Key Takeaways

  • Windstream is a comprehensive telecommunications provider offering a wide range of services, including high-speed broadband internet, phone services, and digital TV packages for residential customers, as well as tailored solutions for businesses and government agencies.
  • Windstream’s mission is to connect people and empower businesses, which has been particularly crucial during the pandemic, emphasizing the importance of connectivity for work, education, and entertainment.
  • The company has invested over $5 billion in network upgrades, shifting to state-of-the-art cloud-based systems, demonstrating its commitment to aligning actions with its vision and values.
  • It fosters a work culture that encourages innovation, creativity, and independence among teams, with a decentralized decision-making approach and a “team of teams” philosophy that ensures alignment with the company’s mission and vision.
  • Windstream values trust, transparency, and psychological safety within teams, promoting constructive debates and an environment where employees feel empowered to speak up, admit mistakes, and contribute their opinions and concerns.
  • Employee engagement at Windstream is driven by factors such as pride in the products and services, understanding the company’s mission and vision, and being able to bring their authentic selves to work.

Executive Summary

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for tuning in to a new episode of The Leader Show with Lou Carter. Today, we are joined by Tony Thomas, the CEO of Windstream. Windstream is a comprehensive telecommunications provider offering a broad range of services. 

These include high-speed broadband internet, reliable phone services, and diverse Digital TV packages for residential customers. Their tailored offerings also cater to small to large-scale businesses and government agencies, providing innovative solutions and indispensable services to meet their specific needs.

With that said, let’s find out what makes Windstream a Most Loved Workplace®.

Investing in Infrastructure and Aligning Actions with Vision

Tony discusses how Windstream’s mission “to connect people and empower businesses” has been crucial, particularly during the pandemic. He underscores the importance of connectivity for work, education, and entertainment and positions Windstream as a purpose-driven organization. 

Their work not only impacts business operations but also provides critical infrastructure support to institutions like children’s hospitals, adding a sense of purpose for their employees.

When asked how this mission translates into leadership and the overall enterprise, Thomas acknowledges that the company has invested over $5 billion in network upgrades over five years, shifting to state-of-the-art cloud-based systems. This commitment demonstrates that Windstream aligns its actions with its vision and values. 

Thomas is confident that this alignment between words and actions is essential for instilling a sense of purpose and pride in their teams.

Embracing Innovation and Agility: Windstream’s Investment in Cutting-edge Technology and Dynamic Work Culture

Lou and Tony continue their discussion, focusing on Windstream’s substantial investments in cutting-edge technology. Thomas explains that the $5 billion investment facilitates superior connectivity over fiber for the company’s residential customers, providing multiple gigabits of speed, which was unimaginable just a few years ago. 

Software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) solutions allow businesses to oversee applications over their network and operate more efficiently. This technology becomes increasingly vital with the rising need for cloud-based applications.

Following up, Lou asks about the work culture at Windstream and how it handles the complexity and speed of work in their teams. In reply, Thomas states that they have adopted a small team mindset and an agile work method. This approach encourages innovation, creativity, and independence among teams. 

Decision-making is decentralized, and smaller groups are entrusted with creating new capabilities and features. Tony explains that they use a “team of teams” philosophy, where all groups are loosely coupled but tightly aligned with the company’s mission and vision. This decentralization and empowerment lead to a quick response to customer feedback and needs.

Fostering Trust and Transparency: The Power of the ‘Team of Teams’ Mindset and Psychological Safety at Windstream

Lou and Tony delve deeper into the importance of the “team of teams” mindset and how it has fostered respect and collaboration within Windstream. As CEO, Tony is particularly enthused about the constructive debates this approach engenders, where team members trust one another enough to have intense discussions about what’s best for the customer. He identifies this as a sign of a healthy team dynamic and a key reason why Windstream is succeeding in the marketplace.

