Every good story needs a villain. We need polarizing characters who challenge tradition and make us look for possibilities. The villain is the catalyst for change. Whether it is in fairytales, Amazon original series, or reality, the villain presents the opposition to the hero. The hero who refuses to settle for average when an opportunity for greatness exists. The hero believes that somewhere deep inside, she (or he) has the power to prove the villain wrong and make the world a better place.
Back in 2012, there were two major wireless carriers, AT&T and Verizon. They each controlled nearly 40% of the wireless market with T-Mobile controlling only 10%. The outlook for T-Mobile was grim. As a subsidiary of a German corporation that wasn’t publicly traded, T-Mobile was suffering and after a failed buyout attempt by AT&T, they needed leadership. In September 2012, John Legere accepted the position of T-Mobile USA CEO complete with a magenta cape and vision for the future (because every hero needs a cape). Legere turned T-Mobile around by proving the villain wrong.
1. Ask Why, Then Ask Again. When Legere started at T-Mobile, he could sense the beat-down company culture. Their strict policies dictated how meetings were conducted, what personal effects could be displayed on employees’ desks, and how employees should look and dress. Legere couldn’t believe what he was seeing. After each encounter, Legere asked why. The first why was always met with tired, canned responses. So, he would ask why again until the excuses began to fall away and no real legitimate reason continued to exist for questionable policies. They could not provide one solid piece of data that supported whether facial piercings and tattoos chased consumers away. In the absence of solid evidence, Legere started to make some changes.
Legere made T-Mobile question their policies and procedures to get them to own their why. He made them realize that while they were competing against industry giants, they needed to understand who they were as a company. As the hero, Legere needed T-Mobile to understand their purpose if they were going to prove their villains wrong.
It is the same for many higher education institutions. There are small institutions struggling to compete against industry giants. They have adopted cultures and practices that may align with tradition, but do not reflect their own values or who they seek to serve. It is inauthentic and students see through the façade. Institutions need to embrace their purpose and be themselves to compete with tradition.
2. The Awful Truth. Legere realized that T-Mobile’s problems were not a result of its size, lack of focus, or limited resources. T-Mobile’s struggles were equally shared among all industry leaders. People in general hated all wireless companies. Consumers were tired of fees, poor service, and unreliable coverage.
Legere started strategically positioning T-Mobile for success by addressing the negative perceptions consumers had about wireless companies. T-Mobile’s purpose was to make the whole wireless industry better for all consumers forever. Legere tasked his leadership team with developing solutions that not only benefited T-Mobile’s consumers, but would challenge the entire industry to do better or be left behind. They started by getting rid of long-term contracts replaced with transparent pricing models. They made it easier for consumers to upgrade to smartphones. They eliminated global roaming. They paid off competitor’s early termination fees for those who wanted to switch to T-Mobile. They met the needs of a changing consumer population by offering free wi-fi calling and freed up streaming data limits.
Legere’s vision for T-Mobile was clear. He focused on the “we” instead of the “me.” He took the negative feedback and used it to improve services not just for T-Mobile’s consumers, but to positively impact the entire wireless industry. A hero focuses on the greater good as a driver for constructive action to prove the villain wrong.
Higher education has its share of competition, regulatory burdens, and restrictions. The villains are seemingly endless. Sometimes it takes institutions that are willing to take negative feedback and look for solutions that change the way we believe education can occur. Once upon a time, online learning experienced its share of haters. Those individuals who believed quality learning could only occur within the confines of ivy-covered brick walls. Today, however, almost every institution offers some level of online options. Institutions need to embrace negative feedback to provide solutions that meet students’ needs.
3. Healthy Competition. Legere knew that T-Mobile did not have the level of capital that industry leaders were spending on advertising. With AT&T and Verizon spending $5 billion a year on marketing campaigns, T-Mobile could not sustain itself against the competition. So, he came up with another less popular approach, he held the competition accountable. T-Mobile focused marketing efforts on highlighting what set them apart how they were the “uncarrier” of wireless carriers. They tested the competition’s products against their own and reported the results as a matter of fact. They avoided taking unsubstantiated shots and continued to provide superior service. T-Mobile used their villains to make themselves better. Soon the industry giants were scrambling to keep up.
Legere knew T-Mobile’s weaknesses. He did not try to position the company to be something it clearly was not. At the time, T-Mobile was the wild card team just happy to still be in the game. However, in order to stay competitive, Legere knew the company needed to be calculated. T-Mobile had to differentiate itself among its competition. A hero embraces accountability to prove the villain wrong.
Students are frustrated and confused. They understand the importance of an education, but are faced with obstacles that prevent their success. Institutions need to communicate their value by seeking ways to set themselves apart. It requires addressing what doesn’t work and making affordable education accessible.
“When it comes to changing how the wireless industry operates, we’re only getting started. We’ll do much more to solve customer pain points. Our competitors are making it easier all the time.” ~ John Legere, the magenta-wearing, customer-loving T-Mobile CEO focused on ending wireless pain points and scaring our competitors
What is your institution doing to end students’ pain points?