Cable execs say it takes hard work and a strong sense of purpose
By Stuart Miller -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/14/2008 8:00:00 PM
The cable industry has long strived for diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism in the workplace. But executives agree that over the last year and a half, as the nation followed a historic presidential primary race between an African-American and a woman—operators and networks ramped up their recruitment and career-building efforts.
“Our efforts have been underway for many years but we've turned up the intensity,” says Cindy McConkey, senior VP of corporate communications for Scripps Networks. Eighteen months ago, the company hired Chris Powell, an African-American from outside the cable industry, as executive VP of human resources.
“He brings a new point of view to the executive committee,” McConkey says. “People see this effort at first and think it's just the politically correct thing to do, but there is a strong and obvious business case to be made. When you look at the economy, power is shifting and the makeup of the consumer is shifting, so you'd better be ahead of that.”
Says Lynne Ramsey, senior VP of human resources at Charter Communications, “Diversity has long been a priority, but it more recently came to the forefront.” She points out that the company hired director of human resources Cam McCluskey specifically to oversee diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity is really a business strategy as well as simply the right thing to do,” Ramsey explains. “Customers have to perceive us as being able to understand what their needs are.”
“We've always taken a very aggressive approach, but there is much more linkage now to the business,” says Adria Alpert-Romm, Discovery Communications' senior executive VP of human resources. “We've put more muscle behind our efforts. For a successful company, diversity is a growth trait.”
That's the story from industry executives when they discuss the opportunities and challenges and the concern of organizations with which they partner, such as the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications and Women in Cable Telecommunications.
“One challenge in getting people to understand diversity is to understand what it means,” McConkey says. “When you ask people to define diversity they get a deer-in-the-headlights look, but then everyone has a different answer.”
Notes Terri Moore, senior manager of diversity and inclusion for Time Warner Cable, “A lot of times it seems like diversity and inclusion has to do just with race and gender, but everybody has diversity aspects of their life that you can bring to the surface. If you have a room full of people that all look alike, you will still have more diversity than most people ever thought of.”
BET, for example, is looking to be inclusive by reaching out to veterans' organizations, according to VP of human resources Jocelyn Cooley. As people work later in life, the network is looking at ways to accommodate generational differences.
Most are loath to use words such as “affirmative action” or “quotas.” Still, McConkey says specific goals can be helpful—Scripps, for instance, is looking to work with at least one new minority-owned production company this year.
REPLACING THE BOOMERS
According to Monica Johnson, manager of corporate recruiting at Cox Communications, achieving diversity and inclusion is particularly crucial as the baby boomers age and more workers retire. “There will be a shortage of people—the talent crisis is just around the corner,” Johnson warns, adding that employers must also provide room for growth if they are to retain hires more interested in moving up the ranks.
BET's Cooley agrees. “There is a war for talent,” she says, noting that the Internet side of the business is hyper-competitive because every business is seeking people for that field. “It's important to identify opportunities for the new generation throughout their career, to show them a path where they can achieve.”
For many companies, diversity extends to outside suppliers, as they look to hire vendors that are female- or minority-owned. “You tend to reach for the list or pool you have worked with before; you reach into your life's Rolodex,” McConkey says. “You have to take some chances—not because they won't be as good, but because you have to break your habits while you're trying to get stuff done. You have to just let the pile of work get a little taller.”
Still, the big challenges and greatest opportunities for enduring change within the industry are in the areas of staff hiring and executive-level promotion. Progress has been made, says Kathy Johnson, president of NAMIC, at least in terms of hiring. But while the industry is roughly on par with employment patterns in lower and middle-level positions, diversity isn't as evident near the top.
So much remains to be done: Johnson says Hispanics are still under-represented and that the representation is much slower in coming at the senior management level, especially at senior VP and above. “That is our concern,” she says.
NAMIC started an executive leadership program at UCLA in 2001 to help workers develop business acumen and aid them in overcoming cultural barriers. Nearly a third of those who have come through the program received promotions and greater levels of responsibility, Johnson says.
She acknowledges that one major issue is that there simply aren't that many top-level positions around, and those tend to have less turnover. And, as Cox Communications' director of people services Sheila Stallings points out, this is an issue facing every industry.
Women, by and large, have fared better than minorities, making gains in traditionally male-dominated positions like chief financial officer—though information-technology, engineering and other technical jobs still skew heavily male.
“It is a challenge finding enough women in technical areas,” McCluskey says. But Charter has taken a new approach—last month it started targeting returning female veterans, who will have training in these areas. Charter is also reaching out to disabled veterans of either sex, while Discovery is seeking veterans trained in technical jobs as a way of attracting minorities.
Although most diversity and inclusion efforts these days focus on executive roles, network executives agree that on-air diversity is crucial. “It helps with recruiting,” McConkey says, since potential employees are viewers first. “That's our brand—what you see on the air says something about what you'll see here.”
