Interview Date: 1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
In this interview, Dianne Blackwood begins by describing her early career in the cable industry, and the challenges she faced as a woman in the operations side of the business. She mentioned a role model, and the unique qualities she, as a woman, could bring to the workplace. She compares her experience to the contemporary situation, where women serve in management and strategic planning. She discusses the need to network in the industry, and explains in detail the controversy surrounding the change of the name “WIC” to “WICT,” thereby expanding the membership base for the organization. Blackwood further explores the effects of changing technology as well as the current status of the “glass ceiling” for women. She describes the uniqueness of WICT, and speculates on how it will evolve. She names other women who served as role models and mentors for her. She concludes with thoughts about retention of women in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: State your name.
DIANNE BLACKWOOD: Dianne Blackwood.
INTERVIEWER: Spell the last name.
INTERVIEWER: Spell the first name.
INTERVIEWER: And your title and the company.
BLACKWOOD: Vice-President of operations of the Greensboro division of Time Warner Cable.
INTERVIEWER: You told a wonderful story about how you had some male colleagues higher up who challenged, I’ll put it nicely–who challenged you and said that you would never achieve the level that you’ve achieved today. Can you sort of recount that story for me?
BLACKWOOD: Sure. When I was a business manager in one of our local cable systems, I had a peer who knew that I very much wanted to be a general manager of a cable system. I had applied for a job, and he was very quick to tell me that I probably shouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t get the position because it was unlikely that they would have a woman in that job. Needless to say, I was eventually selected for that position, and have, since that time, moved on into managing, not one, but several cable systems.
INTERVIEWER: When you began your career back then–thinking back retrospectively, what was most striking about the industry at that time?
BLACKWOOD: The most striking thing about the industry to me in 1981 was that there were few, if any, women in general management or operations at a cable systems level. In fact, the first time I ever saw a woman who was in an operations position was at the women in cable national management conference in 1984, I believe it was. And that’s the time when I met some really wonderful women one of which was Sharan Wilson who was in a very senior level corporation operations position. And I think that’s really when the goal gelled for me to be in the operations area of the business.
INTERVIEWER: Sharon as a role model played a significant part in your vision for what your future would be. Are there any lessons she taught you, or was it just seeing somebody achieving what you would’ve liked to achieve?
BLACKWOOD: I think one of the lessons I learned from women like Sharon Wilson, and there are so many others that I could mention was that it was okay to bring what was uniquely part of me, as a woman, to the position. I didn’t have to use men as role models, and try to pattern myself as a man, would perform in the position, and use the same kinds of communication styles. That was the first time that I really was able to gel for myself that I could bring what was uniquely feminine and female about me to the position.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the industry is different today, and more open to that kind of notion?
BLACKWOOD: Absolutely. I think that the most striking thing today is that there are so many women who are moving into very senior level operations positions. And I think that’s important, because we know that women make a lot of the decisions about purchasing cable television service and the other services that our industry has expanded into. So I think it’s very important that we have the perspective of women managing these companies, and serving an integral roles to set the strategic direction for the company.
INTERVIEWER: If you were to distill down–my mother just graduated from college on Saturday, and the key note speaker for the graduation ceremony, as many key note speakers do, distilled their personal success into really simple and easy to understand elements. If you were going to sort of distill down the elements of your personal success, what would those sort of basic elements be?
BLACKWOOD: I think the basic elements of success for me have been that, number one is to really understand what was important to me in terms of who I wanted to be in the workplace. And to bring the principals and ethics that are important to me to the workplace. The second most important thing was the networking that I have been able to do within the industry. Women in Cable gave me a wonderful opportunity to begin very early in my career forming some wonderful friendships and mentoring relationships that have held me in good stead all of these many years, especially as we expanded into a broader telecommunications industry into some areas that were new to us. I think that that has been a very important key piece is that ability to continue to network in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a good segue then to name change which happened during your presidency. Can you sort of take us through the thinking that you had, and back during that time the thinking the board and the executive committee had, and deliberated changing the name?
