The Key Skills You Need To Rise In A Company With Jim Butman

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Table Of Contents

In this episode, Mike Gardon chats with Jim Butman, President and Chief Executive Officer at TDS Telecom. Jim has been with TDS Telecom since 1985. During his tenure with TDS Telecom, Jim has held numerous leadership positions including Chief Operating Officer and Group President of Marketing, Sales & Customer Operations. He also served as president of TDS Metrocom, which became a $250 million business under Jim’s leadership. Jim earned a Master of Business Administration in Finance from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance from the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.


  • JIm’s background
  • Jim’s thoughts on getting and retaining talent
  • How TDS Telecom handled the transition to remote work during COVID-19
  • Jim’s thoughts on the productivity of employees working remotely
  • What TDS Telecom is planning for a return to work
  • How to create meaningful days and purposeful meetings
  • Jim’s journey to CEO and what it takes to get to the top


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Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present due to platform differences.

Michael Gardon (00:01):

Jim welcome to CareerCloud radio. So glad to have you.

Jim Butman (00:05):

Well, thanks Mike. It's a pleasure to be here.

Michael Gardon (00:08):

Um, I love backstories. And so I always, because this is a career podcast, I always ask guests about their, their first job. So can you tell me about your first job could be, you know, high school, college or go wherever you would like to?

Jim Butman (00:23):

I'm laughing a little bit because it really depends. You want to go all the way back to grade school? I real quickly, you know, I mean, again, there's a lot, you know, and I think about it, um, you know, paper boys shoveling is, you know what I mean? All of those experiences and then high school, you know, I delivered beer on a beer truck, you know, I was a DJ I'm here's, here's the thing. And then in college, um, you know, actually had our own, uh, buddy in my head, our own business, a painting business, and we've learned how to, you know, bid jobs and paint. So you can kind of see what's happening along here. I guess you could say I was always in business. I was having to invoice people and collect money when I was, you know, 10 years old. So, but you know, really what I would say is a lot of people are more interested is what happened when you left college?

Jim Butman (01:17):

Right? What, what was it? And, but I do think all those early years taught me two things. I was always financially motivated. Right. Um, came from a family that didn't have a lot. Um, so we were always motivated to make a buck. Right. And you know, the other thing is I learned hard work, um, hard work. And, and so then when I went to school, I, again, finance, right. I went, my career was in finance or my education, formal education, both undergraduate and graduate MBA in finance. You can just see where that was. And so when I came out of school, the first job was financial reporting, sec reporting at a pretty large company. So, um, you know, that's the theme hard work finance. I always say, why was that? Because I say finance is the language of business and I was always business-minded.

Michael Gardon (02:17):

Yeah. That's very interesting. Um, it's funny when I think about my career track, I think it's very unique from a lot of people because I've just done a ton of different things in different industries, but you're also really unique in that you've basically been with one company from the get-go from when you started and now to being CEO, um, you know, what can people sort of learn from that? Why is that not happening more?

Jim Butman (02:50):

Well, I, I would tell you that it probably is happening more than you realize. Uh, and the reason I'll say that is you read about companies that are, you know, fast-growing Amazon, Google, Apple, you know, we read about these startups, you know, and of course in a rapid environment, you're going to have a lot of change of leadership, right? The stages of that growth. The other thing you're going to read about is companies in trouble. There's a lot of companies in trouble and that creates turnover of leadership because they don't like what's going on. Right. I will tell you, TDS is unique. First of all, um, it is, it's important for your listeners to understand that TDS is a public company, but it is family control. Okay. It was started by the dad who worked at the company until in his nineties. And now his son is the leader of the holding company.

Jim Butman (03:50):

Now I run one of the major subsidiaries being TDS telecom, but I would tell you experience matters, right? I mean, don't kid yourself. I mean, brightness, uh entrepreneurial-ism is not just in youth and it runs the gambit, right? And at TDS being that it's a family controlled company. Number one, um, you know, if you're going to trust the family jewels to an outsider, there's going to be a high level of testing and trust is this somebody that's proved themselves over many years, that they're not gonna, you know, discard the baby here or do something highly risky that could really put the company in peril. Uh, the other thing about TDS is the businesses we're in is communications. They're very capital intensive. And you know, we, it, it's crazy. Some of your readers are gonna laugh at this, but when we finance, you know, when we do financial debt instruments, we will pay a premium in today's interest rate markets, we'll pay six, six and a half percent to get 50 year maturities. Okay. The founder of this company survived the great depression. He knows that there's cycles in business and the problems that happen over the cycles of business because there's high flying success years and there's problematic year. So anyway, long story trust, long-term view and experience matters. I couldn't do this job without all the experience I have.