Lou then discusses the concept of “safety” in teams and how crucial it is for team members to feel secure enough to admit mistakes and identify areas for improvement. Thomas agrees, referring to the concept as “psychological safety,” and affirms its importance in fostering an environment where employees feel empowered to speak up and be authentic. This, he says, is the primary ingredient for high team effectiveness.

They also touch on feedback mechanisms at Windstream, and Thomas shares the various platforms through which employees can contribute their opinions and concerns. These include an internal collaboration tool and town hall meetings that facilitate an active dialogue and debate about the company’s strategies, priorities, mission, and vision.

How Windstream Engages Employees in Achieving Shared Goals

Moving on, Lou and Tony discuss the importance of strategic communication and fostering a “big-picture” mindset among employees. To help employees connect the dots and understand the company’s long-term goals and annual priorities, Windstream has implemented a video series that features interactions with product leaders and front-line employees. This initiative aims to ensure all 11,000 employees understand how their individual roles contribute to the company’s strategic objectives.

Lou then compliments Tony on his leadership style, praising his dedication to fostering a culture of innovation and psychological safety. The latter mentions that the essence of business is a collection of people and that competitive differentiation is achieved through a highly engaged team.

The dialogue then shifts to the concept of the “connection web,” a concept from the Most Loved Workplace Index, which illustrates how people connect and collaborate to solve problems. Both Carter and Thomas agree that this connection of people is crucial for creating bonds of trust and driving successful outcomes.

A Glimpse into Windstream’s Future and Investment in Technology

As the conversation wraps up, Tony expresses his excitement for the future of Windstream, particularly in relation to the potential of big data. He explains how Windstream harnesses this data to provide customers with valuable insights and personalized advice to improve their experiences, whether they are business clients or residential customers. Machine learning algorithms are used to process the vast amounts of data Windstream collects, and the company is investing heavily in this technology.

Lou draws a parallel between the vast amounts of data stored in the human mind and the terabytes of information that Windstream processes. He applauds Thomas for Windstream’s investment in emerging technologies and data utilization, emphasizing the importance of such investment across all technology companies.

Thomas also highlights some of the key drivers of employee engagement at Windstream based on their own data analysis. He reveals that being proud of the products and services they sell, understanding the company’s mission and vision, and feeling they can bring their authentic selves to work are the top three factors that contribute to high levels of engagement among their employees. 

Lastly, he emphasizes the immense value that comes from employees feeling proud to be a part of the company, demonstrating the connection between investment in data and technology, and fostering a satisfying and engaging work environment.

Thank you for listening!


Lou Carter : Tony Thomas here with us today, CEO of Windstream. Tony, welcome.

Tony Thomas : Thank you, Louis. It's good to be here.

LC : Well, congratulations on becoming a Most Loved Workplace and making it to the top 100 list in Newsweek!

TT : [laughs] It's quite the honor. It's yeah, one we're excited to have and share with our employees.

LC : Outstanding. Outstanding. I know the, you know, the mission really says a lot, connect people and empower business. You know, it's never been more important for you, especially during the time for this- especially during the pandemic. Tell me more about that mission and vision, how it connects to really being loved by employees.

How a Purpose-Driven Culture and Major Infrastructure Investments Empower Windstream's Mission of Connectivity[1:00]

TT : Yeah, you know, the core of the mission and vision, you know, this connecting people and also enabling a world of infinite possibilities. And, frankly, businesses need to connect. People need to be able to connect to not only work, but school, you know, entertainment options and just that ability to be a company with a purpose-driven culture, where folks understand when they come into work that what they do really does matter in people's lives. It matters in businesses where we provide critical infrastructure, we support children's hospitals. There could be nothing more important than that probably in terms of connectivity. I think that energizes people. They see the purpose of what we do, and they rally to that for the sake of our customers in Windstream.

LC : That's extraordinary. I mean, the fact that you have that mission, vision is pervasive throughout the company. How, tell me how does it sort of manifest for you and your leadership itself? How do you get that, that kind of thinking and knowing, being, out to the enterprise- you know you had this major upgrade to your network, over 5 billion in investments over five years, moving to cutting edge cloud-based enterprises. It's an exciting time. How does that kind of connect for you and get that feeling out there?

