Comcast Cable Executive Vice President of Human Resources Bill Strahan discusses how he drives his department to positively affect every area of the organization.
Bill Strahan, Executive Vice President of Human Resources (HR) at Comcast Cable, makes sure to lead by focusing on the company as a whole, not simply on his HR Department. This approach makes for a highly functional organization, and it creates an inclusive atmosphere.
“One of the things I love about HR is that we deal with the entire company,” Strahan said. He is particularly good at working across all disciplines because of what he learned in law school, which was “to think about the elements of an issue and be able to separate the pieces of an argument; not only to look at things broadly, but also to look at things by taking them apart and seeing how all the pieces go together.”
Earning his law degree at night was challenging, but it helped prepare Strahan for the rest of his career, especially in that his program required one year of quantitative methods. While this is common now, at the time he was afforded rare exposure to economics, accounting, finance and statistics. He says it was very practical and great personal grounding.
In keeping with Strahan’s success working throughout the company, he has made a concerted effort to create an inclusive environment that is never one of “us vs. them.” He explains that this is accomplished in large part because the company “provides really outstanding training experiences that bring together leaders.”
“One of the things I love about HR is that we deal with the entire company.”.”
Comcast hosts two programs, Executive Leadership Forum (ELF) and Fundamentals of Leadership (FOL), aimed at bringing people from all different disciplines together and putting them into a common leadership experience. “Most importantly, it exposes them to the senior leaders of the company,” Strahan said. “It gives them a common body of thinking about where the organization is headed, the values that our leaders share, a little bit about getting a common experience of leading.”
Every year, each ELF team, comprised of eight to 10 people, conducts a case study in an area outside of their expertise. The goal is to help them develop a broad view of the company, thus increasing their ability to impact culture within the organization.
“The HR group is really taking the notion of having to be fierce about talent very seriously,” Strahan added. By fierce, he said, he means looking at who they want in the company to drive it forward in the years to come. As such, the HR group is always thinking about the company’s future, which keeps them thinking about the company as a whole.
“We love rotational programs, and taking great talent and bringing them through a lot of different parts of the company,” Strahan noted. “And it’s hard to have ‘us and them’ when you’ve worked in three or four different places.”
The Business at the Forefront
Strahan stresses the importance of leading with the business at the forefront. “When you’re a technology company,” he said, “it tends to push you toward [asking], ‘What’s the next iteration? What’s the next development? What’s the next milestone that the product can hit?’” Instead of trying to improve his HR Department by talking with other companies’ counterparts, he likes to “link up against the goals of the company” so that all company departments work together toward success.
The HR team starts every department meeting with a companywide business overview, then they prioritize work. “We want to make sure that the HR team has really good walking-around knowledge of what’s on the product roadmap, what’s on the service roadmap, where have the failures been, and what’s being done to recover from them,” Strahan said.
By leading in this way, he ensures that his team is always thinking about what drives value in the business. “We really like to start by asking ‘What is the business objective that this is tied to?’ as opposed to HR sort of having its own motivation to do something.”
Strahan knows firsthand that when the needs of the business are not kept at the head during decision-making, work is not done efficiently. When Comcast needed a more sophisticated sales relationship with the customer, it needed to have a sales compensation management system that would keep up with the evolving, more consultative approach that the business was using. But it didn’t go as smoothly as hoped.
After beginning with the business needs, the HR Department did not continue to work sufficiently together with the other departments to ensure everything was in line with what needed to be done. “We thought that we knew best how to structure compensation management and what the needs of the system would be because compensation is traditionally an HR function,” Strahan said. “And when we delivered it, we missed on a couple things.” The result was wasted time and effort, ill feelings, and work that needed to be redone. Maintaining a partnership with the business is a huge priority.
The Beauty of Project Work
In developing talent and guiding people to management positions, Strahan likes to use project work because it allows people to make mistakes and learn from them, without directly affecting the customer experience.
“When you’re a technology company that has a big engineering focus as to how we go to the market, people have to know that they need the freedom to fail, to fix it, to redesign it, and move on,” he said.
Project work accomplishes this, building confidence and skills. People learn how to recover and learn from mistakes, which Strahan finds to be an important quality in a manager. “We deploy what’s called an agile method of development, and being agile is knowing that you’re going to make mistakes and you have to recover,” he said.
In Strahan’s career, he has had two mentors who were especially impactful. Nan Russell and Katherine McKenzie each taught him lessons he still carries with him today.
“One of the things that Nan taught me is that you really do have to know the business,” Strahan said. “There’s not an independent agenda. The HR agenda should be the agenda of the organization as a whole.”
Adopting this outlook and approaching his work this way is one of the reasons Strahan especially enjoys his job. Russell also pointed out that competition is a good thing—something that is occasionally forgotten in HR.
From McKenzie, Strahan learned “that you have to have the courage to tell people the truth of what’s going on.” HR people facilitate dialogue by communicating with executives and employees throughout the whole organization. “The gift is knowing how to do it in a constructive way that helps move the organization forward.”♦
Thoughts on Teaching
Every few years, Strahan teaches at Villanova’s graduate school. This allows him not only to share his expertise, but also to learn and connect with people in different ways. Here, he shares some related food for thought:
- “I think that when you have to teach something, you really have to organize your thoughts in a way to convey it clearly and simply and in a logical format.”
- “Stopping to prepare for those classes makes me step back and rethink, ‘What do I think is true about the workplace? What’s true about labor markets at this point?’”
- “I teach a graduate compensation course, where I talk a lot about how to incentivize great talent. By taking the quiet time necessary to prepare how I’m going to present material to these really talented graduate students at Villanova, I am also analyzing the experience that I’ve had here at Comcast, where we focus on that incentive for talented people every day. I have to really reflect on it and ask, ‘What’s true about it? How does it work? What are the pieces of it?’ So then I can take that experience from my workplace and bring it into the classroom.”
- “The learning occurs a little bit from the dialogue with the students, but frankly a lot of it occurs from reflection on what we do here every day.”
Favorite quote… “Remember, Bill, when you get angry, you get stupid.” – Marie Strahan, Bill’s wife of 28 years
Books I recommend…
“The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a time of Brilliant Technologies” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (It’s my current obsession and I give out a lot of copies to people.)
“Integrity” by Dr. Henry Cloud (To me it’s a body of thought that has stood the test of time.)
Things I carry with me… iPhone 5S; always have my laptop – always; public transit cards from Philadelphia, NYC and Chicago, at least
Apps on my phone I can’t do without… Xfinity Home, Xfinity Connect, Seven Little Words
I can’t start my day unless…I have coffee.
I don’t consider my day done unless…I tell my kids that I love them.
I start my day by…Looking at “Squawk Box” on CNBC, “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, and then reading The Wall Street Journal.
Favorite leader… Abraham Lincoln. He was courageous, intellectual and practical.
My definition of retirement… Never flying on a “red eye” again, ever.
I unwind from my day by… Cooking dinner for my family.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is…Sometimes to get people to buy into your plan, you need to know when and how to take a punch.
It’s 5:00 on Friday, and my drink of choice is…A bold Italian red wine—maybe a Brunello.
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