Interview Date: November 28, 2016
Interview Location: New York City, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Arenstein: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein here for the Oral History Project at the Cable Center. We’re here in New York City at the end of November, 2016, and I’m here with Martha Soehren, who’s the chief talent development officer at Comcast. Martha, welcome.
Soehren: Thank you, Seth. Great to be here.
Arenstein: Great to have you. Since so much of your career now at least is about education, let’s talk about when you started learning as a child. Where were you born? Who were your first teachers? Do you remember your first teacher?
Soehren: I do indeed. First of all, Seth, I was born and raised in North Carolina on a farm. And it was a farm where we raised tobacco and many other crops. It was a very special place to me. I was greatly influenced by both of my parents, but especially by my dad. And yes, I can remember my first-grade teacher. It was Miss Baumgardner. My second-grade teacher was Miss McDonald. Should I continue?
Arenstein: Please, yes. Go ahead.
Soehren: I can probably name all of them, but probably what’s really important to the conversation is that I was greatly influenced by my teachers as well. Because early in childhood, I wanted to become a teacher. Actually, a really great story, Seth, is that I was about eleven or twelve years old, sitting on the steps of the farmhouse with my dad, and we were chatting and he said, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” And I said, “Well, Dad, I want to be a teacher someday.” And my dad, in his positive, optimistic way, said, “You’ll be a teacher someday. You can be anything you want to do.” And he was in a really great mood and so I thought, “OK, I’m going to throw another point at Dad.” I said, “Dad, I want to own this farm someday, too.” And he said, “Well, I can’t give you the farm because you have siblings, but I would love for you to have the farm someday.”
So long story short, Dad died. Mom sold the farm. I did become a teacher. And time passed. About 10 or 12 years ago, I reached out to the three owners of the property, put the farm back together and I own it today. So I made both of those goals a reality.
Arenstein: So you’re a farmer.
Soehren: Basically, you could call me that, although I don’t farm.
Arenstein: So what’s on the farm today? What is it like?
Soehren: I care for the fields; I have someone who does that for me, and just ensure that it remains what it was growing up.
Arenstein: Tell me about where you grew up specifically. Was it a small town, was it a big town? How many people were in your class in first grade? Was it a one-room school perhaps?
Soehren: It was not a one-room school. That would take us way back, Seth. But there were probably two or three first-grade classes and maybe about 18-20 students in each. But as far as the little town I grew up in, it’s Carthage, North Carolina. There was one stoplight in the little town. I think there are three today, so it hasn’t changed a whole lot. So it is a little small country town. I was raised Southern Baptist as well, which kind of goes along with that territory, right? Very religious, strict upbringing, but I think that and my parents and having been raised on a farm influenced me a lot about being the person I am today.
Arenstein: What was it about probably your first, second, and maybe third grade teachers that influenced you to tell your father you wanted to be a teacher?
Soehren: You know, I think probably, not knowing what the words “role model” meant back then, that I perceived them to be role models because they were generally good people. They dressed differently than the teachers dress today. You can go to a school today and you can see a teacher dressed in a sweat suit, right? But back then, it wasn’t. They were always very professionally dressed and presented themselves in a professional way. They also helped us to grow and to learn and to do things that we didn’t know how to do. So I loved that helpful nature about my teachers growing up.
Arenstein: Were your teachers citizens of the town you lived in? In other words, did you run into them at church, in the grocery store, in town somewhere?
Soehren: Just about anywhere.
Soehren: Just about anywhere. Because it was such a small town, right? And most lived in the community.
Arenstein: When you envisioned yourself being a teacher, did you envision teaching in a small town or teaching at a university, or what did you envision?
Soehren: So as I started growing into an adult, one of the things I realized quite early on was that I didn’t want to teach younger kids. That my preference was to teach adult learners or adults returning to the academic setting to further their careers. So that’s what I chose to do.
Arenstein: OK. So tell us, where did you go to college and what was your major?
