Interview Date: Monday, June 21, 1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Series
In this interview, Sharon Becker, president of the Northwest Division of AT&T Broadband and Internet Services, discusses how she began her career in the cable industry as a customer service representative. She describes what the industry was like for women when she began, how things changed and what attracts women to the industry. She reveals the elements of her success in cable management and operations, and comments on the evolution of her leadership style. Becker explains what she would look for in a mentor or role model, and the advice she would give to young women. She comments on progress for women as well as the lack of recognition. She addresses the issue of balancing work and home life. She predicts the challenges the industry would face in the future, and how they could be ameliorated for consumers. She observes how WICT has contributed to her professional growth and serves other women, and lauds the Betsy Magness Institute for their contribution to developing leadership.
INTERVIEWER: Look into the camera state your name.
SHARON BECKER: Sharon Becker.
INTERVIEWER: Spell it.
BECKER: S-H-A-R-O-N B-E-C-K-E-R
INTERVIEWER: Your company and your title.
BECKER: AT&T, Broadband and Internet Services and I’m the president of the northwest division.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell me how you initially began your career in the cable industry?
BECKER: I started as a customer service representative. I had been working in the retail business for several years and really wanted a change and get into something that had regular hours and was less stressful and for a brief period of time it did and now, of course, there’s lots of hours and lots of stress, but, now I’m hooked.
INTERVIEWER: What was the most striking thing about the cable industry when you began your career?
BECKER: Well, it was obviously very different back then, I’ve been in the business 18 years, but just the fact that people have fun and there was always something new happening and taking place and so that you were never bored, we were always challenged to learn to new things and had that opportunity, so, its just always been a challenging fun business.
INTERVIEWER: What would you say are the key elements of your professional success.
BECKER: I attribute my professional success to my patience, being satisfied with where I am at any given time, I’ve never been overtly ambitious, things have come in time and I think I’m patient about that. I also make sure I understand what my virtues are and stick to those always and I don’t take myself to seriously.
INTERVIEWER: What would you say is your greatest professional achievement?
BECKER: Well, there are many things in my professional life that I’ve been very proud of, but, I think probably the most is the fact that I was the first president—female president of business operations for a division, for TCI now AT&T broadband Internet services.
INTERVIEWER: A lot of successful women have said it was easier for them to break into the cable and telecommunication industry during its formative years because there were no definite rules, was this your experience?
BECKER: I started in the industry at a very low level, $3.75 an hour as a customer service rep, I didn’t consider that a break in, but, I believe, at that time I was experiencing more folks, office manager was about as high as most women were at that time, there were no general managers even, at that particular point in time and for the first early years, in the early ’80s there were certainly nobody at the directorship level, or both, out in the west. Very quickly in the late ’80s and the ’90s have been, very, very good for women and you see a whole lot different mix than you used to.
INTERVIEWER: There was a lot of talk in the early ’90s about the glass ceiling. Do you believe there ever was a glass ceiling preventing women from rising to high levels of success? Does this glass ceiling still exist?
BECKER: I definitely think in the early years there was a glass ceiling, as a matter of fact, it might have been plywood, I think it’s becoming less and less, I think the makeup of the industry certainly has changed a great deal, just the fact that I myself hold a position that I do in the industry and you see so many women sitting at the higher levels and at the board room tables now, is something that you didn’t see in the early ’80s when I started.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think accounts for this shift, are more women entering the cable business now, or are there just more opportunities for women?
BECKER: I definitely believe that more women are entering, but, I think it’s starts with something as simple as the fact women are attracted by those who are like them and as more come in, it’s easier for you to see that you would be accepted and you would have, you know, sisterhood opportunities and I think that attracts others, I certainly find it quite easy to find very talented professional women to come and work for me and the more we bring in, the better it gets.
INTERVIEWER: Have you thought at all about your management style and has your management style changed over the years.
BECKER: Well it’s changed a lot over the years. I’ve gone through several evaluations of my leadership style, from the early years until now and I’ve kept them all and occasionally, just to humble myself, I go back and take a look and when I first started into management, I think a lot of folks do, I was very, very empathetic to the people and did not look at the whole thing of the business perspective first and my decisions all tended to be around people’s feelings, overtime I’ve certainly learned to balance that perspective more and look at what’s good for the business and then try to make it good for the people as well.
INTERVIEWER: Was that a challenge for you to incorporate more of a business perspective?
BECKER: It was over time, it was something I certainly had to focus on and it’s become easier, because I think it also gives me the opportunity to explain it properly to the individuals whose lives those business decisions change.
INTERVIEWER: Looking back, do you have any role models any contemporaries you view as mentors who helped you shape your career?
