Kate Johnson is based in Denver in her role as Lumen Technologies CEO and president, but she has been spending a lot of time in the Seattle area recently, and not just because one of the local stadiums bears the company’s name.
Johnson sees the Seattle region as an ideal test bed and proving ground for Lumen’s offerings, including consumer and business broadband, voice, and data services.
Yes, it helps that she has a home here, as a holdover from her prior role as Microsoft’s U.S. president. But beyond that, she cites the region’s importance as a major U.S. tech hub, home to the biggest cloud platforms, with a strong tech community, and tech-savvy customers interested in fiber internet service.
“The market is growing, and we are well-positioned to serve it,” she said. “I’ve been spending time making sure we’re making the appropriate investments, that I’m understanding our opportunities, and that we’re capitalizing on them.”
It’s part of a broader effort by Johnson and her team to reinvent the publicly traded telecom company, which was formed by the combination of Level 3 Communications and CenturyLink in 2017 and rebranded as Lumen in 2020. Johnson was named Lumen CEO a year ago and took over in November 2022.
Educated as an engineer, with experience at companies including Oracle, Red Hat, and Deloitte, Johnson is one of 53 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. She is charged with sparking new growth at a company that reported a net loss of $1.5 billion last year, after special charges, on revenue of $17.5 billion, down 11%.
In a recent interview at Seattle’s Lumen Field, she discussed topics including:
The evolution of the telecommunications industry and the need to reinvent the classic telecom business model amid the rapid increase in data and the rise of generative artificial intelligence.
“Companies are looking at, how the heck do I move these huge swaths of data from place to place, in a dynamic fashion in between networks. And here we are in telecom being uniquely positioned to serve in that way. But our business models haven’t really evolved to support it,” Johnson said.
“Right now, it’s our network, and you have to meet us somewhere in the middle in order to consume it. Our view of the future is really about cloudifying telco. And I sense that we’re going to see the same change patterns that happened as AWS, Microsoft, Google, and other companies really built up the cloud business in the world today.”
Her ongoing efforts to change Lumen’s culture, including an unusual series of internal meetings that have been ultimately constructive but initially unsettling for some longtime employees and executives.
“We have a pact at the door: we don’t record the meetings, and I won’t use names, because there’s still places where people fear bringing problems to the table. Less so since I started, but it’s still there. But then when they see me listen, and then we actually fix a problem, it gets kind of exciting. And that’s happened a bunch.”
Lessons from Microsoft’s transformation, and her recent experiences using Microsoft 365 Copilot as part of her work. Lumen is one of the companies piloting Microsoft’s corporate AI tools prior to their broader release.
Johnson and her team are using the technology to record and summarize meetings, send follow-up reminders, create initial drafts of content, and assess how inclusive meetings are, among other functions.
“It does not remove the need for our people to be intimately involved with detail, to understand what the key takeaways are,” she said. “Part of that’s training the models, and the other part is, our people are just learning now how to move up the value chain, what work they do and they don’t do.”
Audio editing by Curt Milton.