Most Powerful Women: Theatrically trained for teamwork

When Joelle Phillips graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1989, she was armed with a freshly-minted theatre degree and wholeheartedly ready to embrace the life of a professional actress.

"I wasn't one of those kids that majored in theater because I thought it would look good on my law school application," says Phillips, now a Nashville-based telecommunications industry executive. "I toured with a children's theater, and I was making it work. It was exciting for me and very satisfying."

Phillips loved acting as a practice, but she disliked the sporadic lifestyle -- the constant travel and unpredictable hours -- that came with it.

"Everyone worked during the day, and I worked at night," she says. "I was never settled in one community, and the jobs were not permanent. I really hated that feeling of being disconnected. I was really unhappy with the lifestyle, so I decided to do something else."

Roll forward 25 years later and Phillips is indeed doing something else. As a longtime attorney and president of AT&T Tennessee, she holds one of the region's most visible executive positions.

Phillips is the first to admit that her position seems radically different than that of professional acting. But look beneath the surface, and there are many skills she learned as an actress that inform her efforts as a corporate leader. She says the most productive and satisfying aspects of her work over the years center around working in teams, a process that allows her to often feel as if she is a member of an acting company.

 Member of a working ensemble

After leaving her acting career, Phillips snagged a summa cum laude law degree from Virginia's Washington and Lee University and eventually ended up at working in bankruptcy law at the Nashville office of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis. She would go on to work as an attorney in AT&T Tennessee's legal division for 12 years before being named president in 2013.

Phillips says her theater training and legal background seem custom made for her current leadership role.

"I have always been happiest about an accomplishment when it comes from being involved in a group," Phillips says. "It's like being a cast member of a particularly great show. I just really like working in collaboration, and this company has a great history of collaboration. The Bell Labs were all about getting people from different disciplines to work together. The company still sees a lot of value in getting people with varied skills to work in combination."

As much as Phillips values working in teams, she says doing so effectively is one of her main challenges. The difficulty is that lawyers are often trained to work with each other rather than across disciplines.

"There was an emphasis in law school on thinking like a lawyer," Phillips says. "I understand the purpose of it is to provide you with problem-solving and analytical skills that are very valuable for legal issues. But I think the unintended consequence is that we sometimes teach lawyers to work and think in a way that assumes they are going to be working primarily with other lawyers.

"That's a missed opportunity," Phillips adds. "We should be training people to bring their skill set to the table with a lot of different sorts of people. It might be best for you to have a chemist, engineer or a musician on your team. Projects wear us out when we become isolated by our expertise."

Making sure team efforts at AT&T are effective is especially challenging because so much of the company's technology -- and the issues surrounding it -- are complicated.

"The more technical the required skills are, the bigger the challenge it is to work effectively in a group," Phillips says. "You have to break down the technical speak and figure out a way to work together."

 Stay relevant and 'work through the tough stuff'

Phillips knows it's not unusual for professional and executive women to face challenges as they advance to the top rungs of corporate leadership. The trick to advancement, she says, is to find a corporate culture that's open to gender diversity at the top.

"I've been very fortunate in my career because I haven't felt a lot of gender-related limitations or challenges," she says. " Yet, I think as women we should all be talking about obstacles to our success. We need to pinpoint what barriers are."

"I always tell women who ask me about this issue that they are right to be concerned about it," Phillips adds. "My advice is to go to work for a place where the environment is designed for women to be successful. All the law firms where I've practiced have always been environments where women were doing well, and AT&T really does have a long history of women in positions of great responsibility."

Phillips says successful women leaders do best when they chart a course of continual learning and are willing to acquire whatever skills and disciplines are needed to stay relevant in the workplace.

"It's not always fun," she says, "My father, who was a professor at Auburn, used to hate it when people said that learning is fun. When you learn, there's often pain, sacrifice and effort involved. It's working through that tough stuff and pushing through to the end that really pays off."

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who has worked with Phillips on projects such as the Next Generation 9-1-1 initiative, praises her for "remarkable and very effective leadership."

The NG9-1-1 program, state legislation for which passed in 2014, established a stable, future-proof funding source for maintaining and improving the state's emergency communications network services.

"Joelle has a very winning mix of attributes," Norris says. "She really is a team player, and yet she can take control and get things done. If you're looking for a great example of a woman executive leader, go no further than Joelle. She's a great role model for women. Actually, she's a great role model for anyone."

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