BLACKWOOD: When we first began as a board and an executive committee, and, frankly, a foundation to look at changing our name to Women in Cable & Telecommunications was a very difficult decision for us. We were one of the first in the industry to really step out and say, we want to broaden our perspective and broaden our membership, and open our membership to women in all kinds of areas that were, in our mind, converging with the cable industry. So while many of us–in fact, all of us who were from the cable operator side of the business were somewhat concerned about how our corporations who were some of our major sponsors would respond to that change. I think for the programmers in the industry, it was a different decision because they were perceiving that they might–that’s not going anywhere.
INTERVIEWER: That was probably a hard decision to make, and there were probably some detractors in that?
BLACKWOOD: Yes there were. We had many of our board members and members who expressed great concern about whether their companies would continue to support their membership and continue to support the organization financially. We were very concerned about this decision. We were not attempting to say that the cable industry was no longer the jewel in the crown, so to speak, of the organizations, but simply to broaden the organization to include a whole new set of companies, and a whole new opportunity for new members.
INTERVIEWER: You also formed your own chapter–you are one of the founders of your chapter. Were there things that you learned in that process that helped you be successful as a national leader of the organization?
BLACKWOOD: Yes. I think there were things. When we began the organizing committee to form a chapter in North Carolina, there were not a lot of women in management positions who could take up the banner and create an opportunity for a chapter in that state. And the things that we learned were how to form partnerships with our… When we formed the organizing committee for the North Carolina chapter, there weren’t a lot of women who could put the time and energy against the effort because there weren’t a lot of women in senior enough positions to be able to step out and say, we want to have a chapter of this organization in our state. So what we did was to develop the skill of bringing our male counterparts into the organization, and to have them partner with us to become members. And that’s how we broadened our membership base. The organization has always been in North Carolina driven by the women in the corporations, and we went all the way to the customer service representative level to create that broad base of membership. And I think that partnering and mentoring is what I think I brought to the national board, and to the national leadership position.
INTERVIEWER: There’s something to be said for group achievement, and at the same time individual achievement. We celebrate many times the achievements of specific women who have “made it”, and there are many women who have done that. But at the same time, we focus on the collective success of women. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship you see between those two things; individual achievement versus group achievement?
BLACKWOOD: I think the relationship between individual achievement and group achievement is that when no one needs to get the credit really wonderful things can happen. There’s a magic about taking each individual’s accomplishments, and putting that together in an umbrella in an organization like Women in Cable and Telecommunications, and using those individual strengths and individual accomplishments to create a strategic vision for an organization that can then, through the group’s efforts, really help the organization achieve things that could not have been possible if there were only one or two individuals who were trying to make things happen for the organization.
INTERVIEWER: Is that uniquely female, do you think?
BLACKWOOD: I don’t know if it is uniquely female, because we have some males in our organization who have captured that magic as well. I think women have opened a way for that to become part of both the corporate board room, and in organizations like Women in Cable & Telecommunications.
INTERVIEWER: There’s a lot of things going on in the industry, technological change. Your systems are part of that. As all this technology changes, does that create more opportunities for everyone, and in that process create disproportionately more opportunities for women, or fewer opportunities for women?
BLACKWOOD: As this industry changes, and we introduce things like high speed data, and digital, and new forms of looking at cable television, and we have envisioned before, I think it creates wonderful opportunities for women, because suddenly there are no experts. And that has the effect of leveling the playing field, and has the effect, I think of shattering the glass ceiling. Because suddenly we can program to very diverse viewers, and we can also use the individual talents that are in the organization in new ways because there isn’t anyone who steps up to the plate and says, hi, I’m the expert in this organization on high speed data. It becomes who is willing to put the energy and effort into becoming the expert, who will ultimately hold that role, and who has the vision for the product and the new service.
INTERVIEWER: I would have asked this question in a different way to somebody else, but the question to you is, how thick is the glass in the glass ceiling?
BLACKWOOD: If you take a look at who makes up the executive management team of the major cable operators, I think you would have to say the glass ceiling is pretty thick.
INTERVIEWER: Is it thinner or thicker than it was when you first got into the business?
BLACKWOOD: It is thinner than it was when I first got into the industry. When you look at the programmer side of the business, I think you can see that the ceiling has become much thinner much more quickly. Women have, I think, really changed the landscape of what we view on television.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think that is? Why do you think it’s so much better on the programming side compared to the operator side?