Soehren: So my bachelor’s degree is a bachelor of technology—it’s in occupational technology, which at the time was very much about management engineering or industrial engineering—things that cobble a lot of different titles or names, right? For my master’s degree—it’s a master’s in business administration and then my doctorate is in educational leadership and policy studies—and I kept a bit of the business side with my doctoral work as well. I have a cognate in organizational behavior, which has helped me immensely in the learning and development world.
Arenstein: But it doesn’t sound to me like you had a strictly teaching route. Actually, to be honest with you, reading your career, I mean, I’ve done many of these interviews, and a lot of people have various routes to get to cable. Yours is very circuitous, but it’s very interesting, too.
Soehren: Oh, indeed. So I didn’t earn the right to teach with my bachelor’s degree. I earned the right to teach with my master’s degree. And that’s when I sought out my first teaching job. I started the interview process probably about a week before I actually earned the degree because I was bound and determined I was going to get a teaching job. So the first place I reached out to was Lawrence Technological University; it was in Southfield, Michigan. I got an appointment with Dean Sheehy—he was the dean of the business school there. I was so excited. I got in there for my interview with the dean. It was supposed to be about an hour in length. It went on for about two hours. I’m sitting there, I was feeling really great and I thought I had this thing nailed. I’m really, really going to walk away from there with this job. So then when it came time to bring the interview to closure, the dean said, “You know, I’d really love to offer you this job, but I just can’t do it.” And I said, “So, Dean Sheehy, why not?” And he said—you know, the typical response where you don’t have experience teaching in a college setting, right? So being bold and in the moment, which I encourage people to do with their careers—think out of the box, think what’s within the possible—so I said, “Tell you what, Dean Sheehy. I will teach a semester for free. Just let me try it, let me show you that I can do this. If at the end of the first semester, if the students don’t like me, and you don’t like me, I’ll go away. Otherwise, I’ll stay.” And I walked out of there with a job. And I actually got paid the first semester.
Arenstein: He lied to you.
Soehren: He lied to me. I taught as an adjunct professor for 13 years between there and William Tyndale College, all business courses, until I took the job I have today at Comcast in Philadelphia. And it’s very demanding from a travel perspective so it’s hard to have an adjunct role today. But I loved it. It was great. And again, helping adult learners follow their career dreams and earn their degrees.
Arenstein: What do you like about teaching?
Soehren: I think it goes back to helping others by enabling them with either knowledge or skill sets so that they can do things that are new, things that are different, things that support their career, their aspirations that help them to grow and provide for their families and enjoy their communities and enjoy their companies.
Arenstein: And the thrill never left because you kept doing it. I mean, you just love doing it.
Soehren: Absolutely love doing it. Still do it today for Comcast. Each and every day. From front line supervisors to leaders of all levels, individual contributors, it doesn’t matter. At Comcast we focus on growing and helping all of our employees.
Arenstein: So let’s fill in some of the details. Where did you go to college, and where did you get your PhD?
Soehren: I started college at Sand Hills Community College in North Carolina, and then I moved around a bit.
Arenstein: How did you get to the Michigan area?
Soehren: To the Michigan area. I married an Army officer who was a career officer, right, and so I moved around a bit with him. Then I moved to El Paso, to Fort Bliss, Texas, and I continued working on my degree there. Then we moved to Fort McClellan, Alabama, and I finished my bachelor’s there at Jacksonville State, and I started my master’s there. Then we moved to Michigan. So I finished my master’s in Michigan at the University of Detroit Mercy, and then I earned my doctorate from Wayne State University, which is also in Detroit.
Arenstein: Now, you know, there was some military here, too, besides your husband, correct?
Arenstein: Tell us about that.
Soehren: Sure. I spent 25 years as a Department of Army civilian, and moved around with my husband quite a bit during those 25 years, and absolutely loved what I was doing. And I did spend quite a few years in learning and development, all working for the Army. Actually, my first job in learning and development was validating the programs of instruction for the Army’s service schools. Things like the DOD Polygraph Institute or the Chemical Decontamination Facility, or some of the language schools. But I would go in and ensure that the programs of instruction were sound, and that for each of the programs, they had the right number of instructors for whatever equipment they were using, or activities they were completing. So that was my introduction to learning and development in the business world. Then, during my time with the Army, I also taught a bit for the Army.
