In 2011, John Legere sat across from Deutsche Telekom CEO René Obermann to discuss the role of leading the company’s struggling American branch of T-Mobile.
Legere had just sold the previous company he led, Global Crossing Limited, for $3 billion to Level 3.
He told Business Insider in a recent interview that he met with Obermann more as a favour to his headhunter than as an interested candidate, so he felt he didn’t have anything to lose when he told his potential future boss that there was only one way he could keep failing: “Do exactly what you’re doing — nothing.”
Obermann liked Legere’s attitude and eventually offered him the job, which Legere took in 2012. He was tasked with turning around the company that was firmly in fourth place among the United States’ four biggest wireless carriers, and he decided that it would require an overhaul of everything about the company, from the product to the corporate culture.
An element of this was transforming T-Mobile’s CEO from an inaccessible “suit” into an energetic, Richard-Branson-like leader who spent time with his employees and maintained a loud public persona. He was going to transform T-Mobile into a company customers and its employees could actually be excited about — in the wireless carrier industry, of all things.
His plan’s been working. Over the past four years, T-Mobile US has become the fastest-growing carrier in the US, passing Sprint for the number-three spot behind AT&T and Verizon, and has more than doubled customers and significantly expanded its network.
We talked with Legere about why it was so important to reinvent himself along with the company, and how he rebuilt the corporate culture from the ground up.
Legere said that as he was giving interviews to the media on his first day as CEO, he coined the phrase “the Un-carrier,” to describe what T-Mobile under his watch would become, to express it would be the opposite of its competition.
This would require T-Mobile to behave like a startup disrupting the industry run by giants AT&T and Verizon, who Legere dubbed “dumb and dumber.” He may have already been in his mid-50s, but he needed to look the part. He began experimenting with different combination of loud clothing options, eventually settling with long hair, a bright magenta T-Mobile T-shirt and accessories, and usually a black jacket of some kind.
Accompanying this came the penchant for dropping f-bombs and hurling no-holds-barred insults at the competition (which occasionally got out of hand as he pushed the boundaries).
While he had yet to nail the look, Legere said that John Legere 2.0 was unveiled to the world at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2013. In a question and answer session, when asked what he thought of his competitors, he said he “snapped.”
“Over the next 24 hours, there was a lot of stuff that was coming out of my mouth that was meant to stay in Vegas, but it hit a chord. It was an action statement for me — I’m sure it sounded a bit arrogant — that I was going to fix this industry. … From then on, I started to be the brand, more and more. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, I wear T-Mobile gear.”
The social media addiction, where he interacts with customers nearly all day, came soon after.
He said there’s two parts to his T-Mobile persona. “Part of my role at T-Mobile is the ability to just be myself, because I’m 58 years old and I’ve done very well, and I don’t need to fight my way up the hierarchy with my suit and hair anymore,” he said. “The other thing is, it’s a young, consumer-driven business, and the average age of my customer outside of Bellevue [Washington, the home of T-Mobile headquarters] is 27 or 28. They like outspoken, frank discussion. And then my customers skew very young.”
‘It’s a bit of a love affair’
Legere also had to connect with T-Mobile US’s 50,000 employees, in an attempt to get them as passionate about the company as he is. He told us that he needed to make sure he was connecting in a genuine way, not in a way a detached boss “spews the pablum” when he shares meaningless motivational clichés with employees.
“On my very first day at T-Mobile, I demanded that every time I spoke publicly to the company, all employees across the country would be invited to watch,” he said. Legere also initiated a stock program with employees, and made sure to not omit any performance details from his speeches to employees. He said he tells them, “Listen, if some of this doesn’t make sense to you, what should make sense is the reason I’m telling you — I respect you as an owner and as a partner and I’m going to tell you this all the time. Feel free to tune out.”
Legere also has a section in his calendar book that contains a colour-coded list of how many times he’s visited each of T-Mobile US’s 18 major call centres. When we spoke, he was about to finish his fifth round of trips to each of them.
“It’s not that complicated,” he said. “I go in, they meet me outside, we take selfies as I stand like a piece of furniture, I tell them about how things are going — but most importantly, I say thank you and help them see that their behaviour and their work has driven the culture of the company that’s changed the industry and the whole world. It’s a bit of a love affair.”
In a recent trip to a call center in Augusta, Georgia, employees surprised Legere with a batch of personal notes of gratitude to mark his four-year anniversary. It brought him to tears, he said.
Yesterday was a very special day. Thank you, #Augusta & everyone else for making my 4 years at T-Mobile so special. PS – I NEVER CRY!! pic.twitter.com/H3AuuNM4NU
— John Legere (@JohnLegere) September 23, 2016
He also makes trips to retail centres. “I jokingly tell the employees that everybody between me and them is the enemy,” he said. “In effect, what I mean is that in my paramilitary hierarchy, if I can hear them and they can hear me, everything will be fine. All we need to do is make sure the entire company understands that it’s their job to pass information between us. And so far so good.”
Summarizing his past four years at the helm, Legere said, “I think this job at T-Mobile has more than anything else helped me really see and understand how to set a strategy, communicate like crazy, and then passionately lead from the front of it.”
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