When she accepted the "Woman to Watch" award at last November's Women in Cable & Telecommunications gala in Washington, D.C., Cox Communications Inc. chief people officer Mae Douglas of course thanked her boss, CEO Jim Robbins, in part for letting her speak her mind whenever she found it appropriate.
ABC News anchor Carole Simpson, the dinner's host, wasn't about to let that remark pass. After praising Douglas on a more elemental level — "We still are women," she told Douglas and a ballroom full of red-wearing telecom executives, "and you look fabulous!" — Simpson asked Douglas how she was able to talk back to the CEO when necessary.
Douglas's response: it's easy, given the environment at Cox and my own strength of character.
After talking with Douglas for a spell, it's clear she could have also said: It's easy, when you feel as passionately as I do about helping people reach their potential.
"I truly know that I was born to do this work," she said in a telephone interview the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, visiting her family in Greensboro, N.C. "I do believe that we are all born with a set of gifts and talents, and the goal in life is to find work you love, with a passion, that uses those same gifts and talents.
"I truly know that I was born to do people work, and I'm privileged to do it at Cox."
For Douglas, a 51-year-old senior vice president, the trek from birth to a high-profile cable-industry job in Atlanta began in the Greensboro area.
"I feel I am one of the most privileged and blessed women around," she said in her typically positive way, carefully enunciating each word. "I grew up in a family that had very strong values around work ethic. A very strong Christian belief. And that's the legacy that I try to live and hopefully that I pass on to my nephew and other people that I interact with."
Small community roots
Getting started in a relatively small, Southern community helped.
"When I lived here, I was so involved in a lot of boards and commissions," she said. "It's the kind of community where you could get a lot of public visibility because of your active involvement. So I just feel from a family and a community perspective, I had all of the right ingredients to have a very successful life."
A University of North Carolina at Greensboro alumnae who also did graduate work at Wake Forest University, Douglas is one of those successful cable-industry executives who honed her skills elsewhere before joining Cox. She spent 18 years at pharmaceutical giant Ciba-Geigy Corp., whose Agricultural Division is based in Greensboro.
"I had a wonderful career there," she recalled. "I actually loved it, because it was an international company, with their headquarters in Switzerland. So I got to do international travel, which was fabulous, because I got to see Europe."
Ciba-Geigy also brought that small-town North Carolina girl to the really big city: New York. That experience, a transfer to the company's close-in-suburban Westchester County operation, Douglas now calls "traumatic" — but rewarding in the long run, though.
"I think, frankly, that New York toughened me up from a number of perspectives," Douglas said.
But she was happy when the time came to transfer back home.
The next bend in the road came in 1995. Douglas was ready for other challenges, and to try to achieve another life goal.
"I had always wanted to live in Atlanta," she said. "I'd talked about Hot 'Lanta since I was in my mid-30s."
CableRep Advertising, the Cox ad-sales business, hired her as an employee-relations manager, then promoted her to regional vice president of ad sales. From there, she jumped to the parent company's corporate staff.
Unlike her predecessor, who reported to the chief financial officer, Douglas reports directly to Robbins.
Three for 2003
From that strategic perch, Douglas has three overarching goals for 2003. On the people-development front, the focus turns to first-line supervisors, or those who manage the employees who have direct contact with customers. Second, Douglas wants to upgrade the third-biggest U.S. MSO's human-resources technology, placing more of the transactions employees conduct with the department online. Finally, Douglas will continue trying to spread the gospel on having a diverse work force.
"I think people of color and women at senior levels continues to be an issue," she said. "In terms of Hispanics and Latinos — we need to address that at every level of the industry."
Hispanic-employee recruitment is something Robbins has publicly spoken about several times in recent months — and Cox is doing several things about it, said Douglas. For one, the MSO needs to get the message out that Hispanics are wanted.
Cox has forged ties with outreach organizations that can refer job candidates, and is examining its pre-employment testing to make sure it translates into Spanish.
While Cox has benefited from the dot-com implosion, in that fewer key employees are looking elsewhere, it recognizes that employee retention is a key. Employee surveys show that people want career development — it resonates even higher than pay issues — so Cox tries to present its workers with other opportunities within the company and recruits them to work on multidisciplinary teams.
All that keeps Douglas busy, and Atlanta is as much fun as she'd hoped. "I'm still looking for my husband — he hasn't come on the scene yet," she said, with a laugh. She's devoted to her nephew, a high-school senior in North Carolina and "an outstanding student."
Being a savvy people officer, Douglas made sure he's been thoroughly career tested. "He is very much a creative person and probably will be in marketing and advertising," Douglas said. With luck, he'll bring to the job the same spirit and passion his Aunt Mae brings to hers.