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Counseling Diversity

9/14/2003 8:00 PM Eastern

When The Weather Channel Cos. president and CEO Bill Burke took the reins from then-president Decker Anstrom in January 2002, he received a short list of business objectives on which to focus.

"As one would suspect, [Anstrom] sat down with me to discuss areas that I might want to focus on, and gave me a very short list," remembered Burke. "Advancing the cause of diversity was on it, along with other hard-and-fast traditional business goals."

Indeed, colleagues and industry executives say diversity has always been top of mind for Anstrom, this year's Walter Kaitz Foundation honoree.

Through career stops as president of the National Cable Television Association — and his job as chairman of The Weather Channel Cos. and president and COO of its parent, Landmark Communications Inc. — Anstrom has placed the issue of diversity on the front burner and implemented initiatives at practically every stop.

"[Diversity] has been an evolving process for me, as I suspect it's been for a lot of people in organizations throughout the country, not just in our industry," Anstrom said. "For me, at the end of the day, what I've come to appreciate is that diversity at its heart is about understanding and appreciating and welcoming difference."

That appreciation is apparent throughout The Weather Channel. Under Anstrom's watch, the network has created several diversity initiatives and efforts to attract qualified minorities and women.

Anstrom acknowledged The Weather Channel had struggled with its diversity initiatives with regard to employment and overall company culture when he was named chairman and CEO in 1999. Even now, he said, the network hasn't achieved all of its diversity goals, but it is moving in the right direction.

Currently, about 30% of the network's 1,000 employees are members of minority groups, with people of color representing about 20% of its directors and senior management positions.

Some 45% of the executive committee members, or those in positions that report directly to the CEO, are females and minorities — not bad, but Anstrom admits the network still has a long way to go.

"We certainly had some challenges at The Weather Channel, and I'd be the last person to say that they're solved, but we've made some good progress over the last couple of years," Anstrom said.

One of the catalysts for change within The Weather Channel was the development of a Diversity Council — implemented after the network conducted what Anstrom termed a "cultural audit" to determine the service's status in terms of diversity.

Launched in December 2000, the council sought to address the company's commitment to a diverse workforce. Diversity Council chairwoman Vicki Hamilton said when creating the body, Anstrom had a vision that diversity would become a way of doing business, rather than just a fad.

"The business case is based on an innovative way of doing business. We will provide better products and services, reflect the communities we serve, and develop strategies through a diverse employee population and the broad range of experiences, talents and perspectives they bring," she said.

Added Anstrom: "Obviously, diversity has some strong connotations of social justice and the right thing to do, but I always worry that if that's the reason companies get started in this, inevitably there will be periods of time where it's in vogue, and times when it isn't. It doesn't seem to be something that sustains diversity being a priority.

"But if you can really demonstrate to employees that this is something that's related to our long-term business success … it doesn't become the flavor of the year," he added. "It's something that people stay working at year after year."

The first mission for the council was to adopt and communicate a multilevel, four-approach methodology to achieve The Weather Channel's diversity objectives — including making the case that diversity was imperative to business survival.

Once the goals were established, Hamilton said, all employees went through diversity training to help everyone understand them.

"We are at the point right now where we have educated everyone on the methodology and reinforced the model in our daily activities," said Hamilton.

Over the three years, the Diversity Council has evolved into an inclusive and representative organization. To insure the participation of upper-management employees, Hamilton said a member of the company's executive staff sponsors each council activity.

"There is direct ownership from the very top of the organization for every project initiative that we have underneath the Diversity Council, which is ultimately tied to the business strategy of why we do diversity in the first place," said Hamilton, The Weather Channel's senior vice president of shared services and information-technology operations.

Anstrom also said the council helped the company adopt what he termed a "rock-the-boat" philosophy, which encourages all employees to come to the table willing to challenge one another to come up with an alternative idea to solve a problem.

"One of the things that we put our finger on was that we needed to be a company that was more open to alternative thinking from alternative backgrounds," he said. "I think, at the end of the day, that's how you unlock innovation in a company."

Along with the exploits of the Diversity Council, Anstrom also said the network has placed a heavy emphasis on expanded internships, through companies such as Inroads and the Emma L. Bowen Foundation.

The network also worked with Cox Communications Inc. in Atlanta to sponsor several students from local Atlanta colleges. The students work with the MSO for one summer and the service for a second.

Hamilton said Anstrom set the tone for the company prior to the Diversity Council's creation by his participation in industry organizations that further diversity.

Burke noted that Anstrom's passion and enthusiasm for diversity is well known throughout the industry. "He's one of those people when you mention his name across the industry — whether it's about diversity or any other issue — his reputation is about as strong as they come, and a big reason I'm here is a chance to work for Decker," he said.

Indeed, Anstrom has worked with and supported most of the diversity efforts of other industry organizations. In addition to serving on the boards of numerous companies, including the Women in Cable and Telecommunications and the NCTA, Anstrom recently served as chairman of the board of the Walter Kaitz Foundation.

"Decker Anstrom is one that has been very out there [on the forefront of diversity], and has offered to be out there," said NAMIC president Jenny Alonzo.

Having seen such initiatives from many vantage points, Anstrom believes the industry is making a concerted effort to become more diversified in all aspects of its business, but more needs to be done.

"I think, in general, the industry's record is still spotty," he said. "I think if you look at some areas such as programming, the industry has done some wonderful things in terms of bringing diversity on-air.

"I think we're getting better on the supply side, and generally our workforce is more representative than most."

Where the industry continues to have a problem, however, is the promotion of minorities and women into executive-level positions, according to Anstrom.

"People seem to get halfway up the ladder in some companies, but don't seem to get much higher," he said. "That isn't a problem unique to the cable industry, but it's clearly one we haven't solved."

The industry needs to remain steadfast in its diversity efforts, Anstrom said. "We go at it at fits and starts, but we don't stay at it year after year," he said. "At the end of the day it takes willpower to make it happen, and I don't think there's any shortcut."

Anstrom oversaw Kaitz's monumental switch from a organization that placed minorities in upper-management positions to one that provides grants to other groups' efforts at fostering diversity — a move Anstrom said is working for Kaitz, despite criticisms from some industry observers.

"I think it was the right change at the right time. While Kaitz's [recruitment] role was important, at the end of the day, we were bringing in around 30 people for recruitment," Anstrom said. "The reality is, the companies over time were doing a much better job in [recruiting for] the mid-level to entry positions.

"So you had to weigh putting [Kaitz] dollars against recruiting 30 people for companies like [Home Box Office] or Comcast [Corp.] or Time Warner [Cable], which were out doing that on their own and didn't need a third party."

Nevertheless, Anstrom said that Kaitz has not done a good job of communicating its new role. "If we are going to go ahead and support industry organizations, I would hope that it's an objective that people in the industry would be supportive of, and I think it would address questions of overhead."

Despite the strides made by The Weather Channel — and, to a certain degree, the cable industry — in fostering diversity, Anstrom realizes that true diversity won't be achieved overnight, and is something that requires around-the-clock attention.

"There's never going to be a day for any company or organization where you can check diversity off of the list and go on to something else," Anstrom said. "That ignores 200 to 300 years of history in our country and ignores human behavior in terms of that.

"To me, it's about business success at the end of the day. We need to have the best people in our companies that reflect the growing demographic diversity of the country," he added. "Any company that doesn't do that will find itself in trouble competitively over time."

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