Thank Heavens for 'Betsys'

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Melissa Highley Wilson is living proof that the force called "six degrees of separation" is alive and working in the cable industry. In fact, change that to three degrees.

Wilson, the senior programming manager of business development for Cox Communications Inc.'s commercial-services unit in Northern Virginia, gained her position at least partly through her participation in the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute three years ago.

Women in Cable & Telecommunications director of programming Deborah Stewart, who runs the institute, introduced Wilson to Marcie Anderson, another program participant. Anderson, vice president of business development for Cox, then recruited Wilson for the position.

"I never did anything with cable before; I was working with fiber and copper," says Wilson, who left her last position at PSI.net last fall, after the telecommunications company went bankrupt. "[Anderson] persuaded me to go into a new telecom area. Because of BMLI, I'm dealing with something completely new."

'STYLE' ENHANCER

Wilson is one of many executives who have gone through the BMLI training program, which was established by WICT to "help women leaders in the cable and telecommunications industry enhance their personal style" so they can advance both at work and outside the office. Now in its 10th year, WICT says the program has prepared more than 250 women "to take on significant leadership responsibilities."

Named in honor of Betsy Magness — the first wife of cable magnate and Tele-Communications Inc. co-founder Bob Magness — the institute takes 26 out of nearly 100 applicants each year and then puts them through their paces.

The program is designed as sort of a new age-style Marine boot camp for mid-career executives at the corporate director level or above. It tackles such issues as personal leadership, critical thinking, creativity in business, problem solving, risk-taking and ethics and values, as well as corporate politics.

Each participant's company foots the bill, which includes $12,000 for tuition and additional expenses for travel, food and lodging throughout the year.

BMLI alumnae and current participants, who are also known as fellows, or "Betsys," applaud the program for the business leadership, strategy and problem-solving skills that it teaches. True to the program's purpose, graduates said they learned a lot about moving up in the business world and taking on greater leadership roles. Like Wilson, many have found new jobs, gained promotions and/or just generally advanced in their careers since completing their training.

For instance, Kim Cannon, vice president of marketing and sales for Time Warner Cable's Western Ohio division in Dayton, went through the program three years ago while she was still working for Time Warner's much smaller operations in Portland, Maine. "It gave me the confidence to [make the switch]," she said. "I didn't think I'd ever leave Maine."

Stewart notes that six or seven current class members have been promoted just since starting the program last fall. One of them, Kimberly Edmunds — now vice president and regional manager of Cox's Kansas division in Wichita — said she has already gained "a new set of management tools" from the program.

"It's been a big investment to be away from a brand-new job," she said. "But I think I'm a better leader for it."

'HELPED POLITICALLY'

Institute graduates also credit the program with teaching them much-needed corporate political and social skills.

"It changed the way I dealt with certain people," said LaRae Marsik, general partner in the Denver public-relations firm October Strategies, and a 2000 graduate who was working at TCI at the time. "It helped me politically, to be honest with you. … It helped me a great deal in interfacing with particular executives I had difficulty relating with."

In addition, many BMLI alumnae say they gained as much help coping with their personal lives as with their professional lives.

"It was one of the best things I've ever done from both a personal and business mindset," said Sam Klosterman, Denver-based vice president of affiliate sales in the West for Wisdom Media Group and a 2003 graduate. "It helps you really define who you are as a businesswoman, friend, sister, wife, mother and family member. It teaches you how to balance your roles in making yourself a better leader and person."

Wilson thoroughly agrees. "Frankly, it was life-altering," she said. "It's much bigger than a leadership program. It's really a whole-life program."

The BMLI certainly changed Lynn Price's life. After graduating from the program four years ago, Price, a veteran cable executive and foster mother, started a camp to bring foster kids and their birth siblings together once a year. It's called Camp to Belong.

But, as good as the institute's curriculum may be, many graduates say the biggest thing they gained from BMLI is a strong, supportive network as they've gone through various seismic and sometimes traumatizing changes.

In one class a few years ago, for example, program participants helped one Betsy cope with a fresh diagnosis of cancer, another deal with sexual harassment on the job and a third handle marital problems. The network of Betsys also helps with more mundane issues, such as problems with managers, staffers and company policies.