Michael Gardon (05:29):

Yeah. That's, it's interesting. It gets me. You kind of made the comment. You think it happens more than, than I than I think, I think all of the headlines, you know, nowadays are millennials or people. My age are going to change jobs X number of times in a career. And so that's what we see. Um, I, it makes me think, uh, of the struggles companies sometimes have, um, around getting and retaining talent. Um, how do you think are those challenges overblown? Um, cause I see, I see just smart people all over the place. Right. And then I hear again in the news and headlines, corporations are having hard time retaining talent. How do you, how do you see that?

Jim Butman (06:16):

Yeah. You know, over my career, there's always hot functional areas. You know, if I go back five years ago, finance people were having to pay a premium, maybe five, six, seven years ago, finance people, we had to adjust our salary scales, you know, to attract people. Well, that's not the case in finance now there's plenty of people in finance. Right. Then it was engineers. You know, we had to do some things with premium and engineers today. I would tell you not going to surprise you, it's it professionals. Right. Um, so I mean, you know, you see a lot of pendulum swing after a year, you know, after a career of 30, 40 years, I met 35 plus years and the pendulums always swing one way or another, you know, you just think, Oh my God, goodness, it's, you know, it's just not going to stop.

Jim Butman (07:08):

But so what we've done to deal with these issues is we've grown our own when these things happen. Because when, when you have the hot career, um, we plan for it. We see it coming and we attract a lot of interns. I mean, you know, 10 years ago we might've had two, three interns running around our company. We've got two, 300 of them now, and they're an important feeder pool. So guess where they are. It, you know, and the young people are so bright and so smart and their educations are perfect because here's the other thing with it professionals, all the programming language, you know, from years ago is thrown out year after year because it's changing so rapidly. So, um, I don't know, you know, we're fortunate that we're big enough that we succession plan. We take good care of our people and we've got really good retention. People are very happy with, uh, the company, but there's always hot careers and they come and go.

Michael Gardon (08:15):

I want to transition a little bit to obviously a hot topic over the last year, which is remote work. And, you know, for, for listeners who don't exactly know our backstory, I mean, my, uh, the company rejoined media, we're small, but we've been remote first, uh, from the get-go and most of my careers or career transitions or many careers as I call them have been in a remote capacity. So for me, you know, remote work was just a foregone conclusion, but for core, and as I was doing some media around this topic, um, I was getting a lot of questions about what are companies doing and how are they, you know, dealing with these challenges. And I realized I didn't really have a great, um, grasp on some of the unique challenges to corporates. So I guess I wanted to start by, can you give our listeners a little bit of a idea of the scale of TDS in terms of employees and the footprint that you kind of had to manage around this topic?

Jim Butman (09:19):

Well, that's a great question. So, you know, remote work, wasn't foreign to us. Okay. We operate in 30 plus States. Okay. So we've got people all over the country. Now we're headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. And in our call, it, I don't like to say corporate headquarters. It was there mainly where most of our staff functions, centralized staff functions per about 900 of our 3000 employees in that building. And, um, you know, so remote work we've always had what I would say, Oh three, 400, 500, actually, even more than that, when I think about it, cause we had remote call center employees in pockets. So maybe five, 600, what had to happen in this situation, you know, uh, necessity is the mother of invention. We had to rapidly take 2300 of our employees of our, roughly 3000. We're above 3000 now, cause we're growing. But at the time, a year ago, about 3000 employees, we really took 2300 and, and you know, said, stay home, don't come to the office.

Jim Butman (10:25):

And you know, there was some logistics with getting computers and laptops and desk chairs and you know, and then there's people that didn't have good working environment. So we still allowed some of them to come to the office, but it was pretty small. So it wasn't that wasn't the challenge for us. And it, it actually worked incredibly well. Okay. The challenge for us as customer facing employees, that's where many of us were really thrown back is how are we going to keep, you know, what are we going to do with our salespeople? I mean, businesses, don't businesses and consumers don't want people coming to their doors. And we have, we have door to door, people that sell our services, you know? And so we had to deal with a lot of that. We had to make a lot of decisions, a lot of judgements. Our mantra was plan for the worst hope, for the best.

Jim Butman (11:17):

So safety. And we made some hard decisions early on. You're not going to people's houses. You know, we even had to consider certain services we do and not do so. I will tell you, there were thousands of decisions we face my leadership team met every week to address and make sure we were consistent throughout the business. So I would say safety, how do we still install all vital services? Because our service broadband became even more vital during the pandemic and then managing our networks with people are probably don't really appreciate is broadband in the home usage was stimulated horrendously as a result of the pandemic. So we had to make sure our networks were resilient. We were fortunate. They were, um, but you know, uh, it worked remote work works and you know, that's, it's, it's been fascinating to see how our employees were very resilient and stepped up to the plate.