Arenstein: What was that like? What did you teach and how did you find the students in the military?
Soehren: In the military, for the programs of instruction I validated, those were for the soldiers, just ensuring that they got what they needed, that they had a safe learning environment that put them on the battlefield or the exercise field or whatever role they were performing, that they had what they needed to do first of all, a great job, and to be safe while doing it.
A lot of the time that I spent actually teaching with the Army was for the civilian workforce. There were often military personnel who would attend some of the programs, but they were in total quality management. We know it today as “Six Sigma.” So I spent most of my time in that field, teaching with the Army.
Arenstein: So I guess we have to ask how does that experience apply to today, doing what you do for Comcast?
Soehren: That’s a great question, Seth. Right after I left the Army—I’d been gone about six months and I was asked to participate in an executive survey on what is it that helps people to be successful when they leave the Army or the federal service to go into the corporate world? And by far, my immediate response was, I learned to plan, execute and evaluate on a dime during those 25 years. Because you just had to make it happen. And in Comcast and in so many businesses in the corporate world, everything moves at a really, really fast pace. So it helped me immensely coming into Comcast with that skill set. It helped me to adapt to the culture, to the business environment, and I would say, pretty much take off running.
Arenstein: I bet. Let’s go back a little bit to some of the work, though, you did with the Army. It’s a pretty serious subject that you’re dealing with. We’re not just talking about does somebody know the difference between net profit and gross. You’re dealing with things that could potentially save a life or result in death. How was that to teach? Did that ever play into your mind? Were you ever thinking, my goodness, I’ve got to make sure this is really good because this is a life and death matter. Did that ever come into your thought process?
Soehren: It was always at the forefront of my mindset because each and every day it was extremely obvious and apparent to me as well as those people around me, that the ultimate customer was the soldier in the field. And our goal was always to make sure that everything was top-notch for that soldier, whether it was some type of influence on making sure that a parachute opened, or a bullet fired, or a tank moved or the logistical equipment was where it needed to be. We were all in it for all of the right reasons, and we wanted everything to be top-notch. And provide a quality product, each and every time, or quality service, each and every time.
Arenstein: If I were to say—I’m sure I know the answer to this question, but I’ll ask it—if I were to ask you, as a child in North Carolina, did you ever envision yourself doing what you’re doing today? Obviously, the answer is no, because was cable even around then? I guess it was starting but it was not what we know it today. Comcast wasn’t around at that point. Did you think when you were teaching for the Army, etc., did you ever think you’d make the jump to the cable industry?
Soehren: That’s a really great question, Seth. First of all, growing up, I never thought I would work for the defense industry or particularly the Army. Much less, I don’t think it ever hit my mind that I would spend 25 years with that organization. But I’m grateful that I did that. A lot of my time with the Army was also spent on becoming an efficiency expert. So I spent a lot of years studying the way the work got done and it kind of feeds back into the total quality management or Six Sigma philosophy, right? Making sure you have the right amount of people doing the work that you do. But as I was getting to about year 22, 23 with my career with the Army, I knew I wanted to do something different. I really had an aspiration to try a learning leader role in corporate America. Because in the defense industry, you’re not competing for a profit and revenue growth and cash flow and all of those things to the point you made earlier. But I really wanted to get into a business environment, and apply what I’d learned through my business degrees as well as my experience with the Army. So as I started framing that up, that’s when I started my PhD in educational leadership and policy studies because I thought it would be ideal to have that degree to help me land a job in corporate America.