NETWORKS EMERGE

"You develop a network of people you never thought you would have," said Debbie Brodsky, senior director of affiliate relations for Comcast in Philadelphia and a 2003 graduate. "I can pick up the phone and call a Betsy in any class and have a resource."

For each new class, the network quickly starts to develop in the fall when the program opens with an intense one-week workshop at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in Greensboro, N.C. During this five-day period, participants swap career and life stories with their fellow Betsys, sit down with personal coaches, break into smaller teams and start exploring the subject of personal leadership. Most critically, the fellows review the results from a battery of personality and psychological tests and assessments, including "360-degree feedback" collected from their staffs, peers and bosses.

"It is very sobering," said Mary Jo Green, vice president of public affairs for Time Warner in Columbus, Ohio and a 2001 graduate. "You learn more about how where you're comfortable doesn't always work."

The assessments can be so sobering, in fact, that some Betsys come away feeling emotionally devastated for a while. Stewart, who took over the program last spring after she "got religion" going through it two years earlier, said she has seen a few fellows experience near "meltdowns" after learning what others think of them.

"This can be a real wakeup call for a lot of people," she said. "There are some surprises for everybody. It can be shocking."

But the feedback process can also be very affirming sometimes. Stewart recalls one Betsy in her class who sobbed after receiving her assessments because, like actress Sally Field at the Academy Awards years ago, she didn't realize how much people really liked her.

Fortunately, this is when the network starts to kick in. Even the most devastated program participant quickly learns that she's far from the only one dealing with the bouquets and brickbats of those near and dear. The Betsys also learn how their colleagues have overcome past obstacles.

'YOU'RE NOT ALONE'

"You think you're the only one when you go through something negative," Green said. "But you find out you're not alone. It's very reassuring."

Many alumnae say they learned their greatest lessons in Greensboro from the group of women around them. For instance, Cannon, a 17-year cable veteran who describes herself as "a scrapper," learned that she didn't have to jump in angrily to intervene every time she saw somebody boss around or bully a co-worker.

"How often do you have 26 people to critique your performance?" she said. "It's almost like tough love. The testing is really intense. There's a lot of cursing and crying, but you've got to hear it."

After their eye-opening week in Greensboro, institute fellows then meet for three more two-day sessions in various locations around the country, plus the WICT gala in Washington, D.C. in November, before graduating in the spring. The three sessions — held in January, March and May — cover such topics as "personal power and risk-taking" and "leadership, values and ethics."

Besides honing their skills and debating issues, program participants often take advantage of these get-togethers to share confidential "Betsy moments" with each other. As Stewart defines it, a Betsy moment refers to a safe place to talk honestly inside "a cone of silence."

In between their formal class sessions, the Betsys carry out several minor and two major assignments. The biggest assignment is the development of a comprehensive "life plan," which includes a personal mission statement, vision statement and strategic and tactical plan. Many graduates say they find this process extremely valuable, especially as they develop and refine their goals in discussions with other class members.

"It gives you a renewed sense of ownership," Brodsky said. "I thought I owned my life before. I now am the director of my life."

REUNION IN VEGAS

Although the Betsys end their studies at graduation, most class members seem to stay in regular touch with each other. They call, e-mail, swap job tips and advice and hold class reunions at WICT functions. Just before last fall's gala in Washington, for instance, 15 members of Stewart's class held a surprise wedding party for her.

Sometimes, program graduates also go on vacation together. In late March, for instance, Brodsky flew off to Las Vegas for a weekend reunion with 11 other members of her class. "Our class was great," she said. "We rocked."

Institute fellows back away a bit, though, from calling what they have an old-girl network. First of all, they point out, they're not all that old. Second, unlike members of the stereotyped old-boy networks, the Betsys don't exactly go to the club to play golf, smoke cigars and have a round of drinks when they get together.

In fact, program graduates want to make it clear that they're not some group of middle-aged sorority sisters sitting around the camp fire and singing "Kumbaya." Nor do they spend all their time sipping herbal tea, crying on each other's shoulders and getting their nails done, as some skeptics might believe.

PERSONAL TOUCH

They just have more of a personal touch and an emotional connection than a similar men's professional group might.

"I really wish men had something similar to that," Cannon said. "It's different from the old-boy network just in the way we do things. We get to the heart of things and do emotional things. … I think we can be much more honest."

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