TT : Well, I think it connects. One, employees want to see actions aligned to words, you know, so we can have the best mission, the best vision, the best, you know, what we believe are the right qualities, values inside the company. But do we act on it? You know, do we reflect it in the way we treat each other just day to day? You know, in countless, hundreds and thousands of interactions. But also in terms of, you know, do we stand behind it in terms of the investments we make in terms of connectivity to people in resources inside the company and the way we go about it, you know, getting things done.

LC : You say connectivity to people, your investments, and also what you do right by the community. You know, what I'm really amazed at here is how much you put in these investments, right? That's not, that's not a small number, 5 billion dollars. And so what does it look like for you in terms of these cutting-edge technologies? What do they look like? And I'm sure people are excited to get behind them.

How Agile Methodologies and Decentralized Decision-Making Drive Innovation at Windstream [3:24]

TT : Yeah. You know, for residential broadband customers, what we bring is world class connectivity over fiber. Fiber is just an amazing technology providing basically multiple gigabits of speed into a home. So basically something that was like unimaginable just a few years ago now, customers are connected in a way that frankly enables technology like this towards seamlessly for really anywhere in the world.

It's just remarkable that's what that investment really enables for our residential customers. But we also have business customers and they use a technology that enables them to connect across multiple locations and see all the applications going over their network, you know, how they can run their businesses better.

You know, ultimately those are the types of solutions we call that solution. SD wan, it's software-defined, wide area networking with the nation's leader in that technology. And it just anchors ability businesses, connectivity, and anymore so much the connectivity is important in business because you have to go back and forth from the cloud. Cause so many of the great applications, you know, probably like one we're using today, you know, it's not on a piece of hardware, what's, you know, office, it's at someplace in the cloud.

LC : You know, and in rapid what you're talking about too, it happens quickly, working happens quickly. And not only in the technology itself, also in the collaboration that ensues at Windstream. How do you make that happen in your team? What, what's happening with terms of com? The complexity, the agility, the rapidity that hasn't happened for you?

TT : You know, we have embraced the small team's mindset. You know, we believe in, you know, agile as a way of doing work. Small teams, you know, organized, you know, 10 or less people solving a problem. You know, the agile approach for us has allowed kind of innovation, you know, creativity also kind of, you know, independence. You know, the CEO is not getting involved and making decisions that go into the next product release.

Occasionally y'all weigh in on the big product portfolio where we wanna go in the future when it comes to just cranking out new capabilities and features that those are small teams that are executing that. And then we bring it all together in terms of a team of teams philosophy, where we have all kind of loosely coupled but tightly aligned teams back to that mission and vision. They know what they're going after and we empower them, we decentralize the decision-making and put it in their hands. And they're the ones who ensure that this is what our customers want. And they get that feedback and react to it.

LC : You know this team, the team of teams mindset, so critical in everything you do, and has really become the crux of creating respect within teams, and then driving it within the company really through face-to-face collaboration. Right. Have you seen that happen in real time? What does it look like when a team of teams get together and, you know, what's a great example or, you know, you seeing it happen palpably, really?

Boosting Team Effectiveness and Innovation through Trust and Transparency at Windstream

TT : Yeah. I can tell you what I see it's happened is it's probably not in the areas. Yeah. You might see all, you see in terms of recognition, where I see it most where I'm most excited about it is actually in the disagreements where when you actually have trust on a team and you can have really aggressive debates, because that's when you're really debating like, is this really what we should be putting into our solution next? Is this really what our customers are gonna love? And the fact that employees have enough trust in each other to have that kind of aggressive debate and discussion about what's best. That's when you know, like the magic is happening [laugh], and you just kind of step back and you're just like, wow, you know, this is how and why we are winning in the marketplace. It is, you know, cuz that's one, I know we're gonna get the best attributes of our products out there because these teams know what our customers want. And frankly, they're debating it aggressively.