A really interesting story: when I was getting ready to actually make the change, I applied for one job on monster.com. I imagined that people still use it today. It’s still out there, but I applied for one job only after spending 25 years. And it was for the director of leadership development at Comcast in Southfield, Michigan. I applied for the job and I went on a couple of interviews for it. Remember, I’m just kind of evolving. What do I want to do, where do I want to go, where do I want to land to be this learning leader? So I went into my boss and I said to him, “You know, Mr. Chapin, I’ve applied for a job at Comcast.” He was the president of the tank automotive research center where I worked. And he said, “Oh, you don’t want to do that.” I said, “But why not?” He said, “You want to stay here; you have 25 years. You have a long career. This is a very secure, stable environment.” I thought, well, yeah, that’s all true, but I have career goals, I have aspirations and I’m going to stay in the driver’s seat of my career, right? I had a few more interviews; this was over an eight-month period, Seth. So I would keep my boss updated because respectfully, I thought that was the right thing to do. So I’m getting around formal offer time. I go back in and I said to Mr. Chapin, “You know, I’m going to get an offer for this job.” He said, “You know, you really, really want to stay here. Here’s what we’ll do for you.” And I said, “You know what? I really want to go after this job because it’s aligning with what I want to do with my career.” So I got the job offer and I went in and said, “I signed the job offer today.” He said, “Look. I feel so adamant that this isn’t the right thing for you to do that I’m going to put you on sabbatical. You go to Comcast, you work for six months, if you don’t like it, come back and you’ll have a job here.” There were no guarantees it would be the same job I left, but he could do that. The federal government gives sabbaticals from time to time.
I have to tell you it was the smartest decision I could possibly have made. I love working for Comcast, love the company, love my job, love the culture. It’s a really, really healthy place to work. The transition was beautiful for me. I’ll admit there were times—
Arenstein: Yes, let’s get to that because I remember there’s a story you want to tell.
Soehren: My first week there, I asked for an org chart. I said, “Could I just see one?” Because in the defense industry, org charts cover the walls. Big walls, right? And I was told, “We don’t have org charts.” And I thought, “OK.” I think, though, Seth at the time that was just an indicator of the cable industry not being as sophisticated as it is today. Over the sixteen years that I’ve been with Comcast, I’ve watched the level of sophistication grow immensely.
Arenstein: One question that I thought of while you were telling that story, Martha, one area I would assume you would have been interested in was the defense industry itself. The defense contracting industry. It would seem to me you were sort of tailor-made to go from working as a civilian in the Army to a defense contractor. Did that ever cross your mind?
Soehren: It did not. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be focused on learning and development. I wanted to get a role as a chief learning officer. That was my dream, that was my goal, that was why I went to school to get the PhD in educational leadership. That degree prepared me to lead a learning organization. So I went after it. I stayed in the driver’s seat. No one took me off course. And I made it happen. But I had great champions, I had great mentors—
Arenstein: Tell us about it.
Soehren: I had a lot of wonderful people to help me along the way. I had been at Comcast maybe just a few weeks when my boss started having conversations with me about what is it that you aspire to be here? And I said, “Dave, I want to be the chief learning officer at Comcast someday. Hopefully not too long from now.” And he said to me, “You know what? I’ll be your mentor. And I’ll support you. Do a great job here, stay with me a few years and I’ll help you get there.” And then the president of the division, same. He was a great champion for me. A good news, bad news story. The first time the position opened up after I started working with Comcast, I had been in the organization maybe about a year-and-a-half. And the position opened up, and so I just threw my name in the hat. But I do it through email, I don’t actually apply through the application process, but I sent an email note to the EDP of the HR at the time, and just expressed my interest. So I got an email note back that said, “Hey, great, I’ll be in Southfield, Michigan, on next Wednesday. I’ll be there at one o’clock. Let’s chat about this.” And I get pumped. I was so excited, I thought, I cannot believe she’s coming here to see me to chat about this role. So I was very optimistic.
