When most kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons over a bowl of Corn Flakes, Anne Chow was mastering Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the hallowed halls of Juilliard. She started taking piano lessons when she was barely out of toddlerhood. Her parents had left Taiwan for the land of opportunity before she and her brother were born, and they expected their American progeny to take every advantage—school, sports, Scouts, and music—and see their talents to the limit.
As it turned out, Chow’s talent in classical piano was good enough to get her into Juilliard’s prestigious pre-college division at the age of 10. And so, every Saturday morning for seven years, Chow would load into her parents’ hatchback for the two- to three-hour trek from the south New Jersey suburbs to Manhattan.
“My parents have always wanted me to be the best that I could be,” Chow says. “And this is what I have told my children: ‘I don’t want you to be the best. I want you to be your best.’”
No doubt, that foundational value played a major part in the shy musician’s evolution into a boundary-breaking corporate leader. Last September, Chow was named CEO of AT&T Business, making her the first woman to hold that position, the first woman of color CEO in AT&T history, and the highest-ranking Asian American in the company. She now oversees more than 30,000 employees and must defend AT&T’s position as a leader in business tech solutions, serving 3 million business customers worldwide, which includes government agencies and nearly all Fortune 1,000 companies, earning nearly $37 billion in 2018—more than a fifth of AT&T’s total revenue that year. Chow’s appointment comes at a critical time: the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, powered by 5G, the low-latency, high-speed digital technology.
As Chow sees it, her Juilliard experience provided a formidable grooming ground for such a momentous role. “I think leadership and organizations are a lot like an orchestra,” says Chow, sitting in a lounge room on the sleek executive floor of AT&T’s blue-lit skyscraper in downtown Dallas. She goes on to compare the role of a business leader to that of a conductor, how they have to harness talent on several levels—the individual, the instrument section, and the orchestra as a whole—for the greatest output. “One wrong move from one person on the team can destroy the whole symphony.”
Chow’s current symphony is helping her business clients disrupt themselves before they get disrupted. AT&T is working with the University of Miami to make it the first college campus with 5G+ and edge computing. This will enable next-level educational tools, such as virtual reality headsets that allow students to interact with a 3D DNA strand. The tech is also expected to revolutionize the health industry. Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center hopes to shed its wired infrastructure and use AT&T’s technology to download MRI images in seconds, employ connected devices such as blood pressure cuffs, and train med students with augmented reality, among other goals.
The company is also helping clients find ways to get people off couches and into stores and entertainment venues. The 5G-enabled AT&T Stadium now has augmented reality experiences and a “Pose With the Pros” activation, through which fans use a giant touch screen to take a startlingly realistic photo with five Dallas Cowboys. Retail shoppers can try on clothes without undressing in the “magic mirrors” AT&T demoed at a recent business summit. “Every company now is a technology company, whether they like it or not,” Chow says.
If Chow is AT&T business’ conductor, she sure has proficient experience with most of the unit’s instruments. This coming June will mark Chow’s 30th anniversary with the company. Arriving with a trio of degrees from Cornell University, a B.S. and a masters in electrical engineering plus an MBA, Chow started as an engineer, then made an upward zigzag through roles ranging from sales and P&L management to marketing and strategic operations. She has updated the title on her business cards 17 times in those three decades. The ascent wasn’t always easy. Early on, she was turned away from opportunities in sales, but that just made her try harder.
Chow is a self-described “transformative executive” and “servant leader,” brought up on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And, through years of management training, she has become an admitted motivational junkie. She loves a good quote and uses them liberally. In our conversation, she recites one by Billie Jean King and another by Louis Pasteur about chance favoring the prepared mind. (“I first heard that in a Steven Seagal movie,” she admits.) Chow once embarrassed her family when she whipped out her phone in a movie theater to write down a particularly profound line from Harry Potter’s Dumbledore.
Most of Chow’s employees are probably familiar with her “7 Cs for Leadership” or her “8 Ps for Unleashing Your Greatest Potential.” Audiences at her keynotes are often given a bookmark branded with several of her “Chowisms.” Example: “Life is about relationships; be sure to seek and foster meaningful ones.” Fittingly, she sits on the boards of the Girl Scouts of the USA and FranklinCovey, which specializes in organizational performance, consulting and training.
Chow discovered her inner writer in 2010 when AT&T introduced tSpace, an internal social networking platform, and she began incorporating lessons and photos from her life and work into weekly blog posts. Through these, she can reach all of AT&T’s employees, who can read stories about her family, her obsession with fitness boxing, or what the success of Crazy Rich Asians meant to her. “It helps humanize leadership,” Chow says of the blog.
