It's a bit of an understatement to say that Time Warner's metropolitan New York operation is a unique system. Sprinkled among its 1.2 million subscriber universe are more celebrities, millionaires and subscribers that buy ink by the barrel than any other system in the country.
That's meant that Harriet Novet has rubbed shoulders with a pretty elite crowd in her work as vice president of Time Warner Cable of New York and New Jersey. Her role overseeing government affairs, media relations and philanthrophy has allowed her to make a big impact at the system and throughout the city. She's helped a wide variety of people with their cable service, from your average subscriber to Joan Rivers. (Novet does a killer imitation of her.) Novet has pictures of herself with every New York mayor since Ed Koch, and her Rolodex is lined with the phone numbers for celebrities like Donald Trump.
In fact, Novet is looking forward to the new season of NBC's The Apprentice, in which Trump has chosen two teams — one featuring streetwise people who fought their way to the top of organizations, and a team of people who have had the luxury and privilege of a complete education with advanced degrees.
For those who know her, it won't come as a surprise that she'll be rooting for the streetwise team. “A scrappy streetwise kid like me? You bet I will,” says Novet, the daughter of a professional truck driver father and a working mother from the blue-collar neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, N.Y.
Novet just celebrated her 25th anniversary at the Time Warner system. Her steady rise up the corporate ladder is a unique success story, but the path Novet traveled before joining the company is even more remarkable.
She took her first writing job as a 16-year-old in the 1960s. She worked during the summers for a press agent that supplied copy to columnists at the New York Post and the Daily News. Using the pseudonym Harriet Adams, Novet penned gossip items about celebrities who visited the restaurants her firm represented, often rewriting jokes that she had read in other newspapers.
“I did that for two or three summers. And then I said, 'That's not what I want to do.' I felt like an imposter — it just wasn't right,” she says.
After high school, Novet went to work as a secretary at a New York law firm, and eventually became a paralegal. College wasn't an option at the time.
“In high school, I knew I was going to have to work. At that time if you could be a legal secretary, that was a career. There weren't a lot of opportunities for women other than teachers or nurses or stay-at-home moms,” Novet explains.
She toiled for about 10 years as a legal secretary and paralegal, and in the late 1970s, she tried standup comedy, auditioning twice for Saturday Night Live.
Novet joined Time Inc.'s Manhattan Cable in 1979 as an executive's assistant to president Jack Gault. And she found herself doing a variety of tasks that went well beyond the secretarial.
She handled some VIP customers in Manhattan who were getting cable for the first time. She secured content for the cable system's local origination channel, and she wrote a guide for independent television producers, which was distributed worldwide. “She sort of crafted her own job position,” recalls former Manhattan Cable vice president of corporate affairs Susan Greene, one of Novet's mentors. “She was a very quick study, and clearly self-taught, and one of the fastest workers I've seen — and one of the hardest workers,” adds Greene, now a senior vice president at The Cable Center.
As Novet's responsibilities continued to grow, she entered Queens College, attending night school while continuing to work full-time. She was promoted every two or three years at the New York system, which evolved into Time Warner Cable of New York City and New Jersey. And her three-pronged area of focus — government affairs, media relations and philanthropy — has led her to oversee a staff of 20.
As part of her community relations work, Novet has been a “principal for a day” in New York for the past 11 years. In 1997, Novet helped a fellow principal for the day — former VH1 president John Sykes — launch the “Save The Music” public affairs program jointly developed by the music channel and New York cable system. Novet was charged with publicizing the system's effort for Save The Music, which evolved into a national program.
Novet has passed on her interest in supporting good causes to her son, Jordan, who's now 18. “I have a great kid,” Novet says, describing how Jordan helped organize a fundraising effort at his high-school for victims of the tsunami that devastated Asia in December.
An avowed “type-A personality,” Novet doesn't coddle the journalists that call her seeking information about the New York system. And she doesn't dodge tough questions, either.
On the wall in the doorway of her office, Novet has tacked a list of “disaster rules,” which she eyes every day when she puts on her coat to leave the office. They include, “take charge”; “be the source of bad news”; and “don't hesitate if you're forced to choose between helping people and saving money.”
Time Warner Cable executives may be grooming Novet for a bigger role at the company. In 2001, they sent her to the prestigious Betsy Magness Leadership Institute — an intensive, year-long leadership training program.
Novet doesn't discount the idea of moving on to bigger and better things. “But at the same time I sort of helped create this position, and I love this position. I think I have the best job in the world.”