She showed up at my desk to tell me that she wasn’t going to consider me, that she didn’t think I was qualified, that I had not had the level of experience that I needed to serve as the chief learning officer of Comcast, which at the time, was about 24,000 employees deep. And today we’re about 159,000 deep, which you well know. So about a year-and-a-half later, the job opened up again. I’ll never forget it. I was in Bay City, Michigan, on a family vacation with my kids and my husband, and the phone rings. And it’s the president of the Midwest division, Dave Scott, and Marie McMillan, who was the HR leader, and Dave goes, “Martha, I’m calling to see if you’re interested.” As soon as he got that word out of his mouth, I said, “Yes! I’m all in!” Because I had just had a feeling it would have to be about that; I knew the job was open. So I got tapped on the shoulder the second time around. You know what they said? I think Nancy did me a big favor. I think that having not been given the job the first time, it caused me to buckle down and work harder and ensure that I spent more time learning the business so that when it did open up, I would really, really be prepared. And it worked out really, really well for me.
Arenstein: Now we’ve been talking a lot about you, a lot about your development, your path to Comcast. Let’s talk a little bit more about Comcast now. Somewhere in the research I saw you talking about Ralph Roberts. I mean, I met him a couple of times. He was everything I thought he would be and more. But I know you had a perspective on him as a teacher and coming into the classrooms. Could you tell us about that?
Soehren: Absolutely. I don’t think I have talked to anyone who knew Ralph who didn’t absolutely love him, right? I loved Ralph and I loved him for many, many reasons. First of all, he’s just a good person, a family man. He is, in my opinion, he is the pillar of the family-like culture that we have in Comcast today, just because he was caring and smart as all get-out. But one of the things I appreciated most was how he helped us and helped me teach Comcasters about the business, about their jobs, through lessons, through stories. He was probably our very, very best leader as teacher in the organization. And he was especially careful and deliberate about helping us teach our high potentials. He insisted that all the other leaders around him do the same, which goes back to role modeling, right? If we role model the right behaviors, then those who are observing us or following us will most likely exhibit those same qualities, those same attributes, those same behaviors.
Arenstein: So tell us a little bit about what you do today. Tell us, for those who don’t know what Comcast University is—it doesn’t have a football team, does it?
Soehren: No, but it could have.
Arenstein: I’m kidding. Tell us about Comcast University, tell us about learning at Comcast. Tell us about the high potentials.
Soehren: Sure, you bet. So Comcast University is the learning institute for Comcast. We have about 525 learning and development professionals across the cable business, and these are professionals who are either writing and developing training content or they are delivering training in a classroom, whether that classroom is a physical standup classroom or a virtual classroom. And recognizing that a lot of the training content that we build is delivered through a web-based format or some type of self-serving format for our learners across the organization. Every new hire that comes into a frontline role in Comcast gets touched deeply through what Comcast University offers because we teach them the knowledge, the skills, and everything that they need in order to present our products to our customers, or to service our products, or to sell, or to repair, or to solve a billing issue—whatever it takes. We give them the tools necessary to do those jobs. We also have 15 high-potential programs for leaders across all levels of the organization. One of our most successful, Seth, is the one we have is for hourly employees, which we instituted about 2½, 3 years ago. Our promotion rate for those hourly employees to supervision is between 60% and 70%. Our retention is between 95% and 98%, depending upon the geography in which the employees are housed. But we’re really, really excited about that, and the programs go all the way through the executive level. We pay really, really close attention in Comcast to the inclusion of people of color, of gender, and of people with mixed opinions or different opinions, whatever that might be. But we do a really, really great job ensuring that we have a very inclusive learning environment regardless of the type of program it is.
So in addition to the learning and development that happens within Comcast University, we also manage the talent management function, which is where we assess the talent, and we create the succession plans for the roles within the organization, especially with a focus on directors and above. Then what ties perfectly back to Comcast University to the learning and development function, we also are able to put people in the right development programs so that they can get to their next role, or follow their career aspirations, whatever it is they want to do.
Arenstein: So what about people who are—you talked about hourly workers. What about remote workers, how do you keep in touch with people who don’t have an office, who may be in a truck or just never around a computer, let’s say, to do learning? How do you deal with those sorts of people?
