Lori Lee: Values drive rise to global business leader

  • June 24, 2019
  • By Kurt Greenbaum
  • 3 minute read

In her commencement address to WashU Olin’s graduate students on May 17, 2019, Lori Lee described herself as a small-town Missouri woman who aspired to join a Big Six accounting firm, marry and have kids.

But Lee’s story took a few unexpected turns, leading her to a global leadership position in one of the world’s largest firms.

Through it all, she told the graduates, her values have guided her. They provided the North Star, the context for every data-driven decision. They formed the basis for everything worth fighting for.

“At the core of all the calculations, at the heart of everything we do as business leaders are our values,” said Lee, BSBA ’88, MBA ’89. “It’s more important than ever to know what you’re willing to fight for. The issues are challenging businesses like never before. With social media today, molehills can become mountains in an instant—and how you respond in that split second makes all the difference.”

Today, Lee is CEO of AT&T Latin America and global marketing officer for AT&T Inc. She credits WashU Olin and former Dean Robert Virgil for working closely with her and providing the support that got her through business school. She rose through the ranks at several companies before an unexpected move to Texas in 1997 opened an opportunity for her at Southwestern Bell, which later became part of AT&T.

That move illustrated Lee’s first tip to the graduates that afternoon: Embrace every change as an unforeseen opportunity. “How you embrace change will be the difference between your success or failure,” Lee said, leading to her second tip: Anything worth having requires initiative.

She spent the most time on that third tip, however—the one about knowing your values. Later that afternoon, Lee said that’s important because most decisions are not momentous forks in the road.

“Rarely is it neat and tidy,” she said. “You need to think through these things in advance. You find yourself in a moment when you have to make a decision. If you don’t have a sense of values for your company or for yourself, you aren’t prepared.”

That preparation is particularly important in her career today as the leader of AT&T’s Latin American operation, where the values of a different culture may not align with those of the US-based corporation where she works. “We talk about that all the time,” she said. And in a fast-paced world fueled by social media and heightened social awareness, it’s important for companies to know what they value and what their employees value so they can take a stand when it’s appropriate.

“Does this issue affect our values or our employee base? If so, perhaps it’s appropriate to take a stand,” Lee said, recalling the 2016 shooting in AT&T’s hometown that killed five police officers and wounded nine others. “My CEO has stepped out on a few issues. One that is most known is Black Lives Matter, diversity and valuing diversity. Our employees were shaken by the Dallas shooting and wondered what we were going to do.”

Lee, a member of Olin’s National Council, values the opportunity to stay connected with the university and Olin, staying current with higher education issues through her participation in WashU’s College Prep Program, which is supported by AT&T.

Stand up, speak up and don’t be afraid to rock the boat. Embrace change. Take initiative. And be really clear on your values. Do these things and you’ll be steps ahead of me when I sat where you are today.

Lori Lee


Graduate Programs Graduation Recognition Ceremony

Relive the 2019 Olin graduate programs graduation recognition ceremony, held at the Field House Athletic Complex at Washington University.

About the Author

Kurt Greenbaum

Kurt Greenbaum

As communications director for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to find and share great stories about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I've worked for the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management as communications director and as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sun-Sentinel in South Florida and the Chicago Tribune.

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