BECKER: I’ve had several role models and mentors, no one individual really jumps out as somebody that I’ve likened myself to. I always try to look at folks and look at what I admire in how they manage their career or how they lead their people and pick up tips that I can incorporate into my own style, I also watch for the things that I don’t care much for and make sure that I watch for that in myself, so that I don’t pick up bad habits.
INTERVIEWER: Well I’m sure that many of the women who work under you see you as a role model of sorts and I was wondering what advise might you have for young women entering the industry today?
BECKER: My advice for young women today would be true to themselves, that they should set down what is important to them, what they value, and lay out their life according to that, do not try to become anybody else, being male or female, but, be true to who you truly are and enjoy what you do and if you get to the point were you’re not enjoying it, it’s probably time for a change.
INTERVIEWER: Are you satisfied with the progress that women have made in the industry as a whole?
BECKER: I have been very delighted with the advancement with women in this industry over the, in particularly over the last 10 years, it’s–we used to joke, that there was always no line in the women’s room when you attended a cable function and now, it definitely very, very equal and I guess that’s one very strange measurement, but, it’s something we have giggled about over the time, but, it’s so encouraging to me to see so many folks for me to relate to as a women and as a professional, as well as the new talent within the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that women have been adequately recognized for their contributions to the industry?
BECKER: Certainly not as men, but, I don’t know that most people, particularly when they get to the higher ranking positions in any company, get as much recognition than they probably deserve, I think there are a lot of folks that mistake that people just kind of float up there somehow and they don’t really understand the hard work and dedication that went into their advent, but, I don’t think really women have got nearly enough recognition. Behind all those cable men were women, and I don’t just mean their wives, who obviously were there too, this is a very taxing business on family, but, there were also a lot of women who didn’t have maybe the top roles, but who were their office managers, their marketing managers, their human resource people, that were traditional roles when the industry first started that really contributed a great deal to growing this industry and making it what it is today.
INTERVIEWER: You did mention that this industry is very taxing and I know a lot of young people entering the industry today are concerned about balancing professional life with personal life, do you have any advise?
BECKER: Balancing life, my life is always out of balance to some degree, I now look at it more as a blending of life, there are times when we are just very, very, busy and there’s certain parts of the year, or certain things that place when your launching new product, trying to get budgets done, where you really have to spend more time at the office, so, when I’m home during those particular times, I really try to make the quality of the time that I spend with my family even more so, give up the time for myself probably, and then when there’s a little less taxing at work, I try to make sure that my quantity of time, I always take my vacation, I am very committed to making sure I take those breaks and give to my family and to myself, which I think is really important, if you’re working all the time, and don’t think that you can be spared, even to take a week off here and there, you’re doing yourself and your family a disservice and therefore the company too long term.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think industry is more receptive to questions of balance than it was maybe 10 or 15 years ago?
BECKER: Oh, definitely. I know a lot of men now who to are struggling with the same thing, I think the world’s taken another turn back to family and we all have either children, or aging parents, or just each other that we really want to spend more time with and I think we recognize that time goes by so fast in this age of speed and we really need to touch reality and I think every company that I see now is really trying to bridge that gap.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the recent and very dramatic changes in the industry have an affect on women?
BECKER: Yes, definitely the changes in the industry are having an affect on women, but, I think it’s a positive affect, I see more women finishing their education in areas now that the technology is speaking to computers and data, certainly now in telephony there’s a lot more programming available, there’s just many more opportunities, more women niches for programming and those kind of things that women can get into much easier than they used to, I think it’s there’s never been a more exciting time for women and for men in the industry than it is right now.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any predictions of like where the industry will be in five, 10 years?
BECKER: I think the biggest challenge to the industry, with all the convergence that’s taking place with video data and telephony, it’s all going through the same pipe, so, while you have to give separate time and growth to each one of those products, it’s all coming into the home in the same fashion and the customers are going to expect a one stop shop, and right now that’s very difficult to do, we haven’t had the billing services, the education of our people yet, and all those things, so, as we try to nurture the brand new business to the one that’s been around longer, it’s going to be a real challenge for us to figure out how we are cost effectively integrate that into our own businesses and make it manageable for us.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think the industry is going to prepare the consumer for these changes, cause I know that you have worked in consumer representation?
BECKER: The consumer doesn’t necessarily want to have several people coming to their home, they want it easy, so, while we’re striving to figure out how we can sell and set up accounts at the same for all of their services, we have to make it very, very easy inside our own business with soft transfers by phone, or sending a pair of individuals out to the home to make sure that we can do their computer hook up at the same time we do their television hook up, or their telephone hook up at the same time we do their data hookup, to make it very, very easy and be time sensitive to those customers.
INTERVIEWER: Well, now I think I want to ask you a few questions about your involvement in women in cable and telecommunication, I know during your vice presidency, you managed to recruit 32 women, how did you do that?