Soehren: It’s a great question, Seth. All of our employees have some type of device, mobile device, so they can always get access to learning through our learning management system and other means, like through our intranet. Our product portal, where we house all of the content related to our products—they can access that through the intranet and through the learning management system on their mobile devices. So we have the content that people need, which goes to our vision for learning at Comcast. We call it “Vision 20/20.” That is, we want to deliver learning in a format that works for all of our employees anywhere, anytime, any device, right, that helps them do the job better, or to work on that next job they want.
Arenstein: We talked a little bit during our talk here about pace and how fast things move. I’m sure they move fast in the Army. They couldn’t have moved much faster than they do in cable television, and new products and new policies and new pricing. How did your instructors and how did your curriculum keep up with all that?
Soehren: That is a really great question, Seth. If we were to go back about, I would say, seven or eight years ago, I would say to you that it was really difficult to get at the right table, to ensure I was getting the latest updates on the business. Today, I don’t think there’s a table that we miss, because we get pulled to the table early on. Because the business has grown to appreciate what it is that we do and how we connect learning to business impact. An example might be we’ll build a learning solution and we can tell you if those learners—30, 60, 90 days later or six months later—how their performance compared to maybe the average of the call center, or the average of the technical work force. So we’re very, very connected to the business. We tell great impact stories that our business leaders have grown to really appreciate and expect from us. So, we don’t get left out from the business tables in our organization, which is a really great place to be.
Arenstein: Well, of course, but that doesn’t happen by itself, obviously. Having the respect for education and learning; tell us about some of the leaders of Comcast who obviously have that respect for your function or you wouldn’t be at all those tables.
Soehren: Sure. I think it starts with Brian Roberts, who has really helped us build a learning organization. And Steve Burke. When he came to Comcast, he contributed immensely. He’s the person who gets all of the credit for really starting Comcast University. Then we could look at David Cohen, who’s one of our absolute best leaders as teachers today, and helps us immensely. Or my boss, Bill Strahan, or Neil Smit, or Dave Watson. Which by the way, Dave Watson co-chairs the National Executive Learning Council with me. This is a learning council that we established in 2010 when we centralized learning at Comcast. Which, by the way, prior to 2010, there were 71 reporting relationships for learning at Comcast. It reported into finance, to legal, to operations, to HR. I mean, the list goes on—
Arenstein: This is why they didn’t have the org charts.
Soehren: That’s probably the case. But when we centralized, we developed this council and Dave Watson co-chairs it with me. And it has brought immense strategic focus to learning and development at Comcast. We go to the table with topics on the latest learning and development technologies and what we’re planning to do from a learning perspective to better enable a “perfect for me” type of learning for our workforce. We share impact stories there. We talk about talent development and how we’re moving from the lessons learned during talent reviews to really progress our people so that we accomplish not only the mission, but the vision of Comcast as an organization. So it’s a very strategically led organization, and the EVPs of all product and business units, and the presidents of three geographical divisions sit on that learning council.
Arenstein: So, if you permit me, I want to tell you a story. Because you talked about hourly workers, you talked about training. I had a parent who was a Comcast customer who passed away. I was told to come into the Comcast office near my parents’ house and bring the modem, etc. etc. So I did and I remember the woman who served me, prior to serving me was berated by an irate customer. I mean, everybody in the office could hear it. I remember—she just sat there, she took it, she was very, very calm about it. And then it came to my turn to deal with this woman and I thought, “Oh, my God, she couldn’t be in a very good mood.” But the first thing she said to me was, she said, “Before we start with the business, let me say how sorry I am for your loss.” Which just knocked me over first off.
Soehren: It’s great.
Arenstein: Then she took the modem back, she looked at the bill and she said, “Oh, your mother must have been in the hospital for some number of weeks.” I said, “Yes, she was in the hospital for about two weeks.” She said, “Well, we’re not going to bill her for her cable those two weeks. She wasn’t home.” So she took that off the bill, I mean, I was not expecting that and she didn’t have to do that. She did that, and then I gave her the modem back and again, before I left, she said, “Again, I’m really sorry about your mother passing away and everything.” It was a Friday afternoon, the office was crazy busy and it was several years ago and I still remember the whole thing. So I would say whoever taught her, whoever her parents were, did a very, very good job.