Michael Gardon (12:23):

Um, along that line, uh, I've seen a lot of different, um, surveys and things like that about from, from small businesses from corporations about D you know, productivity and the pandemic. Right. So are you kind of saying you really don't think you as a whole lost productivity, do you feel like productivity actually increased or is it [inaudible] depending? Yeah.

Jim Butman (12:51):

Yeah. You know, so when this, when the pandemic hit and we said all these people working at home where we wouldn't see them day in and day out, I mean, we do with video. Right. But, but you don't, there's just jobs where you don't see people all day long. I think for a lot of people in, probably in my age category, we're like, well, how are we going to make sure people aren't just screwing off at home. Right. You know, I would tell you that what we learned, my concerns are 180 degrees. The other way, what has happened is people are, in my view, especially your top performers are working even harder. And the reason is, is because there's no separation for many of us between our work life and our personal life. You know, my mentality is on my lunch hour, I'm running out to do something else in between.

Jim Butman (13:43):

Cause I can't, and I'm exhausted at the end of the day, you know, come five, six o'clock at night, it's really wearing. Cause there was a, at least a nice separation of work and personal life. So some of our leaders feel the productivity is up some challenge it. And I would just say that, and we'll talk, you know, if you want to talk more about, this is the issues a little polarizing, right? There's, there's definitely people who believe that the remote work is more productive and then there's those in our company that challenge it. Right. And th the good part is we're collecting data on it and we're putting in place tools to make sure we're measuring it. But I, you know, my opinion, I guess my opinion after hearing all the arguments, I think we we've continued to be as productive is what I'd say now. I don't know if that's cause people really rallied because it was a pandemic and over time, could it erode, um, could people start to Slack off and, you know, I don't know, but we'll up and watch it.

Michael Gardon (14:48):

Uh, you and I also chatted about the whole introvert extrovert divide on this issue, which is really interesting as well. I mean, I do consider myself, uh, you know, an introvert. And so again, I am like, yeah, remote so way to go. Um, but you were talking about how a lot of the extroverts in your organization kind of itching to get back into the office. Yeah.

Jim Butman (15:08):

So the salespeople are back, you know, they, they want to be, they get energized, you know, extroverts get energized being around people, introverts, introverts, they have to flex. Right. But they just assume not have to deal with people, you know? So, um, you know, it's this, like I say, it's kind of polarizing in that people who, one of the concerns I have cause remote work works, but I think we need some face-to-face meetings. Right. And I, you know, I think the future work is going to be much more about is there, if you're telling me I have to come to the office, what is the purpose? And I think we have to think around the purpose of coming to the office.

Michael Gardon (15:57):

Yeah. Oh, that's really interesting. I mean, as I've gotten questions on this, I've kind of described it as I think the near term to medium term future is hybrid, right. Organizations are going to figure out a way to either cycle teams through, um, every other day or have, you know, dedicated space for certain teams and others can say, you know, no, I'm going to go fully remote or there's going to be this mix. How are you thinking about that in planning?

Jim Butman (16:27):

Yeah. Uh, so you know, some of the challenges you've got to remember, we got, uh, we have a lot of real estate, right. You know, we've got to make some calls here, so we don't know what it's gonna look like three years from now, but I'll tell you how we're making the call. I mean, you got to pick a course, so we're definitely in the hybrid. Um, but we're making decisions that we're going to kind of pick the middle ground and we're going to reduce our office footprint space over the next several years by probably 50%. Um, and then of course the work environment we're going to have to modify because it's going to be much more plugin. I'm not going to have my office with my pictures and my trophies, you know? And so we're going to do we're, we're, we're going to start volunteer for those that want to come in.

Jim Butman (17:18):

But I've told all my leaders here's, here's what I've asked my leaders. I said, I am going to pick as the leader of you days that I would like you in the office or for certain types of meetings, there are with purpose. They're highly collaborative. There's a lot of passion and debate in these meetings. And I think I've watched even some of our introverts on video calls, they shut down more. Right. And it's a little harder without the hand gestures and watching all of the signals around the room. So I'm going to create, I'm setting out Mondays is our day to really get going. And I'm saying we'll always have remote workers, but I want my leaders in the office on Monday, I'm going to start here. Right? And then there's certain meetings. We have a cadence of governance meetings, whether it's our capital review meeting or invest in people meeting our op monthly operations, our leadership meetings, there's certain ones that are going to be more effective in person.

