When Morgan Collins graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in food and resource economics, she imagined herself working in finance. Instead, her dad convinced her to work for Bell South, a phone company now known as AT&T, where he built his career fixing landline phones. Roughly 14 years later, Collins has had a rich and diverse career with AT&T, working as an engineer, in finance, marketing, and now as a sales leader.
In May 2018, Collins was promoted to her current role and moved from Louisiana to the Seattle area, working out of AT&T’s Redmond office. Having stood on the shoulders of those around her, Collins is passionate about mentorship and career development. We talked with her recently about the importance of networking and mentoring — reaching a hand back when you’ve been given a hand up.
It seems like you’re really passionate about the mentorship aspect of building your career. Where did that start for you?
It started with my first job in Jacksonville, Florida, as an outside plant engineer at Bell South. I had a leader who really sat down with me and asked me, “What do you want to do 10 years from now or 15 years from now?” And he helped me think through what steps I needed to take in order to accomplish the goals that were important to me. I think that’s one of the important things that leaders have to do, is understand an individual’s goals and help them craft that journey. Everyone’s journey is going to be different, and it evolves over time.
Tell me about one of your mentors and how he or she influenced your career?
There’s a mentor of mine, his name is Rudy Hermond, and I’ve worked with him three times in my career. One of the things that he showed me was servant leadership — really taking time to understand individuals and to care for them. He helped me understand that in order for me to succeed and achieve my goals, I had to be willing to raise my hand and advocate for myself.
I think as women we keep our heads down, and we think people are going to see us. And there are two things to that. As leaders, we have to be looking for those people. The second thing is, you as a leader owe it to those individuals to help build their confidence and have them raise their hand and advocate for themselves or be an advocate for them.
When someone is seeking out a mentor for herself, do you have any advice? Are there qualities she should be looking for?
That’s a question I get a lot. Don’t feel like there’s a playbook to this. There are no hard and fast rules. I use the term “board of directors.” It’s a structure anyone can use. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or what level you are at. It’s about creating a board of directors that advise and guide you, and they change over time. I had a mentor that I had in a professional mentoring program who suggested this to us, and we all went about building our circle — our board of directors. For me, I built a lot of women and men who had successful careers on my team, as well as peers, that were part of my board of directors. But over time, that’s really evolved. Now, I have several women on my board of directors who are moms. There are women who are working moms that I rely on for guidance on how to balance things. Then I have other men and women who are successful within AT&T inside and outside of AT&T. Everyone can define that as their own individual board of directors in whatever they need.
What do you feel you’ve learned from your board of directors over the years?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to be flexible, and you have to advocate for yourself and raise your hand. One of the leaders I’ve had on my board of directors, he’s retired from AT&T now, but he hired me when I was nine months pregnant. It was a job I knew that I wanted a year in advance of when I was selected for the role, and I had talked with him (the manager) about the opportunity. As soon as the position was open, I got time on his calendar. I raised my hand. I said, “I understand, I’m nine months pregnant, but here’s what I bring to the table for this role, and I hope you feel I would be a good advocate for you and your team. He offered me the job on Monday, and I had my son on Saturday.
You spoke on a panel in Seattle recently about networking and career development and how those things intersect with diversity. Can you talk about that?
One of the most important things, and it kind of goes back to the board of directors, is when you’re building this mentoring circle, it has to be diverse. AT&T was ranked No. 3 last year in DiversityInc’s study. From a company perspective, we value diversity and inclusion, and when we think about the networks that we build, it’s always good to be challenged by different ideas and people that have a different path. It challenges you to think differently and look at opportunities differently.
I’ve also heard that’s it’s really hard to see yourself progress in your career, if you don’t see other people who look like you in leadership roles. Do you find that may play a part in the importance of mentoring as well?
I think one of the most important things that I’m a proponent of is diversity and inclusion across our company, and I’ve been the beneficiary of being part of women’s leadership programs at AT&T throughout my career. In fact, my peer in Denver and I just created a program for the west region called Women of the West, and it’s a program to help continue to diversify and grow our women leadership within the west leadership. I think we already do a great job of that, but it’s about taking it to the next level. It’s not just about what are we getting out of it, but one of my mentors told me, “When you get a hand up, reach a hand back.”
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.