People

MCNWW 2015 Sandra Kapell: Cablevision’s Mountain Climber

EVP Overcomes HR Hurdles, Mentors Others Along the Way 1/26/2015 8:00 AM Eastern

SANDRA KAPELL

TITLE: EVP, Human Resources and Administration, Cablevision Systems

AGE: 50

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Before joining Cablevision, Kapell was SVP, Chief Human Resources Officer, at Chartis, an AIG Co.; and SVP at insurance giant MetLife.

QUOTE: “For me, my achievements are all wrapped up in whether or not I’ve been able to help other people be successful. If people have wanted to achieve certain things in their career, have I been able to help them?”

 

In 1995, when Sandra Kapell and her husband were newly married, they suffered the loss of their first baby during Kapell’s 17th week of pregnancy. “She was just beside herself,” her father, Brian Pemberton, said.

 

Shortly afterwards, “she called and was a little weepy and emotional, and I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. Let’s go climb Mount Rainier. Your job is to get in physical shape. We’ll take your sister,’ ” Pemberton recalled.

 

After some protest, Kapell agreed, and, over the next six months, she prepared extensively for the arduous hike in her home state of Washington. Mount Rainier is the second-tallest mountain in the lower 48 states at more than 14,000 feet, and it took plenty of training to get ready for it.

 

Overcoming a terrible case of altitude sickness and horrible weather, Kapell made it to the top, along with other members of the climbing party.

 

SETS, REACHES GOALS

“I don’t subscribe to the idea that time heals all wounds,” Kapell said. “I’m as sad today as the day I lost the baby.” But the climb was “definitely” a healing experience.

 

“It’s one of those life lessons,” she said. “I apply it at work; I apply it to everything. Setting a goal moves you forward. And progress is really, really important. And my dad got that in a way that no one else did.”

 

Kapell is currently executive vice president, human resources and administration at Cablevision Systems. She has surmounted some pretty tall “mountains” over the course of her career, not the least of which was stepping into an earlier role as senior vice president and chief human resources officer of AIG’s large property and casualty insurer, Chartis.

 

At the time, AIG was 92% owned by the U.S. government and in recovery mode from its financial meltdown during the last recession.

 

“When she was at AIG, human resources was completely dismembered, and she really led the HR transformation,” said James Maloney, who worked with Kapell at AIG and is currently a senior vice president at Cablevision. “Within a month of her departure, the U.S. Treasury was paid back in full. She was there through the tough times.”

 

Cablevision was tackling a tough problem when Kapell joined the company more than two years ago, in September 2012. It was already embroiled in its ongoing, acrimonious dispute with the Communications Workers of America labor union, which represents around 270 Cablevision technicians in Brooklyn, N.Y.

 

Her crisis-management skills have certainly come into play with that battle, although Kapell opted not to discuss the matter. But there have been other, substantial challenges on her plate that she shared.

 

“When I got here, the company had been through very, very dramatic management change, and Jim had taken over the day-to-day operations,” she said, referring to James Dolan, Cablevision’s CEO and executive chairman of The Madison Square Garden Co. Chief operating officer Tom Rutledge had left, later to become CEO of Charter Communications.

 

“[Dolan’s] first task was to centralize HR. There was no centralized HR structure,” Kapell said. “There weren’t people to report to; we didn’t track any human-capital metrics; we didn’t know what our turnover was; we didn’t have a performance-management system.”

 

Kapell said her task “was a combination of build from scratch, rebuild, and really introduce a completely new prism for the business leaders to look through when they thought about human capital, employees and human resources.”

 

The initial phase of the transformation effort is complete. “Now, we’re building on that foundation to get the full value for the business leadership team,” Kapell said.

 

Transformation really gets Kapell engaged. “She has an incredible capacity to identify the root cause of problems and the right solution or program initiative to solve business problems,” Maloney said.

 

She’s not a “one-sided thinker,” added Kapell’s longtime friend and mentor, Beth Mitchell, who worked with her about 20 years ago at Macmillan Publishing. “She’s clear about what she wants, but she also has the ability to hear and listen to multiple sides of information and to make important decisions based on all the information coming in. And that’s a great manager.”

 

Kapell wasn’t looking for a job in media and telecommunications, she said, but the business has won her over. “This industry values women in a very honorable, strategic way, and I love that,” she said.

 

ADVOCATE FOR WOMEN

Advocating for women has been part of Kapell’s mandate over the years. While with MetLife, she helped create the Women Sales Forum, which provided networking and career development opportunities. And she was a key organizer of AIG’s Global Women’s Forum, a mentoring program.

 

Mitchell said she admires Kapell’s ability to at once be a devoted wife and mother, as well as a successful businesswoman, balancing all three areas of her life. Kapell and her husband, Bill, have a daughter, Olivia, 18. She’s a classical musician who was admitted to both Columbia University — the alma mater of both Kapell and her father — as well as the Julliard School. Their son Andrew, 16, is an avid hockey player who attends The Lawrenceville School near Princeton, N.J.

 

One of the most important lessons Kapell has learned, she said, is “the importance of your family and the health of your family. The older I get and the older my kids get, that really helps me keep everything else in perspective.”

 

Another lesson relates to some of her “mountains” at work. “I try not to lose my humanity, ever, no matter how difficult the situation is,” she said. “That’s the lesson that I try really hard to hang onto.”

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