Debby Hopkins, EVP and CFO, of Lucent Technologies, was the first keynote speaker at the Women’s Student Association Conference on January 20, 2001. Debby Hopkins is known in the business world as “one of America’s top ten CFO’s.” She has risen to No. 2 on FORTUNE’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and was listed as one of the top 25 managers in Business Week. Before being asked to join Lucent, Ms. Hopkins served as senior vice president and chief financial officer for The Boeing Company. Prior to joining Boeing, Ms. Hopkins served as vice president of Finance and chief financial officer for General Motors Europe, a $26 billion operating unit located in Zurich, Switzerland. Debby Hopkins is also a member of the board of directors of DuPont, and serves on the boards of the Foundation for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and the Private Export Funding Corporation.
Ms. Hopkins presented her speech and Q & A via satellite from New Jersey, an exercise in which, Lucent, needing to prove its technological expertise, sent a van with an enormous satellite dish on the drive up from Bell Labs. The picture was crystal clear, such that many conference participants were almost surprised when Ms. Hopkins started to respond to questions, thinking that it was a video. Those of us that saw Jeff Bezos of Amazon last year via PictureTel, were surprised to see the difference that satellite makes, with absolutely no delay.
A running theme throughout Ms. Hopkins’ speech was the role of the financial media and the short term attention span of Wall Street. When Ms. Hopkins began her career, she said, “long term planning was possible and investors were patient, especially if your company had a reputation for delivering value to customers.” Instead of being focused on the long term, Ms. Hopkins regrets, the market is now focused on who will win this quarter, or even who is winning this second. Non-stop 24/7 business coverage is on TV and on the internet. “Business has become a spectator sport,” she believes, is reported as such and is subject to people placing instant bets based on rumors and even the body language of a business executive. “Business has emerged as entertainment,” she stated, as “Wall Street has become a casino,” with business journalists and reporters have the power to cut a company’s value in half. She even believes that there is oftentimes deliberately misleading information as businesses are now forced to live 12 week lives. This is the reality that companies face as they try to serve customers and shareholders.
At the same time, business executives have also become fair game. Ms. Hopkins stated that much of what the media has written has been distorted and reflected on how difficult it is to deal with friends and family after certain inflammatory articles are written. Considering Fortune articles where she has been called “Hurricane Debby” and described as “relentless” we can why this is such a concern for her.
The way to overcome these effects of success both as a company executive and in one’s personal life is to not to take them personally and stay above the fray, calling one to adopt a “Warrior Mentality”. It is important to cling to your values and critical business fundamentals while you balance between long and short term decisions that product lasting health for the enterprise. The best way to make everyone happy, she says, is to concentrate to satisfying the needs of your customers. This cannot be just words for her as two days after Ms. Hopkins spoke at the conference, Lucent announced 10,000 layoffs and a $1BN restructuring charge. She will have to deal with the effects of this transition as a true warrior.
Ms. Hopkins continued her discussion with the audience by describing her career and success. She states that it is critical to never look at one’s career as a box within which one must operate and to always look outside. When Ms. Hopkins was at Boeing, she expanded the role of CFO into an evolving one over time by thinking about strategy, risk and knowing what to do with information. Success for her has been achieved by seeing a vacuum and stepping into it even if was not in her job description. Some other pieces of advice that Ms. Hopkins presented to the audience was to remember that one’s career is a marathon and not a sprint and that one should know when to shut down for a while, to never burn bridges and continue keeping in touch with people throughout one’s career. Ms. Hopkins has achieved her focus through having a career coach in her life that has kept her on track, as well as mentors and strong support systems.
A critical point, Ms. Hopkins reflected, was that everything in business has been achieved in teams. She believes that the most important responsibility of an executive is to build a strong team, find the right people, and give them the right jobs and resources. These are the people that will fight when things go wrong. Her mantra is also to “Never ask anybody to work harder than you do!” She is very passionate about inspiring others, being in touch with what is happening to them in their personal lives, and being accessible no matter how busy she is. The most important way to inspire people is to help them see how they fit in and how can they make a difference.
Ms. Hopkins also touched on the importance of balances and trade-offs. She feels that she can be at work 24 hours a day, but instead tries to go home to be with her two teenage children. Her children have seen a lot since they have been living abroad when Ms. Hopkins was in Europe, and consequently have become very flexible. However, in order to execute her job at Lucent, Ms. Hopkins’ husband has quit his job, which has been very challenging for the couple. Carving out times with her spouse, never canceling vacations, and putting issues on the table and talking about them has allowed Ms. Hopkins to balance her life.
Reflecting upon the crisis at Lucent, Ms. Hopkins realized that the company got caught up in growth at any cost. It was an important time to set and pinpoint priorities, help people are understand where Lucent is going, what executives are doing and to execute non-stop. She stated that there are many costs of success, but that it’s all worth it since you can have the chance to be part of a great team and have the chance to truly make a difference.