Listening With Curiosity: Insights from a Year of Sidekicks Conversations

By Mike Sievert, CEO of T-MobileAugust 22, 2023

It’s been just over a year since we launched “Sidekicks Conversations,” a video series where I sit down with some of the brightest minds and talent in tech, business, sports and beyond to discuss their unique journeys and diverse perspectives. Our goal was to create a show that felt like two friends chatting in a bar. No prescribed agenda, just real conversation. And that’s exactly what Sidekicks — which takes its name from our iconic Sidekick flip phone AND the pub on campus at our Bellevue headquarters — has become.

No topic is too small or too big. For example, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff cast artificial intelligence as “not just the most exciting technology of OUR lifetime, but the most exciting technology of ANY lifetime.” AI is certainly going to change how companies like ours operate.

AI is just one of several hot topics that have surfaced so far during 10 Sidekicks episodes, which for me have reinforced the importance of mindful, active listening. CEOs by nature do a lot of talking, so I've come to appreciate the opportunity that Sidekicks gives me to turn the tables and listen. And in doing so, I've found that my colorful and well-accomplished guests open up not only about their professional successes, but also reveal the personalities that make them who they are. As I learn from their experiences, our audience does, too.

Listening isn't new for T-Mobile. For more than a decade and going strong, listening to customers and then disrupting and innovating on their behalf has been the centerpiece of our "Un-carrier" strategy.

My leaders and I regularly travel around the country, popping into Customer Experience Centers, retail stores and town halls to hear directly from the heartbeat of our company — our employees. We’ve built a culture around employees being unafraid to call out dumb policies or ways of doing things that don’t make sense — things that big companies lose track of if they’re not careful. In fact, this month we rolled out an “Un-carrier Ideas” initiative for employees to submit ideas for spending smarter while making it “better over here” for customers. Within a few days, hundreds of ideas poured in! I can’t wait to see what actions we take based on these ideas.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many great listeners among us. Globally, 86% of employees feel people at their workplace are not heard fairly or equally, according to a 2021 Workforce Institute report. Sometimes it seems like people are more interested in talking rather than listening, doesn’t it? Case in point: Communication expert Julian Treasure’s Ted Talk on “How to speak so that people want to listen” has 38 million YouTube views versus his “5 ways to listen better” speech, which has 4.2 million views. Clearly, we have room to improve.

Listening with curiosity is key to my Sidekicks Conversations. Some guests have talked about what helped them grow and succeed. Accenture CEO Julie Sweet adopted her “you-can-do-anything” mindset from her mother, who worked part time and graduated from college while raising three kids. Thanks to his Italian-immigrant father’s emphasis on education, Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci was inspired to study aircraft engineering at a Canadian military academy. And the entrepreneurial roots of Marcelo Claure, chairman and CEO of Claure Capital, former president and CEO of Sprint, and a member of T-Mobile’s board of directors, go back to his childhood in Bolivia when he secretly sold his mother’s dresses.

And channeling my own passion for aviation, I asked Lt. Cmdr. Chris Kapuschansky about becoming an elite Blue Angels fighter pilot. We shared a laugh about how “Cheese” came to be his call sign but also focused on the critical nature of his work: “We base everything we do on trust.” I witnessed that trust in action when I flew with the Blue Angels during this summer’s Seafair Airshow in Seattle — the most exhilarating experience of my lifetime!

I also enjoyed my conversations on teamwork lessons with athletes like Olympic gold medalist and SailGP CEO Russell Coutts, former Seattle Seahawks great Doug Baldwin, and with current Seattle Mariners star Julio Rodríguez, who I met with at T-Mobile Park. Julio makes it look easy to balance being in the spotlight with living by example as a leader on the field who lets his work do the talking. And man is that hard work paying off! Julio has been on a historic roll, recently setting an all-time MLB record with 17 hits in four games — all while remaining as humble and hardworking as ever.

There have been moving moments, too — like when we took Sidekicks on the road to Washington, D.C. NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson encouraged us to find commonalities in each other instead of looking at how we differ. Something he said really stuck with me: “Learn how to accept and appreciate people’s uniqueness.”

This powerful bit of wisdom is relevant in every aspect of our lives. I think about it often at T-Mobile, where the uniqueness of our employees helps improve how we work. Which reminds me of my first Sidekicks guest, Kendra Lord, who after 10 years in the United States Air Force transitioned into a pivotal geospatial engineering and analytics role at T-Mobile.

Whether hosting Sidekicks Conversations or seeking customer and employee feedback, I'm learning a lot through others' visions, values and ideas to drive to success. And - perhaps even more apparent - I recognize the need for mindful listening in building deeper, more empathetic relationships.