James "Buck" Buckingham is a study in contrasts – he's part hype man, part drill sergeant, part mother hen, all wrapped in the cloak of an inspirational speaker that would give Tony Robbins pause. He's friendly and approachable, yet an intimidating presence: At 6-foot-6 and, by his own estimate, nearly 450 pounds, you know when he enters a room – even if that room is a massive call center in Nashville bristling with several hundred employees.
"I'm definitely the biggest guy in this building," he says with a laugh.
The building is one of T-Mobile's Customer Care Experience Centers. Buck, 36, is a coach for the Team of Experts, the company's human solution to shoddy customer care. Unlike typical call center representatives who are overly specialized in just one area, T-Mobile Experts are trained to personally handle and resolve calls from start to finish – more account supervisors with clients than simple switchboard operators – and this new model calls for a whole new breed of leadership.
Teams of 40 serve a specific area, and Buck serves one of those teams. He offers a lot more than a typical customer care manager – by way of uplift, motivation and the occasional shoulder to cry on to his frontline team. A role for which his Renaissance man background and impressive stature made him an ideal candidate.
Buck grew up in Columbus, GA, and joined the Air Force right out of high school in November of 2000. "I went all around the world a couple times," he says. "My first duty station was Misawa Air Base in Japan. That was a different culture for a young kid from Georgia. But it was fun. I loved Japan. While I was there I was part of what we called PICP, the PACAF (Pacific Air Forces) Initial Communications Package. We were mobile comm. I was an E-3, airman first class. I set up networks in the field. Anything, basically, that happened in the Eastern Hemisphere, we would be among the first communications guys to go out."
Then came 9/11, and a seismic shift in his service: "We were deployed to Afghanistan right after. We were a communications unit, but we weren't attached to any Marines or Army unit or anything like that. We were our only protection. It was tough."
After his four years were up, Buck decided to forge a career elsewhere in the government – first the Army Corps of Engineers, then the Department of Energy – relying on his technical training in the Air Force to branch out into IT. As he bounced from town to town with each new job, he also moonlighted as a successful semi-pro football lineman, even taking home a championship trophy or two.
"It's hard for me to not play football, because of my size," he says, again with a laugh. "Most places I go, somebody asks me to play on a football team somewhere."
Eventually, he got a taste for something a little different, and the former airman decided to take a flyer: He put his GI Bill to use, and enrolled in culinary school at the Atlanta outpost of famed Parisian cooking institution Le Cordon Bleu, and set out to live a chef's life, indulging in his passion for the pit: "In culinary school, I wrote six different papers about barbecue," he says. "Any piece of meat that I can smoke, I will make it the best you've ever had."
While working the line, he met his future wife, a Nashville native. Love won out, and Buck soon found himself calling Music City home, too. But restaurant work that paid a living wage proved hard to come by, and with a baby on the way and a stepson already in tow, three years ago he decided to hang up his chef's whites and, at a family member's urging, took a frontline job working the phones at the T-Mobile call center.
As with everything before, Buck's focus and determination made him a star player – but his manager thought his skills and personality would be better suited as a team leader, and quickly called him up to be a coach.
"There were three things I saw in Buck off hand," says that manager, Brian Thomas. "Respect, drive and discipline, in that order. I knew those three traits would be perfect for our site and company." Along with that thing that is unique to Buck: "His ability to command a room with his presence."
Others in the company have taken notice, too. While keeping his job coaching T-Mobile Experts on hold in Nashville, Buck was tapped to take part in a program at the company's headquarters in Bellevue, WA, called TOPs – or Team of Pros. The program is another unique training offering focused on investing in frontline employees: Leaders from care and retail like Buck are placed on teams alongside other business owners and tasked with creating innovative solutions to continually improve T-Mobile's people-focused business. The six-month program has seen tremendous success in the three years it's been up and running, boasting a 73% promotion rate amongst TOPs graduates. Additionally, Buck is a charter member of TOPs Military – a new pilot subset of the program that also aims to address specific concerns and needs of its nearly 10,000 employees that make up the company's Veterans and Allies Network (VAN).
Buck's ultimate goal is to take the training – which the company fully covers, including housing and transportation – back to Nashville and become a program manager for T-Mobile's robust Diversity and Inclusion Network (D&I). Ultimately, he'd love to focus on standardizing VAN initiatives and programs on a national level – and maybe even create a blueprint that can be built upon by other D&I groups.
"Overall, I think that TOPs is the most advanced development program that I've seen in my time at T-Mobile," says Buck. "Just having the opportunity to work alongside these brilliant people, being exposed to our leaders. Just having that access, being trusted with access and work that is on that higher level, that's an honor in itself."
This article was sponsored by T-Mobile.