It remains hugely successful with more than $163 billion in revenue in 2016 and 33 consecutive years of dividend growth, a streak that dates to when it operated as Southwestern Bell.
But it has undergone drastic changes with technological advances including the release of the iPhone – at the time sold exclusively with AT&T contracts – in 2007.
“It wasn’t until two years after that that there was a thing called an App Store,” Stephenson said during Tuesday’s CEO Speaker Series event, which was moderated by Charles Hoffman, dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Stephenson then had a question for the standing-room-only audience that filled the Century Rooms of the Millennium Student Center: “Who in here does not have a smartphone in their possession at this moment? Raise your hand.”
Not surprisingly, none went up.
Next, he regaled the crowd with a story about a bygone time when he and one of his fellow executives used to talk about how there couldn’t be enough bandwidth to allow internet access over a mobile phone.
“We’re delivering live stream, high definition video to mobile devices now over our wireless airwaves,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson mentioned all of this to explain to the numerous students in attendance for the hour-long discussion why it’s so important to be adaptable as they prepare for future careers.
“We’re putting the material out there, we’re putting the capability out there, but students have to come out and constantly refresh their skills,” Stephenson said. “I call it re-tooling and re-skilling because I believe your skill set is two years in duration, max. Mine is two years in duration, max. I’m constantly retooling myself.
“If you get nothing out of your time at UMSL, please walk out of here with the ability to just constantly be re-training, re-educating, relearning, re-skilling yourself. If you’re not, two years after this, you’re going to be very, very frustrated.”
The biggest shift AT&T has made lately under Stephenson’s leadership is toward providing premium media content. It has made significant investment in video entertainment, notably through the acquisition of DirecTV in 2015, and more recently the agreed-upon purchase of Time Warner, which is still awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The company has sought a way to help its workforce adapt to its changing business with an ambitious corporate education program that has attracted attention in business circles as well as the mainstream media.
US News reported that it is one of the companies that has partnered with Udacity – a provider of affordable programming and technology courses online – to create project-based “nanodegree” programs in information technology.
“It’s MOOC training (Massive Online Open Courses) that we can deliver to our employees en masse,” he said. “We’ve told them, ‘Here are the tools. You need to begin to retool yourself.’”
Stephenson said AT&T’s efforts to get employees to participate have taken off since the company began to be more transparent about human resources decisions, showing people which jobs were trending upward and which were in decline within the company and what training or badges were required to move into the more high-demand roles.
If Stephenson’s description seemed at all revolutionary, he also sounded exactly like CEOs have for generations, espousing what he sees as the need for tax reform and deregulation.
With Republicans – traditionally the more corporate-friendly party – in control of both the White House and both chambers of Congress, Stephenson expects corporate tax reform legislation to get passed this year.
“I think he is convinced that this is critically important,” Stephenson said of Donald Trump, with whom he met at Trump Tower in New York during the transition.
As for regulation?
“You can debate how much regulation is appropriate,” Stephenson said. “It’s a fair debate. As a CEO, you expect, ‘I like less regulation.’”
He added: “There’s an optimal place where you protect the consumer, you protect people in their homes, you protect safety and so forth, but you don’t do things that inhibit capital investment.”
The latter part of the conversation between Stephenson and Hoffman pivoted to stances the former has taken on social issues that have made headlines.
“Our communities are being destroyed by racial tension,” Stephenson said in a speech to company employees that was recorded and shared on YouTube by one of the attendees in September. “And we’re too polite to talk about it.”
In the speech – as he did on Tuesday – he talked about his previous naiveté about race and important insight he gleaned from talking to a close black friend about it.
The conversation shaped his decision to show support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement while seeing the possibility for harm in the “All Lives Matter” response it has prompted.
“When a parent says, ‘I love my son,’ you don’t say, ‘What about your daughter?’” Stephenson said in September. “When we walk or run for breast cancer funding and research, we don’t say, ‘What about prostate cancer?’ When the president says, ‘God bless America,’ we don’t say, ‘Shouldn’t God bless all countries?’ And when a person struggling with what’s been broadcast on our airwaves says, ‘black lives matter,’ we should not say ‘all lives matter’ to justify ignoring the real need for change.”
Stephenson also serves as president of the Boys Scouts of America, which last month announced it would allow transgender children to enroll in scouting programs.
“If you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to have to take positions that aren’t always popular,” Stephenson said.
He explained why it was important to take a position at all.
“On issues like homosexuality or gender identity, America has not coalesced on this,” Stephenson said. “But I think as an organization, we have to figure out, ‘How are we going to address this and do we want to serve these kids or not?’ You ask the kids, the kids couldn’t care less what your sexual orientation is. The kids couldn’t care less about what gender you identify yourself as. And our objective is to serve kids and to teach kids the scout oath and the scout law and how to enjoy the outdoors and how to build character and how to build leaders.”