Given that both regulation and advocacy are about conflict and compromise, Michael Powellwas born to his most prominent roles as a top communications policymaker and, since 2011, president of the NCTA-The Internet & Television Association.
Service to country comes naturally for Powell, who has always had a high bar to aim for as the son of former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The younger Powell earned his stripes as an Army officer, attorney, first in private practice, then as a government attorney—he was chief of staff in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division—FCC commissioner, then chairman of that agency. Michael Powell
Powell says some simple themes have guided his career path, including measuring growth by the people you get to work for and “picking the job that scares you the most” because that is the one that pushes the envelope.
He says the FCC chairmanship was one of a list of jobs he almost talked himself out of before following that advice.
“My father always told me that, when you are young, you have to accept that other people know your capabilities better than you do,” says Powell, “and you should trust what they tell you, which was pretty important advice at the time.”
They told him: You can do this job. So he did.
After exiting that post and spending some time in the financial world, Powell was tapped to succeed Kyle McSlarrow atop NCTA.
A former college gymnast, he made his debut at NCTA in 2011 with a forward roll at his inaugural convention atop the trade group—a repeat performance from when he addressed the convention a decade before as FCC chair—and has kept the association moving in that direction ever since.
“I think we really had to dig deep and learn better the art of advocacy 2.0 in the world of digitalization and social networks,” says Powell.
“It is a work in progress,” he says. That included “dramatically re-conceptualizing the Cable Show into INTX,” then scrapping it entirely, concluding that exhibit floors and stilted schedules” were an anachronism. He also says NCTA has “further deepened our relationships with key public policy leaders.”
Powell gets high marks from his NCTA predecessor, now an executive with Comcast.
“It is hard to overstate the impact Michael has had on our industry,” says McSlarrow. “From critical policy calls when in government that have stood the test of time and helped to ensure a robust, competitive marketplace that rewards investment and innovation to his current role, fighting the good fight... Michael has always conducted himself with class and vision.”
An admitted tech-head, Powell can, and does, wax rhapsodic about the wonders of the latest iteration of wireless router or the progress toward more user-friendly onscreen guides. On intricate and complicated policy issues, he is as ready to wade into the weeds as a master gardener.
As FCC chairman, Powell was focused even then on advancing broadband as voice, video and data moved from analog to digital, as well as on promoting broadcasting through efforts to deregulate media ownership regs. That prompted criticism, as did his decision on fines in the Janet Jackson and Bono cases. But his four-year run as George W. Bush’s appointee also saw the FCC’s first official pledge to promote an open internet.
But Powell says he counts his victories more by the “eulogy” virtues than “resume” ones.
“I would rather someone say of me someday, ‘He was a great person to work with, he was a great leader, a good friend, great colleague, and knew how to get things done.’”
Cue Tom Rutledge, Charter chairman and chairman of the NCTA board: “I have worked with Michael for many years and he has had an enormous impact on the cable industry, both as chairman of the FCC and now as president and CEO of the NCTA. It takes a dynamic leader to succeed at running an organization that represents a large number of constituents, with widely varying views, on a host of complex and nuanced issues. Michael has proven himself as such a leader at the FCC, the NCTA and throughout his career.”
A key factor is his development as a leader has been Powell’s strong connection with his roots.
He was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, as the Civil Rights movement was reaching a boil. His mother held him as a baby only “four churches down” as the 16th Street Baptist Church exploded after a bombing, killing four young children.
“For me, that has profound significance. Having had parents who were in and around it and grew up with it, they are civil rights heroes to me too,” Powell says.
When he was fresh out of Georgetown Law School, Powell clerked for Judge Harry Edwards, among the first black appellate court judges in the country.
Powell says Edwards sat him down for a one-on-one and laid down the law, as it were. “‘Let me tell you something, whether you like it or not you are going to have to be better,’” Powell says Edwards told him. “‘It isn’t fair, now get over it and go be better. Go make sure you beat people so significantly that there is no explanation for you not rising other than race. Don’t sit around wallowing; learn how to fight through.’”
Powell has remained a fighter, through injury—he was seriously hurt in a training accident while an armored cavalry officer in the Army—through a Wheeler FCC that has often been at odds with NCTA’s interests, and for the equality that is the birthright of everyone regardless of skin color, asking himself: “Am I teaching young people to be the kind of tough, resilient, tenacious warriors they still need to be.”
By example? No doubt about it.