Hitting The Books At Comcast University

Staci D. Kramer

Steve Burke’s training center-don’t worry, he’ll know your name by the end of class-is key to the MSO’s hopes to triple in size.

Every two weeks for the last two years, Comcast Cable president Steve Burke has told the groups of executives attending training sessions at company headquarters in Philadelphia: “You’re going to wake up one day, read the newspaper and find out we’ve doubled in size. If you’re ambitious, you need to be ready for that day.”

But when he addressed the latest class at “Comcast University” via a conference call from Denver at 6:30 a.m.-the first time he’s even come close to missing a session of the leadership institute he spear-headed-he changed his tune a bit. “We’re not doubling; we’re tripling,” he told them before heading out to pitch investors on Comcast’s proposed takeover of AT&T Broadband.

The 1,500 executives who have taken part in these sessions are at the heart of a plan hatched by Burke to manage rapid growth. If Comcast’s bid proves successful–it was formally rejected last week by the AT&T Board–the MSO would serve more than 22 million subscribers, making it by far the largest in the nation.

“Everything we’ve been doing was to get ourselves ready for this,” Burke explained to CableWorld. That includes establishing the Comcast University–a companywide training and communications center–while encouraging executives to prepare for the company’s future and their own by succession planning. At the same time, the organization shifted from six regions to four divisions.

Burke knew when he moved to Comcast three years ago from the Walt Disney Co. that his new employer had big plans. Comcast’s attempt to acquire MediaOne prompted him to prepare the management team to lead a much larger, more complicated company.

Although AT&T bought the company instead, the changes Comcast implemented then helped the company through other acquisitions that doubled its size. Today Burke and his boss, Comcast president and CEO Brian Roberts, tout Comcast’s management team and its integration success as part of the reason investors should support the effort to swallow AT&T Broadband.

That argument may be attractive to those who felt comfortable with Leo Hindery’s leadership at AT&T Broadband, but are disturbed by the talent drain at the top after he left. Executives from cable companies picking up former AT&T systems describe the AT&T managers who switch as eager to be part of corporate cultures where decisions are fast and local management has a say.

Corporate universities aren’t new; Comcast’s is modeled in part on high-profile programs at General Electric and McDonald’s. But Comcast University has drawn considerable attention from within the cable industry since it was selected for an industry achievement award this year.

“This sounds like a company that proactively tried to make sure it has the bench strength,” says Jeffrey Pfeifer, a professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

At a glance, Comcast University might seem like a top-down indoctrination program bent on promoting the company view. But Pfeffer says that “there’s a risk of not doing this, that you’ve got hundreds of people going in a different direction. It’s also an opportunity for people in the organization to listen to one another.”

At Comcast, Burke says, the changes began two years ago when 300 senior executives met in Phoenix to discuss key questions: How do we organize ourselves? How do we create a culture that makes us successful?

They listened to experts and successful corporate leaders, then talked about what makes companies special. “We decided there are certain characteristics of what a special company has and perhaps the most common one is a sense of mission,” Burke says.

As a follow-up, 90 Comcast employees from every level of the company gathered in Philadelphia to hammer out what became known as the Comcast Credo: “We will be the company to look to first for the communications products and services that connect people to what’s important in their lives.”

Comcast University was announced in October 1999 and began operations that quarter. Burke declined to discuss how much money is dedicated to the project, saying only, “If you look at the total and the size of company, it’s not a gigantic investment.”

Less than two years later, Comcast has trained its 1,500 top executives and guaranteed the continued participation of the most senior 50 by signing them to long-term contracts. Under the Comcast University umbrella, Comcast has established training centers across its system for the roughly 16,500 frontline employees. It has also set up courses at the Philadelphia campus for potential supervisors, technician advancement and various other sets within Comcast. Comcast U is the hub for company-wide communications, responsible for the Intranet, satellite uplinks and newsletters. Filemon Lopez, formerly senior vice president of ad sales, became president of Comcast University last summer.

At Comcast Cable, that starts with “the 50”–the senior management team responsible for creating a unified workforce out of the 18,000 Comcast employees (only 300 are at corporate headquarters) and some 50,000 from AT&T Broadband.