LC : And that's what it is that, you know, knowing what the customer wants, executing on it rapidly, you know, making it happen. It's incredible what can happen when teams get together and do that. And one of the biggest factors that we found in our research is safety. Do I feel safe enough saying that we made a mistake? Do I feel safe enough saying we need to get better at this? And that there was research that showed that all disasters could have been diverted by being feeling safe saying what could go wrong or what could you do better?

TT : Oh, I agree a hundred percent. And yeah, and I'm a fan of some of that literature as well and I believe some refer to that as psychological safety. It's that willingness to be vulnerable to actually, you know, express a concern to speak up. Cause as you allude to, we know the worst thing that can happen inside the company is when employees don't feel empowered to speak their voice, to be authentic to themselves.

And if we have any goal here, it is to make sure employees can be themselves and feel empowered to speak up. Cause we know that is absolutely the recipe for the number one ingredient in high team effectiveness is do I feel safe speaking up with my team? And we have to get that right. If we don't get that right, we don't win. And so that's absolutely one of the paramount things we focus on as a company.

LC : Yeah. That kind of environment, like you said, it makes a difference at work. People feel safe to speak up, you know, you also have a lot of feedback or information advice coming back to you from all the diverse groups inside of your company. So you're listening constantly, much like your products, listening constantly. It's a, you connect that thing in terms of the feedback direct to you.

TT : No, absolutely. We have an internal collaboration tool where we, you know, we share the strategy and vision, the priorities we have for a year. And it's interactive. Employees can weigh in there. We do town halls, lots of vehicles for folks to know what's happening inside the company and make sure they understand how they connect that to our strategic priorities and the mission and vision that we have inside the company. But it's an active dialogue and debate and lots of different kind of listening posts, if you will, in terms of what we need to do to execute what we have, but also be mindful where we need to make adjustments.

LC : You know, a lot of times employees, organizations, when they get large, it's hard to connect the dots. They don't quite see where things connect together. They're not able to see a larger systems picture, big picture thinking, and we get so kind of myopic in our mindset. Now, what I've heard you've done is strategic communications and connect the dots video series, strategic communication connect the dots video series. So what this is called is articulate a clear overarching long-term goals for the company and annual priority so people see the whole big picture like you do.

Uniting Teams through Shared Goals and Understanding to Foster Innovation and Success at Windstream

TT : Yeah, absolutely. It does mean no good to be the only person who understands the overall picture. We're trying to push that into all 11,000 employees so they can understand how what they do connects back to those strategic programs. And we literally, through this video series, we go out and we talk to the product leaders, we've talked to the folks on the front line, you know, get their questions, you know, and have our product or IT leaders, you know, answer those.

So, everyone understands the priorities and frankly how what they can do to advance those. Cuz really that's what we gotta do. We gotta make sure that people see the actions they're taking today. Oh yeah. That's translating to one of our goals in this new year.

LC : It's incredible. Like, you know, I could, you could definitely tell what drives Tony, you know, people, you know, driving this team of teams and, you know, connecting dots and enabling your entire enterprise. You love that. You love when people feel safe to innovate, to think out of the box to get it done. That's just, that's an awesome trait and behavior competency as a CEO.

TT : Well, one of the things someone told me a long time ago that stuck with me all of business really is at the end of the day, is a collection of people. And, you know, your competitive differentiation comes from a highly engaged team, you know, and that's why we win in the marketplace today. And that, and, you know, that's ultimately what you have to be focused on if you wanna be successful.

LC : That collection of people. It's funny you said that, that on the Most Loved Workplace index, we call it the connection web and showing how people are connected and collect together to create and solve problems and the connection and collection of people is what creates that sort of bond and of trust and getting it done. That's exactly what you're talking about right now.

TT : It's indeed.

LC : Spot on, spot on stuff. Well, this is good. The last question I always have for CEOs especially with tech companies, which I love is, you know, what's next? What should people be looking out for? What should they be excited about with your company? What should we tell the ecosphere of the world about Windstream and how it's next [laughs]?

