ISE magazine: What is your leadership and/or project management philosophy?
Abella: My goal is to create an organizational environment where my team is engaged because they want to be, not because they’re told to be. This requires motivating them to be excited by their work and to feel it is well-suited to their talents. Seeing a purpose in their work not only impacts them as individuals, but connects them to the larger goals of the company.
As a leader, it is also important to be positive; your every action is being observed. You are always on stage, and you can’t forget that. The moment you walk out of your office or get out of your car, you are projecting the mood for your team.
ISE: Do you think managers should consider the art and science of project management when working with their teams? Explain your thoughts on that process, and how you like to approach it. Feel free to share an example from an experience you were involved in personally.
Abella: Absolutely, managers should consider the art and science of project management, but I describe it as the soft skills and the science.
The science represents measurable elements like the deliverables and technical requirements of a project. The art is about aligning team members with the goals of the project and engaging them in the process. This begins with clear communication and outlining why a project is important, who is on the team and why, and what the goals and deliverables are. We then have to bring together everyone involved across the organization to explain the project goals and make sure it’s in agreement with their vision.
I remember a project in which its future depended on the art of the process. We had to quickly gain leadership support during a day-long event with 15-minute presentations, which would ultimately determine whether the project was funded. My team’s strategy was to do groundwork ahead of time, and to make the presentation about having conversations to assess the needs and questions of individuals who would be weighing in on the decision.
The presentation was then built to address questions that could potentially arise. I made sure we had a working prototype so decision-makers could experience it for themselves — making it real for them. The project was the only one funded that day, largely thanks to the groundwork that we’d put into it in advance. This was the art. The science came in building the product and delivering the service.
ISE: How should today’s leaders work with their teams to help them best manage projects while incorporating technology, human assets, and personal management style? How have you learned to work with all 3 of these elements in harmony?
Abella: In a large, global company such as AT&T, teams are not always co-located. In fact, they may span multiple time zones, and don’t always report to the same leadership chain. This can pose managerial and operational challenges. Collaboration is critical to working with partners, balancing demands of supervisors, securing resources, and managing technology changes, to successfully deliver products on time.
Using technologies like telepresence and video conferencing brings people together face-to-face and speeds up the innovation process. A quick chat message to clarify a question, or picking up the phone for a quick decision, can be critical to success. Everyone has different communication and management styles, but the important thing is to embrace these differences and build ways to work effectively as a team.
ISE: What skill sets do you look for in people when you’re creating a team? What soft skills are most important?
Abella: A team needs a strong, respected leader who is familiar with the work being done. Respect means the leader is trusted, and trust always leads to faster innovation. At a minimum, the leader should have excellent written and verbal communication and negotiating skills.
It is crucial to clearly define roles and to help team members understand their individual and holistic responsibilities. Each individual should bring a unique skillset to the work. Every team should have a clear and powerful communicator to help guide the process.
ISE: Share 3-5 tips to best engage and motivate younger professionals to blend with a seasoned team. What tends to be the difference between the two groups, and is there a magic trick that works with both groups?
Abella: In my opinion, the younger professionals don’t need to blend with the seasoned team. If anything, I’ve hired them to stand out and bring fresh perspective and knowledge to the entire team. My advice to young professionals is to recognize how much they can learn from their more-seasoned team members. They will help them expand their networks, teach them how to navigate their career, and become their role models.
A major difference between the two groups, if I had to speak generally, is their ability to cope with change. Of course there are always exceptions to this, but seasoned team members have often been through many organizational changes and shifts to company priorities. They’ve typically learned to be flexible and embrace change as opportunities. Young professionals are more likely to approach change with anxiety and fear. The trick to getting through it is to ask more-experienced team members to mentor them. Conversely, more-seasoned team members may have battle scars and be cynical. This is often where the positive attitude of younger team members can remind them about the impact and enthusiasm they continue to bring to their organizations.
ISE: In 2011, you were selected by President Obama to serve on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence to advocate for minorities and women in science and engineering. Share your greatest accomplishment in this area.
Abella: I’m a strong advocate of fostering the development of minorities and women in science and engineering. In 2011, I was selected by President Obama to serve on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics commission. It was quite an experience to be asked to participate.
The White House Initiative helps pave the way for increasing the number of Hispanic graduates in the STEM sector. Through alliances and mentoring programs, such as the non-profit organization Young Science Achievers Program (YSAP), we aim to nurture an interest in science among young students. I lead the STEM program, and represent the private sector as an employee of AT&T.
I’m one of 30 commissioners working to increase awareness and implement successful and innovative education reform strategies for the Hispanic community. We work to reduce the educational gaps, whether it’s through policy changes, immigration system, or social services, to help advance their educational pursuits.
I know this was only a start, and it’s an ongoing process. But this is an issue that is close to my heart because it’s so important to the US Hispanic community as well as the future of our workforce.
ISE: How do you motivate your team to follow your vision and processes?
Abella: Creating an environment of trust leads to loyalty. Trust comes from open and honest communication. My goal is always to use communication to support the team. I make sure to listen and act on issues being raised. My job as a leader is to work to eliminate impediments to productivity, and to provide solutions for improving processes.
Employee recognition is also essential, even in small ways — from a simple Thank You to monetary and recognition awards. It keeps the team well-connected to the businesses we are serving, and ensures their work is being spotlighted. People take pride in their work, and that needs to be acknowledged.
Dr. Alicia Abella is Assistant Vice President, Cloud Technologies and Services Research Organization at AT&T, where she leads the organization responsible for designing and creating cloud, mobile, and services software solutions for AT&T’s cloud computing environment. With 21 years of research experience, Dr. Abella has held positions that allow her to demonstrate her skills in a broad research spectrum.
In 2013, Dr. Abella received Columbia University’s Medal of Excellence, an award given each year to an alumnus or alumna, under 45 years of age, whose record in scholarship, public service, or professional life is outstanding. This is the first time since 1929, when the award was first given, that Columbia has awarded the medal to an engineer.
Dr. Abella holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Columbia University, a M.S. in computer science from Columbia University, and a B.S. in computer science from New York University. She also holds at least 15 patents.