An Interview with Janice Stoney, Retired CEO Of Northwestern Bell, and 2010 Inductee to the Omaha Business Hall of Fame
By Brian Kooienga & Rachelle Streubing, Creighton MBA students
Janice Stoney was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. Her father died when she was only 5 years old. Her mother raised her with the help of grandmother, which at the time, Janice was one of only three students who did not have a nuclear family at home. Janice learned a great deal from her hardworking mother, who sewed her own clothes. Her mother also picked up side jobs as a typist in order to provide for Janice. One of the best lessons she learned growing up was to make the best of what she had. Janice also learned to save for what she wanted and not to buy things she shouldn’t. Janice’s mother used to tell her, “If you cannot pay for it, you cannot have it”.
Right after high school graduation, Janice’s first job was a customer service representative at Northwestern Bell. This was a position which normally required a college degree. However, Janice had received superior grades and, as a result, was hired. Janice planned to work full- time until her husband finished his undergraduate degree from University of Nebraska at Omaha. He had been her high school sweetheart. After his graduation, she planned to attend college herself. However, she continued to move up the career ladder. It was important to her that her promotions were performance based and she was “Not a token for the company culture and corporate ladder.”
Business and Ethical Culture
When asked about the business and ethical culture at Northwestern Bell, Janice spoke of her former company as a family. Not only was the company a tight-knit corporation, but Northwestern Bell also encouraged hiring family members. Janice spoke of the brothers, sisters, cousins, and relatives who worked in the company. Janice always felt comfortable and engaged because employees treated each other with respect. Northwestern Bell had a “tough, yet tender approach.” High performance and results were an expectation, yet the company worked and encouraged the employees to achieve this rather than scold them into doing so. Northwestern Bell believed in investing in its employees. Janice spoke about the importance of education that Northwestern Bell stressed to all employees. She attended multiple training and employee development conferences throughout her career. Considering the time and social climate of other companies when Janice was hired, women and racial minorities were not often employed or promoted through a company. This changed in the late 60’s & 70’s as a result of the Civil Rights and Equal Pay Acts.
The leadership of Northwestern Bell also regarded the safety of employees highly. The motto of the company was “No job is so important that we cannot take time to perform our work safely.” This demonstrated further sincerity in Northwestern Bell’s duties to protect their greatest assets: the people.
Janice had a few mentors and role models throughout her career at Northwestern Bell. The first individual she mentioned was Jack McAllister, who was the president at Northwestern Bell. He was influential in appointing her in her role as HR Vice-President. Janice had worked on his team early on and saw firsthand the way he ran the organization and treated employees. Another role model was Tom Madison, who was the Chief Operating Officer, before Janice took on this role. Mr. Madison told Janice one day, “You and I will work closely together and my objective is to get you ready for the next position.” This statement expresses the commitment of employee development which Janice learned to also incorporate into her leadership practices. Janice spoke very highly of all of her mentors and believed they prepared her well to become a mentor herself one day. These mentors impacted the way Janice led and taught. Janice said, “Some of the best bosses were coaches, and not ‘bosses’. Bosses had a strict way of doing things and getting a point across. Coaches showed you how to do something, how to fix a situation, and how to learn from your mistakes. I had some really good bosses who saw themselves as coaches.”
Throughout Janice’s career development, her ethical and leadership skills evolved over time. Janice learned to ask questions. One she commonly asked those reporting to her was: “What is it about the environment I have created, in which you work, that I can change and will help you be as successful as you can be?” As Janice said, “People may not trust that a manager genuinely means what he or she is asking. However, by being sincere in one’s actions and efforts, people recognize sincere intent and respond. An individual’s entire life is one of looking for opportunities to develop and grow. The work place is no different. People go to work to contribute and to do a good job. If you have the belief that people are really the only appreciating asset in the business and you conduct your business that way, people will respond.” Janice learned a lot about her leadership. She was able to eliminate some of the practices she thought at first to helpful, but later found were not. Instead, she focused more on practices which enabled employees’ successes— even if the answers may have been difficult to hear at times.
