Susan James American Tower

Strategist Spotlight: Susan James

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Bridging Self-Discovery and Telecommunications Innovation – A Guide to Strategic Leadership and the Power of Mentorship

Susan James brings over three decades of telecommunications expertise to her role as Vice President of Innovation for Mobile Connectivity at American Tower. Beginning her career at Ericsson in Australia, Susan honed her skills in product management, closely collaborating with Telstra. She demonstrated an exceptional ability to bridge the gap between design requirements and development, ensuring that new products launched seamlessly while managing commercial strategies and customer relationships. Her commitment to innovation led to a pivotal transfer to Sweden, where she spearheaded the transition to IP-based voice capabilities at Ericsson’s headquarters, leading diverse product management teams and driving the development of minimum viable products to commercial success.

Susan’s career trajectory took a dynamic turn as she transitioned to Red Hat, where she significantly influenced telecommunications strategy during the company’s vertical transition. Over three years, she was instrumental in shaping Red Hat’s ecosystem, focusing on targeted customer acquisition and strategic partnerships. This pivotal role continued and expanded following IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat, underscoring her foresight and strategic thinking in telecommunications.

Returning to Sweden, Susan joined American Tower, where she currently explores innovative territories in wireless connectivity, including radio and satellite networks, in-building coverage, and drone technology. Her career, marked by early product design passion, intrapreneurship, and strategic foresight, has consistently anticipated the telecommunications industry’s evolving landscape.

Susan sat down with Outthinker Networks to discuss her favorite moments from her career up to this point, what she’s most excited about working on right now, and how she sees the role of strategy evolving in the future. 

“The way other people see you is very different than the way you see yourself. Realizing that you’re achieving great results and that some people see you differently than you see yourself can be really liberating. It helps you change the way you gauge yourself, and it changes the way you think about your future."

Could you share one of your favorite moments in your career so far? 

I caught up with two of my past colleagues recently. One was my former boss, and I recalled he obviously saw certain talent in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself.  

Both guys are very smart, and they kept giving me more challenging roles. It’s not like I would apply for a role, but suddenly I would come in, and they’d say, “You’re now responsible for this.” And I thought, “Uh, sure. I guess I can do that.” Most of the time, I was like, “But, why that? I was going to go do this other thing,” and they said, “No, you’re over here.”  

At one point, my boss turned to me and said, “You realize that when I leave this job, I’ve nominated you as my replacement.” And I thought, “Have you lost your mind? There’s no way I can do what you do. I don’t have that skill set. Don’t you get it? I’m just me. I’m nothing special.”  

Eventually, I had to sit down and think, Well, both of these people are incredibly smart. I’m not smart enough to fool them. I’m not trying to fool them, but even if I were, I couldn’t deceive them in any way. So, the way they see me and the way I see me is different. And if I’m not smart enough to fool them, then maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m wrong about myself, because there’s a very large disconnect between the way I see myself and the way other people see me.

This realization happened a couple of different times, but particularly with these two guys, because I knew they were much smarter than me, and I could never fool them. The way other people see you is very different than the way you see yourself. Realizing that you’re achieving great results and that some people see you differently than you see yourself can be really liberating. It helps you change the way you gauge yourself, and it changes the way you think about your future.  

This is important, particularly for women, but for people that tend to have lower self-esteem. Having other people tell you how they perceive you is a really valuable gift they can give you. It doesn’t matter if it’s negative or positive. And the people that tell you, “I don’t like the way you do this. It really detracts from your performance,” is so much harder for them than to say they think you do a great job

I’ve been blessed with people around me saying both, “You’re doing a great job,” and “You don’t need to do this.” For example, I used to swear a lot and one person found it offensive. She said, “You don’t need to do that to get your point across.” It was valuable to me, because I realized by doing that, I was excluding people from part of the message that I was trying to get across. I thought, okay, well, that’s fair enough. I’m limiting my sphere of influence.  

“Having other people tell you how they perceive you is a really valuable gift they can give you. It doesn’t matter if it’s negative or positive."

I’ve also been very lucky to participate in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in at least three companies. I’ve been a mentor and a mentee to other women. One of the things I’ve learned by being a mentor is that your sphere of influence as an individual is much broader than you ever think. You can influence people you’ve never met. 

I’ve never met some of these people, and at an event, they reached out and said, “I’ve been watching your career and you’ve really inspired me that you’ve been able to achieve these things.” I was shocked. It also made me sit back and think, okay. I’m not just doing this for myself anymore. I’m doing it to show other people that they can do it, that they can have the confidence. 

It also changed my behavior in some cases. I’m going to strive to be better. I’m going to be more positive and encourage people, because now I know that some people are watching me, how do I want to be perceived? How do I want to influence their journey going forward? Can I be more positive in my engagement with other people?  

I’d say throughout those last three companies, my way of interacting with other people has become a lot more positive. I don’t need to be as angry or as demanding on different people. My roles have changed too, but how do I provide the kind of inspiration to others in the way that I act in day-to-day engagement. That has been one of the things I’ve come to realize late in my career.

“One of the things I've learned by being a mentor is that your sphere of influence as an individual is much broader than you ever think. You can influence people you've never met."

What are you most excited to be working on right now? 

I’m really excited to be working on satellites. There’s so much happening in that field right now, in direct-to-device communication. And there is so much that’s going to be happening over the five years in this field. It really does have the potential to be a game changer for so many people that are at a digital exclusion point where they don’t have access to reliable connectivity.  I think it will also help with affordability in the longer term as well.

Coverage is problem in a number of areas, whether that’s just because you’re hiking somewhere inaccessible. There’s a safety aspect to it, but I think from a digital inclusion standpoint in many parts of the world, it could be a game changer for them. There are still a huge number of challenges, both technologically and legislatively to solve, but to be in that area right now is extremely exciting. 

How do you see the future of the strategy role evolving? 

When you’re working on strategy, you’re always working with imperfect information. And one of the things I’ve seen change in the last six to nine months is that it isn’t such a problem as it has been in the past. 

You always have a laundry list of questions in your head about, “I wish I knew this, or I wish I knew that.” Now with generative AI tools, literally within a couple of hours, you can have a reasonably good understanding of pretty much any question you have.  

Maybe not quantum physics, but you know, what’s happening with these companies or what’s trending from a financial perspective. If you want to research what’s happening with direct-to-device satellites, you can become very well versed within less than a week.  

Access to knowledge that used to be sort of captured in annual reports or locked behind analyst doors won’t be a blocker to the same extent. Then it becomes more about taking in these disparate parts of information and having time to think about that.  

Strategy is always, to a large extent, looking in a crystal ball and predicting the future. I think you’re going to have better information to base that on, and you’re going to be able to have better information that tracks how you’re progressing against it. Maybe you’re going to be able to fine tune it going forward.  

Access to information becomes much easier. It depends on the type of industry you’re in, but you shouldn’t be making poor decisions due to lack of input and lack of information anymore.

“Strategy is always, to a large extent, looking in a crystal ball and predicting the future. [With generative AI] I think you're going to have better information to base that on, and you're going to be able to have better information that tracks how you're progressing against it."

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