BLACKWOOD: On the programmer side of the business, women can bring the creativity to the table where you’re creating a film, or you’re creating an Internet Website or whatever. You bring your creative talent to bear. And people’s creativity, I think, is judged very differently than their executive management skills.
INTERVIEWER: Sort of taking yourself out the mix for the moment and looking back at the last 20 years of WICT, can you identify the greatest achievement made over those 20 years?
BLACKWOOD: I would have to say that the greatest achievement that Women in Cable & Telecommunications has made in the last 20 years is to really make this organization a force to be reckoned with in the industry. I think that when you look at senior management across the whole landscape of the industry, they really do look to this organization for programs such as the National Management Conference where we have trained untold scores of people in all aspects of this industry. And they walk away from that program with skills they would not have had before they went to the program. And they walk away with a unique knowledge of how all of the different disciplines interact in the business. And it really lifts you out of the role you’re in, and puts into a big picture role. And helps you be very much more strategic in your thinking.
INTERVIEWER: You have a very unique experience with WICT in that you’ve been a leader both at a chapter level and on the national level, and one of the benefits of being a
WICT leader is that that contributes to your personal growth. What experiences did you have as a volunteer leader in WICT that gave you pieces that put you where you’re at today?
BLACKWOOD: When I moved into leadership with Women in Cable & Telecommunications, one of the things that I had to learn to do was to be able to build consensus between lots of different kinds of people who came from very different experiences. Not only from the differences in gender and other issues that are related to diversity, but also people who might be a CEO with a corporation, and someone else who might be a front-line customer service manager. And learning to create an opportunity for all of those people to have a voice, I think was the most key thing I brought away from Women in Cable & Telecommunications back to my organization.
INTERVIEWER: Are there things about WICT that are unique to any other organization, any other organization in our industry?
BLACKWOOD: One of the most unique things about WICT, I think is that you find yourself sitting in a room with people that are at a level that you probably wouldn’t even interact with in your own corporation. You may have a CEO or a president of a company sitting side by side with an account executive from a programmer; sitting side by side with someone who’s creating Websites for an Internet company. And that is a very unique relationship because it’s not only the mix of disciplines, but it’s the mix of perspectives. And when you have that all together in one place working on whatever project it might be, there’s just a magic there that I have seen in no other organization in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Whenever you reach a milestone; birthdays, anniversaries, you inevitably look back and you say, boy, look how far we’ve come. With your feet firmly on the ground saying, boy, look where we’re at today. And inevitably at some point you’re going to start looking to the future, and you’re going to say either, where do we want to go, or, look what potentially what we can do in the future. So sort of putting that last perspective in your head and looking forward, where do you see WICT evolving to, somewhere, let’s say ten years from now, twenty years from now? Do you ever see a time when WICT will be unnecessary?
BLACKWOOD: I think it would be incredibly sad for me if there were ever a time that we didn’t see value in WICT, because it’s important for people who have like interest, and like goals, and who come from a like place in their lives. To be able to come together, and share the way that we do it with. And I think it would be very, very sad if we said that, okay, we’ve shattered the glass ceiling so we don’t need the organization. This organization, I think, has a much greater purpose than that, and I think the ultimate celebration of being women is what this organization is about.
INTERVIEWER: Now going retrospectively, what do you think in terms of–you had talked earlier about WICT being a force to be reckoned with. Are there examples looking back over the last 20 years where you can recall specifically WICT has flexed its muscles the most?
BLACKWOOD: I think we really flexed our muscles when we changed our name. When other organizations in the industry heard that we were changing our name. I received phone calls from all kinds of people whether it be local state associations, or organizations at an national level who said, what are you doing? Why are you changing your name? Don’t you think this is premature? A lot of effort was made to slow down our progress in making that move, and I think the reason that we did step out front there. And frequently I think we step out front, and I think that’s the time when people really, really look at WICT is when we do step out and say–I think back to the cable force 2000 study where we said, what is our work force going to look like in the year 2000? And I think other people in the industry went, what are they trying to say? What do they mean that this industry’s going to have whatever percentage of women who are the entering workforce that we’re going to have to choose from. So I think it was very threatening when we release that study. So there have been a lot of times like that, but those two in particular come to mind.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever sort of celebrate the vindication? Do you sit in your office ever and say, boy, 14 years ago we knew what was going to happen 14 years ago. Do you ever just sort of sit there and get the warm fuzzies thinking about that?