Ethics in General
Janice believes that business is a noble endeavor, the engine of our economy. She underscores the moral and ethical responsibility of leadership to build a successful enterprise. “After all,” she says, “shareowners, employees and their families realize their dreams and aspirations are depending on it.” People are counting on the leadership to do their job and to do it the right way. As Janice said, “Once you sacrifice your own code of personal ethics and place them above the company, then you’ve forever thrown away what you worked so hard to achieve personally and professionally.
Another important lesson that Janice talked about multiple times in our interview was the “Tone at the Top.” The “tone” that Janice was referencing was the way in which all of the C-Level executives go about their business. Whether it is the way they treat people in the elevator, use their expense accounts, or negotiate, the list goes on. The point is, the simple way company leaders live their life and treat others will simply trickle down like a waterfall throughout the company. Janice believed that the tone at the top sets the company up for success or failure just by the culture it creates and instills in its employees. At Northwestern Bell, the executives treated everyone like family (partly because some of them were) and also in response to the comfort level, respect, trust, and the cohesiveness created from the family-like atmosphere. From this culture arose a very strong business and workplace where people enjoyed working. Easily seen are examples of companies in which the tone at the top was not one of trust, morals, ethics, and respect. These fallacies eventually led to the demise of the company.
Managers will always face situations requiring intervention. The most clear cut are those with legal implications.
The more difficult are those where employee behavior is questionable. Work of others might be affected as well. Management simply has to face up to the responsibility and deal directly with the issue. If it came down to a difficult conversation with a longtime employee and friend over the sake of the company’s integrity and policies, Janice chose the company. A major attribute of the culture at Northwestern Bell was the family atmosphere and climate. An important element of this was trust in each individual to uphold certain principles. Janice stressed the importance of avoiding a situation that compromises or challenges ethical standards and morals.
Ethical Development Advice
Janice has a few recommendations to the new generation of business leaders to aid in the development of ethical success. The first is a commitment to education and lifelong learning. This does not mean solely through the academic arena of books and conferences, but also on a real life learning scale as well. Finding mentors and successful people from whom one can learn is equally important.
Her second point of emphasis is to be selective about where one works and with whom one associates. A company’s culture has impact on its employees. An individual’s work place speaks a lot about a person whether one has awareness of this or not. While this might seem to be an obvious piece of advice, it is one that needs to be strongly considered for recent undergrads as well as those who have been in their careers for decades. As the corporate climate continues to change and adapt to new policies and ways of doing business, the cultures change. Employees need to decide if they want “stay on the course” because they are comfortable with their job, or make a move and stand up for what they believe in. It’s not an easy decision, and Janice addressed the question “At what point do you decide that certain morals or beliefs are not worth sacrificing?”
Finally, Janice’s third point is to “spend time personally with your faith and thinking through the belief system you have.” This makes it easier later when difficult ethical decisions arise. The takeaway from her final point was one that echoed throughout the entire interview with Janice. Her mother taught her from a young age to only use what you need, get involved, and do the right thing. Her bosses taught her from her first days at Northwestern Bell to take the time to do the job right, take care of people, and to leave a positive impact on the job, community, and individuals with whom one works. By keeping the right balance (family, faith, and establishing a strong foundation for moral and ethical decision making) in the forefront and making them a part of everyday life, it is hard to stray off the path into making poor decisions.
Janice was asked how her career path led her to eventually run for the Senate against Bob Kerry in 1994. She talked much about the importance of being “givers and not takers” of our system. She and her husband had both grown up believing that one needs to be involved. As Janice continued her career, she realized how truly important this was. In the 1990’s, she began to realize that the direction our country was going apart from what she experienced and believed. This served as her wake-up call, and she decided to run for Senate. “When I talked to my peers who were all CEOs in Omaha, they asked me why I was doing this,” stated Janice. In response, she questioned them back as to why they weren’t running for office. “We’ve been beneficiaries all this time,” Janice added, “...at what point do we say it’s not sufficient to serve on a local board and call it my community service? I did it because I thought I could make a difference. We need business leaders in government.”
The other inspiring and motivating perspective from Janice was reversing the emphasis from self to others. “As a society we have reversed the God, country, family and self priorities to placing self first. This has evolved but accelerated recently. Without faith as a strong foundation and a more healthy view of self in the hierarchy, we are bound to continue on this path.” It will require greater involvement and self sacrifice on the part of many if we are to survive as the great nation we have enjoyed and been blessed.”