In the early ’90s, Melanie Penna was a paralegal in employment and labor law, working with organizations to ensure compliance around employment practices as well as federal and state statutes. As she was working on cases ranging from sexual discrimination to harassment complaints, she had what Oprah Winfrey would refer to as an a-ha! moment.
“It clicked in my head that I found that work really interesting and intriguing — if I could be on the inside of an organization helping to create an environment that was positive and helping the organization do all the right things, I could be preventing a lot of the lawsuits that I [was] involved in while working at the firm,” Penna said.
Bigger, Better, Faster
Coming in on the front end and being proactive as opposed to reactive seemed to be Penna’s calling. So in 1995, when an opportunity arose to work as an HR manager at Comcast, an organization she supported on a labor matter, she took it.
That was 17 years ago, when Comcast had approximately 6,000 employees. The workforce at one of the nation’s largest video, high-speed Internet and phone providers has increased exponentially to some 126,000 employees — including NBC Universal and Comcast Cable — who work in hundreds of locations across the U.S.
In April, Penna was promoted from vice president of HR, a position she’d held since 1999, to senior vice president of HR service delivery at Comcast Cable.
In 2008, Comcast experienced a paradigm shift. “We literally went from managing local transactions and talent management processes manually to company-wide automation,” she said. “Culturally, this was a huge change for us but one that was necessary for us to compete for talent.”
Penna led the implementation of the company’s first human capital management system. Before, HR transactions were processed manually and took several weeks. Similar transactions can now be completed in a fraction of the time with the automated process. Penna said that facilitated speed to market enables the organization to systemically recruit, on-board and get employees positioned for success and growth.
In addition to the time-saving aspect of the implementation, a fully integrated HR system enables talent managers to get a more holistic view of employees. From the point of hire employees are entered into the system, and their development can be easily tracked and linked to succession plans.
“It was the foundation for being able to go after talent more efficiently and effectively than we had before — really be able to home in on the development of our incumbents and be able to grow them internally in ways that we just didn’t have line of sight into before,” she said.
The Future Lineup
Comcast is approaching its 50th anniversary, and it has evolved considerably over the years — from being primarily a video provider to its current status as a media and entertainment company with an eye on adapting to the latest technology.
“We’re developing platforms and looking for ways to deliver our products and services to any type of device — devices that haven’t yet even been thought of,” she said. “The challenge we find ourselves in is: How do you get talent that can see into the future and anticipate where the newest technology is going to be and how people will be leveraging that to get to video and to get to data in the next five years?”
To meet this growing need, Penna said while the company is maintaining its focus on hiring and developing top talent in customer-facing positions that comprise more than 80 percent of employees, Comcast is also striving to attract “Silicon Valley minds” — innovative individuals with advanced technological capabilities who can create new applications and build platforms to connect its products and services to new devices.
“We don’t know what we’ll need three years from now; we don’t know what technology will be out there three years from now, but we need the people who are testing and pushing the limits of the technology we have today to be thinking that far forward,” she said.
This need for an evolving skill set amid an increasingly competitive landscape is not unique to Comcast. Meredith McGough — director of process improvement with the talent acquisition and movement organization at Time Warner Cable — said technology is playing a key role in advancing the cable and television industry.
Like Comcast, Time Warner Cable is also seeking innovators to stay at the industry forefront.
“The competition is greater than it has ever been — today there are new players entering our space on a regular basis, and technology is constantly evolving,” McGough said. “You need people who can flourish in a fluid and changing environment — people who are intrigued and excited by it.”
Individuals with customer service orientation skills are still invaluable, but today even they must possess an innovative slant on traditional skill sets, she said.
“That includes thinking outside the box in all areas of the business — from tech ops to direct sales to customer service,” McGough said. For instance, people in the customer service space need to think differently about how to connect with customers via social media tools such as Facebook, where the dialogue has become much more interactive.
To attract this new breed of employee, Comcast is boosting retention for its existing workforce by enhancing the connection between individual employees’ roles and the organization’s strategy. For instance, performance management systems set up routine meetings between managers and employees to clearly communicate and track goals, and link the results to compensation.
Penna and her team are also working with Comcast University to support employee development. So, if employees want development in a particular area or identify the need for an additional competency, they are directed to the appropriate materials to enhance their skills.
Development relates directly to the company’s succession planning efforts. Penna said her team works to identify individuals who demonstrate the capacity to move into leadership roles and support them with development plans to prepare them for these roles. Not only does this afford employees the opportunity to grow their careers, it also demonstrates a development commitment to prospective candidates.
Bundling HR and Business
Penna said her long tenure with the company helps her keep her team closely aligned with Comcast’s business objectives. This enables her to establish strong relationships with senior leaders and ensure HR’s continued relevance.
