Therese O’Brien, a national account executive with Tessco Technologies, said she thought she was interviewing with representatives of a light bulb manufacturer when she applied for a job with GTE Mobilenet in 1988. She saw the job advertised in the help wanted section of a Sunday newspaper.
“In 1988, there was no internet, which made it difficult to research the company I was going to interview with,” O’Brien said. “I thought I was interviewing for a sales position with GE, the light bulb people.”
O’Brien drove her mustard yellow Pinto station wagon for an hour through a snowstorm to Baltimore to meet with her interviewers, who had come from Tampa, Florida. “They said, ‘If you can make it, we will be here,’” O’Brien said. “I completed the interview and I asked them, ‘So, where do light bulbs fit into all of this?’ Nevertheless, they offered me the job. Walking back to my car in the snow, I completely wiped out on the parking lot. So I consider that the day I fell into wireless.”
Wild, Exciting Industry
It was her lucky day, O’Brien said. “Little did I know I was landing in the brightest technology in a wild and exciting dynamic industry.”
After two years with GTE Mobilenet, Obrien decided to look for a new adventure and went on job interviews. “One gentleman said my voice sounded like Minnie Mouse and that no one would ever take me seriously,” she said. “He said that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to start smoking a pack a day. Can you imagine?”
O’Brien accepted a position with another wireless industry company in the Baltimore area, Tessco Technologies, in 1990. “I was a young woman in a male-dominated industry,” she said. “I had no technical background and little knowledge of how the cellular system worked. At GTE, they didn’t explain it much. I am not sure I even understood how the antennas got onto the towers.”
Tessco, a distributor and manufacturer of wireless infrastructure equipment and mobile device accessories, assigned O’Brien a customer group of tower contractors. Her job was to talk with them frequently and build relationships. She said she was nervous about talking with them because she had no idea what they might want.
“I decided to be myself and ask questions,” O’Brien said. “The customers loved sharing their knowledge with me. They loved to describe what they were doing, where they were using the product and how it all came together. The contractors became my teachers, and they still are, today. Two tower contractors who called in 1995 said a new group was forming, the National Association of Tower Erectors. They said, ’You need to get involved.’ So we did, right away.”
Being part of a team took on meaning for O’Brien, who said that as a child, she didn’t play sports and was not competitive by nature. Yet once she started selling, she said, she wanted to be the No. 1 salesperson, then a manager, and then a vice president. “I had found my team,” she said.
O’Brien said she threw herself into her job. When most people went home at 5 p.m., she stayed and did a little extra. She said that doing a little extra got her noticed and led to a promotion. “Education is important, and intelligence, talent and skill — but I really believe that the critical pieces are pride and enthusiasm,” she said.
Finding her new leadership position exciting, challenging and, at times, stressful, O’Brien said she read leadership books, talked people who already were in leadership roles and came to the conclusion that good leaders understand that their teams’ success is their own success. A good leader is not afraid to hire people who are better than they are, she said.
“Managing a large group can be difficult,” O’Brien said. “It can feel like a juggling act, trying to meet the needs of your team, meet the needs of your customers and meet the needs of the senior management above you. Keeping your team motivated and keeping the morale high can feel like your full-time job.”
There always will be people who never are happy, who react negatively to any and all change and who attempt to move others toward their view, O’Brien said. “That’s why you have to stay strong in your convictions, set boundaries and find a balance between work and home life,” she said. “Finding that balance as a manager was difficult for me. I was the only woman leader in the company at the time, and the only person who was a leader who didn’t have a spouse or a family waiting for me at home at night. So, if I needed to stay late and work, so what? Everybody figured, why not?”
Balanced Work, Home Life
O’Brien learned that a balanced work and home life is important for everyone, even a single woman. She said that once she realized this, she acquired a golden retriever puppy, something she said she had always wanted. She said that her manager told her that if she got the dog, her career would stall, because if she couldn’t continue putting in extra hours, she would no longer be moving up into higher positions.
“Can you imagine?” she asked. “When I look back at that, I can hardly believe it. Who would ever say something like that to somebody? I continued to work hard, kept learning, met my goals, exceeded my goals, loved my dog and got promoted to vice president — proving the work-life balance is important for everybody.”
When an organizational change in 2004 did not go the way that she would have liked, O’Brien said, she left her job after many years, questioning whether she made the right choice and wondering what was next.
“If someone had told me then that the change would be the best thing for me personally and professionally, I would not have believed them,” O’Brien said. “But it turns out, it was true.”
Over the next 11 years, O’Brien had the opportunity to work with three companies, meet many people, work for talented managers, take on new roles, establish new client relationships and experience the industry from a different perspective. She continued in wireless distribution, initially in a leadership role.
O’Brien said that with wireless communications facility construction and maintenance projects comes tremendous pressure on all participants to get the job done and get it done on time. She said it can be a struggle to stay positive in the face of daily challenges.
“Everybody has an emergency,” she said. “Everybody wants you. This is when we need to call on our superpower of being calm — the superpower that I work on strengthening every single day. I also remind myself daily to stay positive. The good thing that happens may not be the biggest thing of the day, but it can be where you choose to put your focus. So, focus on the good. And when you’re on a team, be someone who motivates the rest of the team. Even small steps in the right direction deserve recognition. Give people recognition for a job well done.”
Return to Tessco
After 11 years away from Tessco, O’Brien said, she asked herself, “Where do you want to be? Do you want to stay in wireless? Do you want to stay in distribution? Do you want to work for a manufacturer, maybe go into services?”
After some thought, O’Brien said she made a call and moved on to her next adventure, returning to Tessco as a national account executive. “A lot of people say you can’t go back, but I am living proof that you can go back, and it can be a fantastic experience,” she said.
O’Brien said that throughout her career, she has had the pleasure of working with amazing men and women who gave her advice and encouragement and who taught her and helped her to become who she is today.
“I have absorbed my wireless knowledge over the years not only from my leaders but also from the vendors that I worked with, the customers and NATE members,” O’Brien said. “I am proud to work in the wireless industry, and I am also proud to be a part of the NATE organization. It has afforded me the opportunity to meet and get to know the courageous and talented men and women who build and climb the towers. Without them, where would we be? And because of them, we have so much more to look forward to in the world of wireless.”
This article, which originally ran in the July issue of AGL Magazine, is derived from a speech Therese O’Brien delivered at the National Association of Tower Erectors convention on Feb. 6. Her remarks have been edited for length and style.