BLACKWOOD: I do, and I think when I do most strongly is when I look around my own division, and the number of women who are sitting in the very roles that I thought there were no women in when I first came into the industry. When I look around and see just how many of them there are, and we’re just a little microcosm of the entire industry. But that’s when we sit back and kind of go, yeah, we knew we were on the forefront, and we made it possible for these women to have a way to these positions.
INTERVIEWER: We always use metaphors when we try to describe things that are hard to understand, and opportunity is one of those things that’s hard to understand from people. So the metaphor that’s always used is doorways; walking through doorways. And I’m going to give you three–do a multiple choice question. When you first entered the industry, was the door closed and you had to knock politely and be let in? Was the door completely open, and you just had to walk through it, or, did you have to have the SWAT team come through and knock it down for you?
BLACKWOOD: In 1981, you had to have the SWAT team come in and knock the door down for you without question.
INTERVIEWER: Now answer that same question that you think–let’s say for the women working in your division at Time Warner, for them, what do you think the door is for them?
BLACKWOOD: Today, the door is open. And it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a wonderful feeling to watch very young women enter this industry, and to be able to have a forum to say, here is what I would like to do with my career in this industry. And have people who are willing to step up and mentor them, and create opportunities for them to really shine and achieve those goals.
INTERVIEWER: What your advice to the young women who might be in your position, or your position 18 years ago, what your advice today to them would be if they want to achieve what you have achieved in your professional life?
BLACKWOOD: If I had one piece of advice to giving a young women coming into this industry, it would be to really understand what it is that you want to do with your life. To look at a broader perspective, a greater purpose, so to speak, and to really understand what is important to you. Don’t base it on a title. Don’t base it on a particular piece of the industry. Don’t base it on a salary level, but really think about what is important to me as a person. And then I think from that comes your greatest energy, and your greatest talent. To put against whatever it is that you want to achieve in your life.
INTERVIEWER: One of the roles you’re playing in this whole process besides being a past president is as a reflector on some of these women who are trail blazers and pioneers. And what we wanted to do is find out from you some specific role models that you may have. We already talked about Sharan Wilson. Are there other women–and it’s going to be tougher for you because you are in the operations side, are there specific women who you saw as you came up through the ranks who modeled yourself after? And can you tell us some of the changes you made personally that allowed you–that you made based on you looking at them, and modeling yourself after them?
BLACKWOOD: I remember the very, very first management conference that I went to, it was in Atlanta. Jill Slavin, Terry Thompson were chairing the conference, and Amy Tykeson was president. And I remember sitting back in the room, and it was one of those, ah, ha moments. And those three women–and I’m not sure they would know it, have played a very important role in how I began to work on creating opportunities for myself. As I come on forward, I remember Kate Hampford who encouraged me to run for the national board. And the role that she has had in my life. I remember Pam Williams who’s our executive direction who came on board with Women in Cable before we changed our name. And Pam was pivotal in our decision to leave the management association we had been with, and to create our own office and our own staff. And the wonderful impact she’s had on my life–because I love working with nonprofit organizations. And she’s given me a whole set of skills and understandings that I bring back to my local community, and I have very special feelings about Pam. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ann Carlsen, and the impact she’s had on all of our lives. She has had such a vision for what women could be in this industry, and she has created so many opportunities for women to see what they want to do with their own lives and then help them get there. She’s a very, very special person, and I’m sure I’ve left out many but those come to mind.
INTERVIEWER: One of the goals of this project that we’re doing is to recognize when there are achievements, and last year cable celebrated its 50th anniversary and there were lots of parties and dinners, and supplements to magazines all celebrating the 50 years of men in cable, as I like to call it because there are very few women who appeared on those pages. And one of the things we’re trying to do with this project is to balance that a little bit by looking at the women who made significant contributions. From your perspective, have women been adequately recognized for the contributions they’ve made to a growing, vibrant industry?