Jim Butman (18:23):

And then the other thing I want to do is I told my leaders, I want to pick mine that I want you to pick for your teams when you want them in the office. And we think this thing's going to come out to sort of a hybrid 50% of the time. Right. But the other thing, you know, Mike, that I want to create is I actually want to create some opportunities for people to be face-to-face because, um, I want, after a day on a Monday, it's a nice day. I want to say, Hey, let's all go over to, you know, there's a place by our building called Elvino, let's go over and have a glass of wine. Let's just go, go, you know, be friends and be who we are. And I think if we totally lose that, it's going to be problematic over time. So I want to create purpose full meetings. And then your leaders, you know, you're, you're big boys and girls, you know, make your decisions on what is most effective for your date. And then I think if that cascades and I, and so my philosophy is pick meetings with purpose that you want in person, and then find some opportunities to bring people together. Those are, those are kind of, kind of be my philosophy.

Michael Gardon (19:34):

Yeah. Makes, makes sense. I think if there's something as small as you even get, um, even just three people on a video call and the back, the back and forth can't happen, you know, you use talk over each other and it drops off because the microphone's trying to pick up, you know, who's actually talking. And so that is difficult. Any type of innovation, collaboration, you know, whiteboard sessions are really hard. Again, I'm fortunate because most of our business can be done. What I call asynchronously. Right. Like I can, I make sure everybody in my organization writes really, really well because, um, I may have to throw it to somebody in a different time zone and I might have to throw it to a, you know, a, a classic example is I have, uh, a mother who just had a baby, right? Like she is dealing with a number of issues around sleep cycle and sleep schedule and all that. And she prefers to, you know, work late at night. So I, there isn't an expectation that something has to get done immediately. We can do it in this asynchronous fashion, but man, if you're, you know, if you're really in collaboration mode or chewing through a really tough problem, that is difficult in a remote setting.

Jim Butman (20:49):

For sure.

Michael Gardon (20:51):

I wanted to, uh, I kind of skipped the question in here. And so this is a little out of order, but I really wanted to, um, I really wanted to get your take on what were the sort of the few, the first few days or weeks of pandemic planning, like for you. I mean, we're, we're coming into, let's say February getting into March and this is getting real. Right. Um, and how, like, how did that, how did that go? I'm kind of looking for like an insider view and the, you know, in the C suite of how this just sorta sorta went.

Jim Butman (21:23):

Yeah. Well, you know, the first thing is, you know, it's funny you've made, this is this real right. I mean, we, we went through stages of, this is crazy. This is overreaction, right. We went through some of that early on. And, um, you know, I think even the pendulum, as I said, went both ways in early on. I mean, if I go back to March of last year, nobody would dare get on an airplane. Well, March of this year, um, most are not vaccinated any, at least consumers, not businesses, but the airports were jam. I flew, we flew out to Seattle and see our daughter into her and the Seattle airport, Chicago air was just shoulder to shoulder people, you know? So people's attitudes really changed throughout this. Right. Um, but the first, you know, the first weeks we were in constant judgment mode, right?

Jim Butman (22:19):

And like I said, we had to make decisions around salespeople and compensation that they can't be earning their commissions. Are we going to pay them at, you know, at kind of a, what, what is a full quota? I mean, we didn't want to lay anybody off. So what we did is we had to make decisions on mobilizing sales people in a different roles and saying, Hey, relax, we're going to pay you. We're going to, we're gonna take a longer-term view because we don't want to lose our talent. We're going to take care of you during this time. And then even our technicians going in people's homes, they got to go in people's basements in their, in their homes. We, we found technology where they can use their phones and take control of the person's phone in the house. And the person could hold it up to the modems and the connection and tell them what to do.

Jim Butman (23:11):

You know, it was fascinating. The pace, I always say, keep using this. Necessity's the mother of invention, but our backs were up against the wall. And I always say, when your backs are up, up against the wall, quite frankly, as long as you don't freak out, you actually make better decisions because they're like, we got to make this decisions. Folks. We just can't screw around here. Right. So we generally made decisions around the long run and safety. Right. Um, and then, you know, we gradually eased up and you, we had people, there were people that, you know, this whole environment there's those that they don't want anybody coming into the home. And then other people are like, no problem, come in. So we just had to respect largely that we are going to be very heavy on protective gear and, um, protocols. And if somebody doesn't want us coming in their home, then we're not coming in their home.

