to a MaxMara camel hair set–a top with three quarter length sleeves and bateau neck and a matching pencil skirt. I’m looking forward to breaking it out on when the weather turns crisp.
Since you’re quite busy, where do you like to grab take-out food?
I almost never bring home take-out food. Brant and I are both fans of scrambled eggs for dinner, and that usually seems more appealing than making a stop on the way home. On my busiest days, I tend to eat a late dinner downtown. We have so many great new options downtown, but after a hectic day, I’m happiest to have a piece of grilled chicken in the Hermitage Hotel’s Oak Bar. It’s fun to visit with bartender Deb (one of Nashville’s friendliest faces), and I like the mixture of patrons–political, music industry, and travelers–all in one cozy spot.
Is there something our readers would be surprised to know about you?
I was a theatre major in college. I hadn’t planned to attend law school, but the theatre training was surprisingly helpful because I was good at memorizing concepts and lines.
What are 3 things you can’t live without, excluding God, family and friends?
- Diet coke
- Standard poodles
- My iPhone.
Thanks, Joelle! Learn more about AT&T here: att.com.
And thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photographs! See more of her work here: ashleyhylbert.com.