“I’ve already built some element of trust and credibility — my brand and what I’m capable of doing — so the dialogue is easier because I have a relationship with them,” she said.
Penna and her team regularly connect with leaders at all levels within the organization so they have a clear sense of what their goals and objectives are and can move them forward and be a definitive value add.
“What I’m building [should be] in response to something they are interested in pursuing as opposed to me building things for the sake of building for HR or building programs that sound beneficial to the organization that perhaps are not,” she said. “I’m constantly linking our initiative and our work to the goals and objectives of the senior leadership team — and if something isn’t in alignment with that, it’s not a priority.”
The company’s senior leadership plays an integral role in advancing HR, according to William Strahan, executive vice president of human resources for Comcast Cable. The HR team actively looks for business opportunities with a people aspect, and then develops solutions championed by business leaders. “By helping our business leaders think about their competitive advantages and challenges through a people lens, our work in HR becomes aligned with the business,” said Strahan, who reports directly to President and CEO Neil Smit.
The Next Generation of Female Stars
Penna was recently promoted to a senior vice president role, but she recognizes that it isn’t easy to climb the career ladder without guidance and support — especially for women. To help women advance, she co-facilitated Comcast’s Executive Leadership Forum, designed to enhance senior-level leaders’ careers and connect them with mentors after their graduation from the program.
Penna said she also informally mentors numerous women at the company one-on-one — often over coffee — to create linkages that make it easier for them to see a path going forward. These up-and-coming women seek advice on a range of topics from how to balance career and family, how to navigate the organization’s political culture and avoid missteps, and how to move into different departments and what connections are needed to do so. In turn, Penna credits her informal role models for offering sound insight that has helped to advance her career.
Penna is also passionate about positively impacting young girls who are thinking about careers in science and technology outside of Comcast. She said her involvement with organizations such as Women in Cable Telecommunications Inc. (WICT) and the Forum of Executive Women allows her to help develop the next generation of female leaders in the industry.
“WICT has played a valuable role in providing development programs for women in our industry and in spotlighting women’s issues relative to compensation, glass ceiling and work-life balance,” she said.
Comcast is also emphasizing the value of work-life balance.
“When Steve Burke was the president of the cable division, he routinely told our leaders that if work was the most important thing in our lives, that we had our priorities mixed up,” Penna said. “Our current president, Neil Smit, continues to foster an environment that’s supportive of women, particularly working families. I am hopeful that this kind of environment will continue to entice women to our industry, and we will see the ongoing growth of women into senior executive roles.”
Penna said she has never felt like she needed to sacrifice time with her family — her husband, two young children and two dogs — to do her job well, something she credits as a major reason she has been able to stay and grow at Comcast during the past 17 years.
“Our leadership has made it really comfortable to come here with the idea that you can work and be ambitious and bring value to the organization and at the same time have interests outside of the company, and that is a good thing … that’s done a lot to encourage women to stay and grow within,” she said.
Seventeen years in the same organization might seem like an eternity today when top talent frequently hops from one job to another searching for new challenges, but Penna said Comcast’s culture is dynamic, fast-paced and entrepreneurial — one where it’s almost impossible for a career to remain stagnant.
“The fact that we’re in the space of innovation keeps it fresh and exciting for those of us who find entertainment and media exciting; it’s been a place where I’ve been able to re-engineer my career,” she said. “I’ve been able to perform a role and move to something else equally exciting within HR because we’ve been so dynamic in the sense that we’re into new products and we’re building new platforms and we’re acquiring new businesses and it’s afforded me the opportunity to grow my career as the company has grown.”
A Look Back at Comcast’s Journey
1963: Company founded.
1972: First public stock offering.
1996: Launched its first broadband product, Comcast@Home high-speed cable modem service.
2002: Launched high-definition TV service and video-on-demand service. Comcast and AT&T Broadband completed a $47.5 billion merger.
2003: Comcast and Radio One announced creation of TV network: TV One. Comcast gets 99.9 percent ownership of The Golf Channel.
2005: Launched Digital Voice service.
2006: Named one of “America’s Top 50 Corporations for Multicultural Business Opportunities” by Hispanic Business magazine. FEARnet, the first multi-platform horror network, debuts on-demand, online and on mobile devices. E! Networks becomes wholly owned by Comcast. Named one of “America’s Best-Managed Companies” by Forbes magazine.
2007: Reached an agreement to acquire Fandango.
2009: Became third-largest residential phone service provider in the U.S.
2010: Released a new version of the Comcast Mobile App. Unveiled Xfinity as the new brand for its technology platform and products.