For nine years running, she has won the company’s award for best standalone blog. And, yes, she has personally penned each and every essay. “At one point I thought, ‘Why do I only have one husband, two kids, and one dog?’” Chow jokes. “I need more material!” Writing a book is on her bucket list.
Of breaking the glass ceiling, Chow says, “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to have been the first. I don’t want to be the only, and I don’t want to be the last.” Toward that end, she created the AT&T Women of Business Employee Network, which has more than 5,000 members across 29 countries and serves as an executive advisor for the Inspir-ASIAN employee resource group. She also championed AT&T’s internal Women of Color initiative, which provides resources and support to promote diversity and inclusion.
Recently, Chow heard a presentation with a stat on the percentage of Gen Z that will question their gender identity, and it’s made her think about the way she speaks, like using the phrase “ladies and gentlemen.” “It’s continued enlightenment, continued learning, continued evolution,” she says. “For me, it’s next-generation leadership. How do I make sure that I’m walking the talk, that I’m helping as many people as I can?”
Former AT&T executive Cynt Marshall, who’s now CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, calls Chow a “constant encourager” and was not surprised in the least when her one-time co-worker was named to a chief executive role. “I predicted it,” Marshall says. She and Chow became close while teaching at the company’s training program, AT&T University. Marshall says Chow is “wicked smart and can size people up quickly” and goes on to give an enumeration of Chow’s talents that’s too long to include in any one article. “Frankly,” says Marshall, “I think she’s strong enough to lead the whole company one day.”
Of Chow’s messages, the one that seems to ring loudest is that of authenticity. “If you try to suppress who you are in your personal life while you’re at work, you’re not actually being you,” Chow says. She thinks all this talk about work-life balance, “the bifurcation of the person,” is “totally crap.”
“You have a life,” Chow says. “It has professional dimensions; it has personal dimensions.” Her theory: “You need to be in an environment where you can be your whole self. That has everything to do with realizing your fullest potential. Realizing that, in order to contribute the best of yourself, you have to be yourself.”
The concept has reverberated down the corporate ladder. Zee Hussain, senior vice president of finance, healthcare, and industry solutions for AT&T’s Global Business unit, often tells a story about his first interaction with Chow almost 14 years ago. He was one of a couple of thousand people on a conference call, and Chow started the meeting by talking about her upbringing as the daughter of immigrants and her belief in authenticity. The concept struck a chord.
Hussain emigrated from Pakistan to the United States at the age of 14 with his mom and brothers. He earned a degree in economics from Berkeley, graduating on a Saturday and starting at AT&T the following Monday. Many South Asians worked in IT positions and not in sales as he did, so for seven years, Hussain practiced the art of fitting into the corporate culture. Chow’s message gave him the freedom to own his unique story.
I think leadership and organizations are a lot like an orchestra. One wrong move from one person on the team can destroy the whole symphony.
Hussain says “real” and “authentic” are the best words to describe Chow. He recalls instances in which she took a moment to chat with him about his life and goals when again, he was one of the thousands of her employees. In more recent years, after the birth of his third child, Chow gifted him with a decorative piece customized with the names of everyone in his family. “I don’t know if I had ever told her my kids’ names,” Hussain says. “A lot of our customers will tell you the same thing—that the way she connects with them and the way she invests in that relationship is like no other executive they deal with.”
I ask if Chow and her focus on people is the best approach in such a high-intensity, hypercompetitive technology market. He says there is no one better. “You want to make sure you have a leader that can paint a very clear vision, get people energized around it, and create a culture of greatness where people feel like they can innovate, they can move fast, they can collaborate, and what they’re doing is associated with a bigger purpose,” says Hussain. He goes on to explain how Chow can intuit a person’s abilities and empower them to stretch: “A lot of leaders demand excellence. She’s a leader who really inspires excellence.”
Indeed, it can be difficult for Chow to accept anything less than excellence. She still has the ebony Yamaha grand piano from her childhood in her Southlake home, but she no longer plays. She remembers how good she was back when she practiced six hours a day, and it’s painful to hear herself now. “I’ll probably try to pick some of it back up when I’m retired,” she says, and, as if unable to imagine such a fate adds, “Whatever that means.”
Until then, Chow’s musical past continues to act as a source of inspiration for her corporate future. She later sends me an email expanding the orchestra analogy, writing about how people use their own hard and soft skills to interpret the musical score or business strategy, ending her thoughts with this poetic Chowism: “It’s interesting to note that conductors are seen but not heard during the concert itself. They enable their people to shine and make beautiful music together. That’s what world-class teams are all about.”