With a history that dates to the late 1800s, Cox Enterprises has been witness to some of the most pivotal transformations in American history. And it has been willing to transform right along with them, says Karen Bennett, executive vice president and chief people officer for the global organization.
“Someone outside our company may think that with that much history, it would be easy to get bogged down with a ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ perspective, but that’s not who we are or how we operate,” Bennett says.
The company employs about 55,000 worldwide—including through Cox Communications, the third-largest cable TV provider in the U.S., and Cox Automotive, which operates brands including Kelley Blue Book and AutoTrader.
The breadth of industries that the organization has evolved to touch signifies the forward-looking spirit behind its culture, says Bennett, who took on the top HR position in January after more than five years as chief people officer at Cox Communications.
“We’ve gone from newspapers to cable to car auctions to broadband to Autotrader to cleantech and on and on,” she says. “If anything, our history supports our culture by being an in-house example of what we can accomplish when we continue to innovate and push the envelope in our industries.”
Bennett—who, before joining Cox, held HR leadership roles with The Real Yellow Pages and Turner Broadcasting System—recently shared with HRE how the organization is continuing to embrace innovation through leadership development, employer branding and more.
HRE: Why was leadership development one of your priorities upon joining Cox Enterprises?
Bennett: Cox is a people company, first and foremost. When it comes to our leaders, we put a lot of trust in them to make the choices and decisions that allow us to execute on our strategies and achieve our goals. Since our people are the ones driving our success, it only makes sense that we provide them with critical thinking tools and other leadership skills to support them in their roles.
Many of our formal leadership programs were dormant during COVID and many things have changed in our post-COVID world. Today’s leaders need to show up differently and provide unique ways of supporting individuals on their teams. For example, an employee who is a new parent may need more remote work flexibility. A new hire or someone with new responsibilities may need more face-to-face time.
Another important aspect of this is that we have many different leadership levels, and they all have unique needs based on where they are in their careers. Each deserves focus so they can grow with the company and in their roles to help move us forward. After all, a leader who isn’t delivering for their team risks losing great people. It’s no secret that people don’t leave companies—they leave leaders.
HRE: What have been some of the tangible impacts of the new leadership development programs you spearheaded?
Bennett: We now have three different programs. Aperture is the one with the longest tenure and focuses on innovation, experimentation and leading through a new lens. Elevate is a newer one that concentrates on leading through personal growth. The third program is called Vista and it explores Cox’s past, present and future and emphasizes a strategy mindset and the role of a leader.
We hear from our leaders who participate that these programs help with working relationships across the company. They also provide a lot of self-exploration and allow them to chart their own path of where they want to go in their careers.
There are many great examples of how these programs have led to real changes within the company. One is Sam Attisha, senior vice president and regional manager for our Cox Communications business. Through the Aperture program, Sam wanted to find a better way for his technicians to conduct their monthly equipment audits. His team ran a pilot in three markets using a virtual equipment auditing process. This allowed the technician to run the entire audit from their smartphone by scanning the QR serial numbers on the equipment themselves. It was a great success and saves our technicians time after long days of climbing poles and ducking through attics.
HRE: Where do you think most organizations go wrong today when it comes to professional development?
Bennett: I wouldn’t comment on a specific organization, but from a general standpoint, if a company isn’t doing something in this area, I think they’re missing an opportunity. It doesn’t matter what your strategy and approach are if you don’t have people with the talent and skills to execute and deliver positive results.
One important aspect of this that can sometimes be overlooked is providing enough variety in how the development programs are delivered. You have to meet the learner where they learn best. That could be online, self-paced, cohort-based models or a hybrid approach with self-study pre-work and live instruction.
We see value in always asking what’s next and what more we can do. Putting our people in the best possible positions to be able to think critically and make wise decisions is a key to our success.
HRE: How are you working to leverage the culture at Cox to enhance both retention and recruiting?
Bennett: Historically, Cox has been modest about promoting our brand, but today, we have a whole employment branding team dedicated to sharing our great story. We do this through different channels, including social and local advertising, and share our many awards and programs and why we think Cox is such a great place to work.
We use the Cox culture as a selling point to try to attract and retain the best and brightest. All our people are held accountable for their roles and responsibilities but, at the same time, our culture empowers them to deliver in a way that makes sense for themselves and their teams.
We try to highlight our culture by sharing stories from real employees so people considering Cox as a place to begin or continue their careers can see the type of experience we provide. We have a good thing going here so it doesn’t require much set dressing, just getting the message out for others to learn about.
HRE: What are some of the HR lessons you learned early in your career that—despite all of the changes in the HR profession—still hold true today?
Bennett: Listen to your people and understand the business challenges in this space. A one-size solution doesn’t fit everyone. By listening, you learn what your people want and need. From there, you can see if it works from a company perspective. At Cox, more often than not, it does.
One thing our people told us they needed was additional help caring for their loved ones. Many are responsible for both their children and their parents. We looked into options and now provide complimentary membership to Care.com. This provides them with resources for in-home childcare, daycare, senior care, pet sitting, housekeeping, tutoring and more. It’s a great resource for people when they’re in a tight situation.
HR is about understanding what people need and treating them fairly. Not everything works out budget-wise and operationally, but when it can and does, it provides a better work experience for everyone.
HRE: Outside of your work, what keeps you motivated?
Bennett: Two things: First is my family and loved ones. I know that’s not a groundbreaking answer, but I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people I love and who care for me.
The second thing is the ability to wake up every day and find new ways to help others. My role has expanded beyond only HR, but the other areas I lead are still groups that involve people supporting people. Whether that’s through communications, brand marketing, talent acquisition or compensation, we are always finding ways to support others.
It’s a good feeling knowing that I can wake up every day and try to do something to make someone’s life or job a little easier. That’s something that motivates me to continue doing what I do.