Harnessing the Power of Machine Learning for Improved Customer Experiences and Employee Engagement at Windstream

TT : I tell you what we're really excited about is the ability of data to really help drive better customer experiences and to help our customers have better experiences themselves. So we're able to take big data and turn it in, we, what we call big insights. So we can actually tell a business, Hey, you know, this is a suboptimal setup you have here in your network and here's the change you should make. Because we know that results in less issues because we have terabytes upon terabytes of data that we put through machine learning algorithms that tells us the best configuration is this.

And then we boil that down and we do the same thing for residential customers. We tell them, Hey, the best opportunity for you to have a better WiFi in home, WiFi experience is to move that wifi device, you know, 20 feet over. So just turning it into ultimately something very practical that drives better customer experiences, but really the ability of big data, you know, turn into big insights through machine learning is that's real. That is happening. It's exciting. And it's one of the areas where we're investing tens of millions of dollars to derive differentiation.

LC : You know, with big data and terabytes of information, they say we have, you know, enormous amounts of terabytes of information in ourselves, in our own minds, right? And how do we transfer those terabytes to others while sort of maintaining, you know, our own vision and business purpose. And you're doing that. You're investing in big data and enabling what can happen in the future with products.

And we don't wanna get too close to singularity theory. However you're investing in doing that. Singularity is both a learning concept and a technology concept, and we have to invest, all of us. You are a CEO of one of the major telecommunications and technology companies in the world and all the others in that whole concept of big data and improving emerging technologies.

TT : Absolutely. Yeah. One of the interesting data points is, I like the math, so occasionally a lot of machine learning is math, but when you look at the math of what drives a highly engaged workforce. Yeah number one determinant and we do what's called inferential, you know, inference correlation. So we don't actually, so it's basically we take other data points and infer what we know employees drive high engagement. Am I proud of the products and services we sell? Is the number one. It's interesting that it is the number one determinant of employee engagement there.

You know, the second one is mission and vision, you know, for us, based off, you know, when third is, Hey, can I bring my authentic self to work? Yeah. Does my company you know, is it diverse and inclusive in its mindset? Yeah. For our employees, those are the top three, which I think is just fascinating that the role that, you know, people wanna be proud of the work they do, they wanna know that's done for a purpose.

And at Windstream, you know, we can fulfill that for employees and it's a complete collective effort. But when I look at kind of, you know, the singularity, how you bring it all back together and we talk about big data product, you know, it does matter cuz we know employees wanna be able to say, Hey, this is what my company does and I'm proud of that. And that ability to convey that and make that emotional connection that, Hey, I work here and I love it. It just, frankly, the incalculable benefit you get from that is just amazing.

LC : Emotional connectedness. It's exactly what it's about is how do you create that bond between individuals and bond to product and consumers, and you're completing the system circle and it just, it creates incredible behavior over time for your company. I love that. You know, proud of product and services, mission and vision and bringing your authentic self to work.

Tony, it was great talking with you. It was just wonderful seeing and hearing that you are leading in this way. Not everybody leads in this way, right? You are in it, you are being it. And you really live Most Loved Workplace. You are Most Loved Workplace, Tony.

The Power of 11,000 Engaged and Aligned Individuals Driving Windstream's Success

TT : And the word there is we are, you know, CEOs get a lot of credit. That's, that's often frankly, too much credit and, and too much blame. But hey, there's things we need to do with CEOs, but when we succeed, it's because we have 11,000 folks rowing to that mission and vision. Yeah. That we've all worked together on.

LC : I like that 11,000 folks, you have to weigh the calculus of the equation, right? When you put it on one…..

TT : [laugh]

LC : The pros and the cons go.

TT : Exactly. When you, when you get 11,000 highly engaged, aligned people. Wow. Watch out!

LC : Then life is good. Tony, you're great. Thank you so much for joining us today.

TT : Now, Louis, I appreciate the time. Thank you.