BECKER: I did recruit 32 women the year of my vice presidency, this year I’ve recruited over 40 and this is immediate past president and it helps to move around a lot and get to know a lot of folks and I’ve moved several times in the industry, so, it gives me a new batch of people to explain women in cable and telecommunications to and be the benefit and the educational and the networking opportunities that it provides, it’s a very easy sell to once people understand, what it’s about, why it’s an important thing, and definitely sold once they attend one of the educational programs that we provide, it’s an easy sell.
INTERVIEWER: How did you initially become involved in Women and Cable and Telecommunications.
BECKER: My first involvement was back in the early ’80s when I attended one of the national management conferences, the description on the brochure just sounded like all of the things that I was dealing with as a state manager at the time and so I signed up and went and thought, my goodness where has this been all my life, this is a phenomenal program. I went back home and contacted our corporate office and said where was all the
TCI folks, this thing is great, we’re always looking for more training and opportunity for our people, and we really should have more people participating, they were very receptive, and certainly TCI became a very involved corporation in the Women and Cable and Telecommunications organization.
INTERVIEWER: How has being in Women and Cable contributed to your professional growth?
BECKER: Women in Cable and Telecommunication has contributed to my professional growth by offering me the opportunity to grow in my confidence while on the board and serving as president, speaking in front of large groups that I didn’t know, as well as I did within my own company, was a new challenge, certainly the opportunity to network and meet a lot of folks like myself, dress the same way I dealt with families the same way I did, just a lot of like folks, I mean, I’ve had a lot of males in my life who have been great mentors for me coming up throughout the ranks, but, to find out there were a whole lot of women who had done the same thing I had done, was really refreshing and very helpful to me.
INTERVIEWER: I have in my notes that you were part of the inaugural class of Betsy Magnets, could you talk about that experience?
INTERVIEWER: Could you talk about your experience with Betsy Magness?
BECKER: The Betsy Magness Leadership Institute that TCI was the founder of, gives some seed money to start was absolutely one of the best programs that Women in Cable and Telecommunications could have created for the industry, I was fortunate enough to be in the pilot class, and that is when I first realized I think the depth and breadth of Women in Cable and Telecommunications and the true opportunities that they provided for women, it gave me the opportunity to look at myself from a different perspective, it was very self revealing in areas that I still needed to work on and I had been in the industry for a long time when I went through it, but, it also gave me some new and long term friends, because we went through it together and it’s such a bonding experience, since that class we have sent through many, many more and many more from my own company, and immediately you know that you have a bond with those individuals because they have shared an experience, even though the program has changed slightly over the ears, we have managed to improve it a little every time somebody goes through it, but, the pool of individuals and the folks who have been exposed to that program, has just really spoken to a great deal of a sense it’s really getting a wonderful reputation.
INTERVIEWER: How will WICT evolve as we move into the next century?
BECKER: Okay, the evolution of Women in Cable and Telecommunications into the next century I think is very well positioned because we’ve spent time looking at the impact of all this convergence and what it will do or possibly do to the association. We spent time on strategic plan, taking a look at each one of those impacts and saying okay, if this what happens, then what would we do, we’ve stayed very, very true to what our mission is and our vision is and the fact that we are primarily first and foremost a women’s organization for the telecommunications industry instead of trying to be something for everybody.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think WICT has influenced the industry at large?
BECKER: I think that Women in Cable and Telecommunications has had a very positive influence on the industry at large and I think every year you’ll see more and more people at their programs, the National Management Conference, the Betsy Magness Leader Institute applicants, the accolades breakfast, all of the things that we provide are all year long, the attendance just keeps getting bigger and that is because that recognition and awareness of our contribution is becoming so well known. The educational programs alone have been worth their weight in gold to this industry, I think everybody now starts to understand that even more and certainly the networking opportunities and the pool of very capable applicants that people can draw from as they try to diverse their work force, is available to WICT career line.
INTERVIEWER: Is there one event that you’re particularly proud of from your presidential year, or from your time on the board?
BECKER: We had a great time my year on the board, I guess the crowning glory that year, to me, was our gala in DC it was absolutely a stellar event, the best ever, it was the year that American Movie Classics had all the stars come out, and it’s so good seeing it and so well done, had such meaning, and to me it was just absolutely the perfect toping on a really terrific year.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I’m sure you had ideas on questions I may ask you, is there anything I haven’t asked you yet that you want to say about WICT or about the industry and your experiences?
BECKER: I think anyone watching this video that has not joined WICT, or has people out there that work for them that have not joined WICT, particularly the females, but, we also take males, they certainly should get information, because they’re missing out on a phenomenal opportunity.