Michael Gardon (24:09):

So your comment about, um, you know, constraints, right? Like, uh, when your back's up against the wall, it's, it's so true. You can get a lot of productivity, you can get a lot of things done when you actually place constraints, um, and not have, you know, every decision under the sun that you have to make or, or, or whatever. So it's kind of like this making decisions by deduction and reducing possibility, uh, is really a clarifier. Um, I wanted to ask you again, going back to kind of the beginning, your journey from one company, all the way to CEO, what can people learn from you here in a couple of minutes about what it, what it takes to, to get to the top, what it takes to, if somebody wants to become CEO, what does that take?

Jim Butman (25:05):

Yeah. You know, you made a comment about writing. You expect your people are right. So I always give advice to young people coming out of school is there's some really key skills that you have to have to rise in a company. And I'm going to people don't like to hear this, but you need a strong finance background. You, you can not, I mean, look, at the end of the day, you can be an engineer. You can be a marketing or sales. You better have strong finance, most small businesses fail because of finances. Right? And you can be this wild entrepreneur with great ideas, but if you don't have your numbers, you're likely going to fail or you better have somebody that's got their numbers. So, you know, getting those, writing skills, those speaking skills, those collaboration skills and the finance skills are key. Right. So, um, you know, and the other thing is hard work, right?

Jim Butman (26:01):

I mean, I, in integrity, right? You just don't cross that integrity line. And you show, especially that, you know, when there's anything, that's an impropriety, you deal with it immediately. And even if it's going to hurt, because you got this rockstar sales pers person who does something stupid, you're going to fire him, you're gonna get rid of him. You know, you just can't allow that cancer to come in. So, um, you know, I'm very fortunate in, I think sometimes, uh, you know, I think, uh, look, any high-performing person is always, probably generally, except for the egomaniacs, you know, you just kind of like, you know, how did I get here some days I pinched myself. Right. But, you know, in fairness, hard work honesty, um, trust the other thing that I'm probably the, um, one of the track records I have is I'm really proud of my people selection ability.

Jim Butman (27:03):

And I think that's at the core of who you can, you know, you have good intuition cause you can never totally know. And you know, one of my real asset tests for leaders that I hired is I, I want to find out in their life somewhere where they struggled, you know, a struggled with a very difficult situation. And then I like to hear how they dealt with it, right? Because business, at the end of the day, Mike, we're just problem solvers, right. It is day in and day out it's problems, you know? And so you gotta be good at, at knowing how to crawl out of barrels, you know? And, and I love when somebody has had very big, long sleepless nights, whether it's a personal situation. And I love to hear that story of how did they overcome that because too often, if you, if you promote somebody who's never really had a really tough firing or a really tough face to really tough ethical issue, how are they going to deal with this when, you know, they're 20 years into their career, even 15. So

Michael Gardon (28:17):

Very, very, very interesting. Yeah. Um, thank you so much for sharing your time and experience with us. Is there anything you want to close with? Anything where, uh, you need to tell people about where they can find you or more about the work that you're doing or just anything at all?

Jim Butman (28:36):

You know, I think you talked about this is, this is a podcast for younger people. And I would just say in the end, um, my advice to young people get as much into your point might get as much diverse experience as you can. Um, the mistake I made and a lot of graduates made is you tend to look at the big, high flying companies like Amazon and Google and all these, Oh, I want to go to work for them. I'm going to warn you that those are not necessarily where you learn the most. You learn the most in small businesses that are growing at a good pace. I mean, you get to, you work for these really large companies. You are so specialized in what you do that you don't really, if you really want to grow in, in, you know, um, progress in a company, you need a really a portfolio of finance sales, marketing, technical, because at some day you're going to be leading all those different disciplines and you need to know how those you, those different disciplines things. So don't, don't think, well, I don't want that job because it's with XYZ company. Here's what I'm going to tell you. And you don't know enough and just go for it. And here's the beauty about being young. You've got a long runway, so you can make a lot of mistakes, right. And you have a lot of years to correct. So don't be conservative, go for it. And if it doesn't work, do something else. So I hope that's helpful.

Michael Gardon (30:12):

Amen. Couldn't agree with that. More. I think large companies, even at large tech companies are kind of like the old investment banks or being a lawyer kind of a thing. Right. A lot of people went into those areas because of the money was there and you know, haven't had it workout. I absolutely, when you're young take the risks because you can recover so much, your risk tolerance goes down as you age and have more responsibilities. So I think that's fantastic advice really appreciate it. This has been an awesome conversation. It's great to catch up with you again. Thanks so much for being here.

Jim Butman (30:52):

Well, good luck, Mike. Uh, keep, keep the podcast going. I hope they're helpful to your users. I'm sure they are. You did a nice job. Thanks. Thank you.