New at the top: How a firing at McDonald’s helped set the tone for Tim Murray’s career

My professional career started the day I turned 16 years old. It was my first day on the job at a McDonald’s restaurant. The general manager ran a promotional contest to see which employee could serve the most customers in one hour.

I’ll never forget that busy Saturday.

Surprisingly, the person who won the contest was fired that day.

The reason this young lady was fired was because she was more focused on productivity than being nice to the people she was waiting on.

This was one of the most formative stages of my career. I was fortunate to work in a McDonald’s restaurant where the standards were exceedingly high concerning customer service, cleanliness and quality. It set the tone for my career.


Tim Murray is the new president and chief operating officer of K12 Inc. (Photo by Frank Gensheimer/Courtesy of K12 Inc.)

When I started my professional career after graduate school at AT&T, the company was the largest corporation in the world at the time, as measured by market capitalization and employees. There were more than 1 million employees and as such, AT&T had for decades focused on leadership development and succession planning.

I was recruited into a high-risk, high-reward program where two-thirds of the people hired wouldn’t last three years. This wasn’t a training program. We were given a lot of responsibility with very difficult jobs.

On my first day with the company, I had some 80 employees working under me. It was the first time I’d ever managed in a unionized environment.

I began to make a name for myself by taking businesses that were less than average in performance and, within a matter of quarters, demonstrate that our performance was moving toward, and in some cases became, best-in-class performance in the company.

I spent 21 years at AT&T and by the time I retired, I was one of a handful of people in a succession pool to be chief executive, which is what I was trained to do.

Since then, over the past 11 years, I’ve either been the chief executive or chief operating officer of a number of technology companies.

I would come into a company that was underachieving its potential, work with the team to quickly asses the situation, determine the path to success, build a game plan to achieve it and then focus on execution.

Success has generally come from 5 percent planning and 95 percent execution. Execution was typically the result of focusing on the basics — what customers want, how well we’re serving them, focusing on business processes, business models and how all the dots come together to produce the predicted results.

I see how the education industry is going through the same transformation as all the companies I’ve led — going from an analog to a digital world.

I am at that stage of my career where it’s important for me to make a difference.

I’ve been a part of companies where the focus is on making money. People don’t get up in the morning and think about making more money when they come to work, but they do wake up and think about how to improve the state of education for our children. I am thrilled to participate in such an important segment of society.

Interview with Vanessa Small

Tim Murray

Position: President and chief operating officer of K12, a technology based education program based in Herndon.

Career highlights: Chief executive, PulsePoint; chief executive, ContextWeb; chief operating officer, Dialogic; chief executive, Cross Match Services; chief operating officer, Cross Match Technologies; chief executive, Riversoft; president of business network services and executive vice president of business services operations, AT&T.

Age: 55

Education: BS, management engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; MS, management engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; executive education, Harvard Business School.

Personal: Married to Debbie. They have two children, Patrick and Christen.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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