That group of 50 executives includes the four division presidents (Steven A. Burch, Mid-Atlantic; Michael A. Doyle, East/West; John H. Ridall Jr., Southern; and David A. Scott, Midwest.), area vice presidents, regional vice presidents and other senior executives. Within that is a subset that makes up Burke’s executive committee. The executive committee meets every two weeks. A larger operations group meets every six weeks. A small group of top executives travel with Burke every week to various Comcast systems.

He stressed the long-term contracts during sessions with analysts and investors, not to reassure about stability but to make a point about leadership. “A cable company is not run by one person. I’m responsible for Comcast Cable, [but] the people who really run Comcast cable are first the 50 senior execs and the 200 people who report to them.”

“I talk to each of these 50 people at least once a month. I know the names of their kids,” says Burke. When he called one division president recently they spent more time talking about his wife’s knee surgery than about the AT&T bid. Many of the executives have been relocated throughout the country during the past two years to prepare for greater responsibilities. For instance, Comcast says a merger with AT&T could mean an increase to seven divisions making room for three more division presidents.

But it takes the roughly 1,500 executives with a significant number of reports to make it all work. That’s why Comcast University has been so important to Comcast’s future. “If we want to change the culture of our company the fastest way to do that is to go to the 1,500,” Burke says.

Establishing Comcast University as a training and communications center was a way to provide the tools that would help employees at every level carry out the mission.

At the center is “The Spirit of Comcast,” the mandatory three-day session for everyone in the top 1,500. The 50 to 75 member groups are a mix of veterans and newcomers, as well as departments and management levels. It’s all off the record, and all but the most personal questions get an answer from Burke, Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman Ralph Roberts and the other speakers.

Sometimes the give-and-take solves problems. When Comcast was having trouble recruiting, someone suggested offering signing bonuses. Then another employee suggested promising a free computer instead. The result: Every frontline employee who stays more than 12 months gets a free computer and free @Home service. It not only helps increase recruiting, but if each employee then sells two @home accounts a year the program pays for itself.

Says Burke, “It’s a very intense three days. At the end of the day, they really understand the company. Part of management or leadership is saying `Here’s where we’re going to go.’ It’s also saying `Here’s what that means; here’s your piece.’

When he talks about doubling or, now, tripling, Burke tells the executives in the room that if they want to grow with the company, it’s up to them to train their successors. He offers division presidents as an example.

“The reason why those guys have been able to move up is they have a team underneath them who can move up,” he tells them. “I’ve been preaching get ready, it’s coming.”

Burke himself has been hiring senior cable veterans, many formerly with Continental, who can step up and run a 500,000- or 1 million-subscriber cluster. “Some people jokingly referred to it as a shadow government,” he said. He tells the hires: “Take a bet. You’re going to get bigger.”

General managers can’t be hired without a trip to Philadelphia to meet with Burke and his senior management. And no one without field experience can become a GM.

“At the end of the day our belief is the majority of the heavy lifting in the cable business is done locally,” says Burke.

Burke and Roberts haven’t been shy about claiming that Comcast can manage AT&T properties better. But they know they’re walking a fine line when it comes to the morale of the managers they hope to keep on board.

“My sense is there are a number of good people at AT&T,” he said carefully. “The way we’re doing this is a difficult way to do it.”

As for how Comcast would run things, says Burke, “what I constantly say is we’ve done a lot of this integration work [and] there isn’t a bias. There’s a certain humility in the way we look at things. There are a lot of different ways to run cable systems.”

He adds, “Our feeling is you run into trouble when you try to do everything the same way.”

Comcast Cable doesn’t have a policy manual. Burke tells people, “If you’re waiting for our standard operations procedure book you’re going to be waiting a long time because we’re never going to have one.”

It is the antithesis of the Disney culture he left for Comcast. “I think Disney overcontrols and think my model would be much closer to a GE model.”

“If a person is hitting their numbers and they have a good reason for doing what they’re doing … we don’t overmanage these field operations.”

Comcast has promised investors it will raise AT&T’s margins dramatically. Changing the corporate culture and the bottom line at the same time will put Burke–and his Comcast U.–to the test.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Copyright by Media Central Inc., A PRIMEDIA Company. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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