Career Snapshot: Lionel Chmilewsky, CEO, Cambridge Broadband Networks (CBNL)
What was your first job?
My first role was a six-month internship with Honeywell in the USA. This took place one year before I completed my MBA in Finance at the NEOMA Business School in France. In this position, I was in charge of defining the financial and marketing business case for the introduction and launch of Honeywell ATMs for banks in the US. At the time, ATMs were only just starting to be deployed at scale.
The experience was a valuable one as it gave me inroads into what it takes for companies to really define and develop themselves as a player in a global marketplace. It was also a very exciting tech field to be a part of and a new geography for me to explore.
What led you into a career in telecoms?
When I started my career about 30 years ago I was working as a product line manager for Fairchild in Washington DC. At the time, I was the one in charge of the launch and development of a satellite earth station, or VSAT, which was a new sector and offering for the business.
During that time, Fairchild had a joint venture with Alcatel, who offered me a role once my work on the project was finished. It’s funny to think that at the time I had planned to stay in telecoms for no more than five years and, 25 years later, here I am.
For me, the permanent evolution of telecoms and the role business leaders play in this continues to captivate me. I wanted to be in a dynamic and evolving sector and to be part of something global that wasn’t limited in any way to a specific region of geography.
Without naming and shaming, tell us about your worst ever boss?
My worst experience of leadership comes from the very early stages of my career. I had a boss at the time who would arrive late and then distance himself from the team by working in his office with the door closed for the remainder of the day. Any communication he made was via hand written memos or in notes. What struck me was that, for a senior manager in charge of sales and business development, this person spent no time with customers, let alone with colleagues.
As is often the case, whilst this was my worst experience of leadership, it’s also the one from which I’ve learned the most. It taught me to be communications-focused as well as customer-focused. I believe that whatever your role, whether it’s operations, research and development, or administration, you have to be customer-centric. At the end of the day, we are all in sales.
What has been your most memorable business travel experience?
I was a young sales engineer and I had to make the journey from Paris to Sydney to close a deal with a customer. The trip was really just a formality as, prior to this, the contract had been agreed on both sides and all that remained was for the agreement to be signed. So, I flew overnight, arrived at 05:00 am, and headed straight from the hotel to my meeting. However, when I arrived, the customer explained (quite out of the blue) that they disagreed with clauses in the contract and that they weren’t going to sign.
I remember the moment vividly and in that second I made the decision to leave negotiations and fly back home. At this stage in my career, this was a huge call to make, and I remember being very nervous about how it would be perceived – especially since this deal was critical for the company and I was responsible for reporting in on progress to the group CEO. I even thought I might be fired.
Back in Paris, the CEO reassured me it was the right decision, but gave me 48 hours to resolve the issue and close the deal. Within 48 hours of arriving back in Paris, I ended up on a plane again to Sydney where the customer eventually signed the contract. All in all, I flew for a total of 72 hours in less than five days!
What has been the proudest moment in your career so far?
I’ve always been proud to be part of an industry that can improve the quality of life and help people to communicate better. A specific example of this comes from my time working for a large global telecom vendor. In this role, I was privileged to be part of a pro-bono project to deploy a small telecommunications network for disadvantaged children in Romania. Whilst this wasn’t much to the company, the effect was to serve disadvantaged children in the region with better connectivity and make their lives a little brighter.
If you had one business lesson to share with your younger self what would it be?
This is a question I continue to ask myself. For me, I think it’s all about risk and the way you weigh the risk of business decisions against the potential cost to both your personal and corporate life.
Looking back, I now appreciate that the risks you take as you’re starting out can be the most formative and have the potential to transform your career. Therefore, I’d advise my younger self to take maximum business risks as early as possible in your carrier. This is when you have very little to lose and everything to gain.