BLACKWOOD: I really don’t think women have been recognized to the level that they should have been for their many contributions in the industry. I think it would be a very unfortunate thing if people like Gerry Laybourne, for instance, who had such a pivotal role in creating children’s programming for Nickelodeon… I think if that were lost as Gerry has moved on to other things and is now doing Oxygen, I think it would be very, very sad if for all of the accomplishments of her life were not recognized in a more visible way than I think that they have been. I mentioned Ann Carlsen. I don’t think any other executive search firm, at least not that I’m aware of, has gone to the lengths that Ann has to attempt to create an atmosphere in corporations where, not only are women welcome to apply, but sought for the position. And I think to lose what she has brought to this industry by doing that would be very unfortunate. And there are just hundreds, and hundreds of examples of people who have stepped far out into new areas and blaze new trails, and I don’t think those women have been recognized.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think that is?
BLACKWOOD: I think when a group of senior executives get together to come up with who they’re going to recognize that the people that they interact with the most, and that they’re most familiar with are the people that will naturally come to mind and will be chosen. And it is unfortunate that there are not more women who are in that role of choosing of who will be recognized, and that more women aren’t interacting with the same group of senior executives on an ongoing basis so that their name is the first one that comes to mind.
INTERVIEWER: This industry is demanding. We all know that. It can be very challenging for young people especially when they come in and they see the long hours, the stress, the very challenging environment. What are some things that you’ve done to find balance between being successful in a challenging environment, and not completely using your entire self to your profession, professional life?
BLACKWOOD: First and foremost, I think the way that you keep in touch with yourself and your professional life is that you bring your real self to your professional life. Not who others may tell you you should bring, but who you really are and you bring that person to work with you everyday. I think the second thing is when you think about the long hours that you work, and all the energy that you put into whatever your particular work may be, it’s important to identify for yourself, is this something that really requires these hours? And I’m not really talking about time management. I’m talking about task management and really thinking through how much time needs to go against this particular task, and how important is it in the total scheme of things, and is there something else that might be more important? Is it more important that you go home and you spend the time with your family, and you get involved in your local community, and you become very active with nonprofit organizations and those kinds of things? Is that something that would be a better use of your time that would actually end up benefiting you and your work more than having stayed at the office until 10:00 doing fairly menial tasks? And that has been something that has been very key for me is deciding what really is important, and then putting my time against that.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve been talking now for 35 to 40 minutes, and I’m sure as you’re talking there were probably lots of things going through your head. Were there any topics that you were thinking about? Any expectations you had about what we were going to talk about today that we haven’t talked about? Any other thoughts floating around in your head?
BLACKWOOD: I think the other thing that is on my mind a great deal these days is as I look around the industry I see a great number of very talented people who are cashing in and checking out. And I think in all of the convergence, and all the things that are going on in this broader industry that we are today, that there is a risk that many very, very talented people will take those talents somewhere else. I don’t know that I can say why it is that’s happening, but I think it’s something that we, as an industry, need to look at. And by the same token, the other side of that coin is for those people who are in other industries who are looking for a new paradigm, we need to really be thinking about how we attract those people to this industry. Because we’re going to have to think about our business in a completely different way. It’s not just, how do we do something different the same we did cable? Or, if you’re a telephone company, how do we do video the same way we did telephone? You really have to think about this digital world in a completely different way, and I think that’s going to be the greatest challenge of this industry, and the greatest challenge of this organization is to find out how to attract the best and keep them, and keep their talents, and keep the very special qualities that they’ve brought to this industry in the past.
INTERVIEWER: The industry is changing immeasurably, and it takes a lot of vision to stay far enough ahead that you can understand where things are going, just a general thought, what percentage of the people in this industry do you think actually get it? Let’s just say, of the 30% most senior people in this industry. So let’s talk about the senior-most people in the entire industry, how many–what percentage would you put on the people actually get it and understand what’s going to happen?
BLACKWOOD: I think to answer to how many people get it, and what percentage of people get it is that different people get it on different days and on different subjects. Overall, probably maybe 50% really, really get it all. But I find every day as I look at a new challenge, or start something different as we look at digital and high speed data, and all those things, I have an ah-ha every hour. Something new occurs to me every day, and I don’t think that’s unique to any individual. I think we’re all doing that. I think what’s scary is if you stop having the ah-ha’s, and you think you’ve got it, I think you just didn’t get it.