“Your on-air talent is a chance to showcase how you really feel about diversity,” adds Marva Smalls, MTV Networks' executive VP of global inclusion strategy.
Networks and operators say a strong commitment from the top down is crucial. “It sets a tone of inclusiveness in our culture,” Cooley says.
“Leadership is imperative,” Smalls adds, explaining that MTVN CEO Judy McGrath not only says she wants all hiring nets cast wide but that she also has the networks' “best collective brain trust” among top executives who meet regularly and chair committees about diversity.
“It sends a strong signal,” Smalls says. “If they spend the same amount of time on this as they do working on a long-range plan or on their budget, it shows you are putting your time where your mouth is.”
Diversity training is key to establishing a workplace where differences are respected and valued. At Discovery Networks, Alpert-Romm says 2,000 staffers have already gone through the company's diversity awareness training program, and the rest will attend by 2009.
Time Warner Cable's Diversity Council, established in 2004, oversaw three pilot programs before finding the right one for a large-scale diversity training program. But the corporate council has now also created regional councils to bring the issue closer to home.
That kind of local touch is important in training (Cox has also set up local diversity councils) as well as in recruiting, says Seth Feit, Time Warner's VP of talent acquisition. “It depends on the demographic of the market—there are very different challenges in Los Angeles than in Lincoln, Neb.”
The question of local differences becomes increasingly significant for companies like MTV or Discovery that have a major presence in other countries. “It is very different in Singapore than in London,” says Discovery's Alpert-Romm.
Executives agree that the goal is to at least have the outreach and resources to create diverse interview slates. “For every person we hire, we want at least one diverse candidate in the interviewing pool,” Charter's Ramsay says. But to make that happen Charter must remind search firms about its commitment to the cause.
“You have to constantly be out there building a list and establishing a database of top diverse talent,” Alpert-Romm adds.
According to Debbie Stang, VP of human resources for Midcontinent Media, every detail counts in the recruitment process—from checking job descriptions to making sure the wording doesn't screen out qualified people, to publicizing the company's commitment to diversity and not relying on the same old sources for hiring.
“We tell our hiring managers to look in places they haven't looked before,” says Scripps' McConkey. “Once they get it, they understand that if they work hard to increase diversity, there'll be a value for them and the company.” Cable companies partner with NAMIC, WICT and the Emma Bowen Foundation, the National Society of Hispanic MBAs and the Society of Women Engineers.
NAMIC's Johnson and Cooley agree that while industry skills and experience come first, companies are more cognizant of matching skill sets from jobs outside cable. Time Warner's Feit adds, “For jobs like marketing or finance or human resources, there are broader, transferable skills.”
Diversity officers want to make connections, even when there's not a job involved. “People hire someone they know,” Feit says. “So we really push the exploratory meeting. It's matchmaking. If not now, then for down the road.”
Once people are hired, the company's goal shifts to developing their executive skills and to making sure they want to stay. “One of the major challenges is retention,” Ramsay says; a woman or minority candidate with leadership skills and experience is extremely marketable. She says many prospective hires are not looking just for more money but for career opportunities.
Charter has an executive development institute that gives employees a chance to work on major projects with colleagues from around the company. It has also launched a mentoring program, and Ramsay, who is one of the mentors, has found that with retention “it's amazing what a personal touch does.” But, she adds, it is equally valuable for her to be hearing the voice of the African-American woman she mentors: “She thinks about things differently and brings new ideas to the table.”
Moore says that Time Warner—which, like Charter, has set up mentoring partnerships with NAMIC and WICT—also started a formalized mentoring program within the company itself, giving employees the sense that they were connecting with upper-level executives.
MTV started a mentoring program for its senior-level African-American executives. That program was started in response to requests from employees, and executives like Smalls cite the value of fostering grass-roots employee efforts. MTV has employee affinity groups for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, lesbians and gays, and working parents.
Discovery has set up similar groups, including one for women and one for veterans. Some baby boomers, who feel like outsiders at the young-skewing company, are considering starting their own group, according to Alpert-Romm. “[The groups are] for employees that want to pull together,” she says.
AD EXECS, TOO
NAMIC's Johnson hopes to see gains in one department where people of color remain largely underrepresented in the cable industry—ad sales.
Because many staffers in those departments originally come from ad agencies, Johnson says the problem needs correcting not just in the cable world but on the agency side.
“The ad agencies are a feeder,” Discovery's Alpert-Romm agrees. “If they're not out there, then we have to make an effort to develop a pipeline.”
Johnson thinks cablers are aware of this issue, and that even ad agencies and their clients are increasingly attuned to the necessities of diversity and inclusion. Still, Johnson says progress takes time and the challenge is making sure companies stay committed—“even when there is a recession or consolidation, we have to make sure it is a priority.”
Midcontinent Media's Stang agrees, saying that ultimately it is a business decision: “We have a lot of other commitments that take up our time, but this has to stay in the forefront. We need our leaders out there to show a constant commitment to diversity.”
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