Soehren: And she was probably influenced by both, right? Her parents and her learning experience. And what she did for you, Seth, was the right thing to do. We want every customer to have that quality of customer service, and that’s why at Comcast, we’re making the customer experience our best product. And we’re doing it a step at a time, that she did exactly what she should have done. I’m proud of her.
Arenstein: Well, she did a great job and I have to tell you, I wrote about it for CableFax, and again, she didn’t know who I was, but it was very positive experience. It really goes to part of what you’re doing, putting those people out there, your ambassadors, they’re your voice. You did a great job there.
Tell me a little bit about coming into Comcast. You weren’t really a cable person, but your previous job, being a woman in the Army, being a woman in the defense sector, how did those lessons apply to learning the business and being part of the business of Comcast?
Soehren: Well, Seth, one of the things I really appreciate about Comcast—and it was really the same during my 25 years with the Army. I never once felt that I was treated differently when it comes to my career because I am a woman. I think I’ve done quite well and I think that it’s come about by working really hard at doing the right things and learning the business and always remembering why we’re in business: to provide a great customer experience. So just being committed to that has helped me immensely. I think where we get in a little bit of trouble, whether it’s at Comcast or the defense industry or any other company, is that women can often be more competitive with each other. I think that’s where a lot of the issues come about and where the breakdown happens, you know, women just trying to get ahead or to move ahead or move forward. But I personally have never once felt held back because I’m a woman.
Arenstein: Now I know you’re active in both Women in Technology and Women in Cable. Tell me what you’ve done in those areas. You’re a chair at WICT. Tell me about what you’ve done.
Soehren: So, Seth, I think it’s really important that we serve within our industry, and there are ways of doing that outside of our company. For example, like Women in Cable and Telecommunications—it’s a great organization. Fabulous organization that provides really, really great learning and development opportunities to women and men, to include great mentoring and career development and just gives a lot of options that maybe don’t always exist within our companies. So I’m proud to sit on the board with WICT. I’m proud to chair the board. I’ve done that for a couple of years now and I’ve been on the board of directors for about eight years, I believe, with that group. And it’s because I believe in what they’re doing. And Comcast does, too. We’re committed to being a part of that organization and ensuring that it’s an option for our employees, not unlike all of the other companies in the cable business, right? Or the programmers. So I enjoy serving. And I learn a lot, too, being with the other women there. Networking is always great and being part of the network for other women is good for them and good for me as well.
Arenstein: When you were looking at the job at Comcast, did you know all these things existed in the cable industry, like WICT, like NAMIC, like Diversity Week? I mean, these to me—I’ve only been in cable; I’ve been in defense for a while, too, but mostly in cable. And I don’t know of another sector that does these things, spends a whole week dealing with diversity and women. Did you know these things coming in?
Soehren: I had no idea. But the first organization I was introduced to was WICT. And I became a member in Michigan and I started participating and I realized the great value that it brought. So then I went on to serve on the national board for all these years, which is really, really great. For the SCTE, or the Society of Cable and Telecommunications Engineers, I was introduced to that group fairly early on. One thing I knew for sure was that almost everyone there on the board talked way over my head because they were like the CTOs and people who really, really understand the technologies. But what I found was they needed someone who also knew learning and development really well because that’s a big part of their revenue. It’s what they do to help companies within the industry from a learning and development perspective, like with DOCSIS 3.0 or Fiber Deep and all of these very technical topics. But I’ve really enjoyed serving on that board as well. I’ve learned a lot about cable by serving there.
Arenstein: What about Women in Technology? How do you get more women into technology?
Soehren: That’s tough. And some of that happens early in childhood and how children are influenced by their parents or the teachers who are role modeling, right? And the types of discussions that happen and how we really focus in on science and math in those courses that are so critical, starting with elementary school and going on up through high school. A lot of it has to do with how the counselors coach and help then, too, I’ll tie it back to, what is the aspiration of that young woman? What does he or she want to do? I do believe that SCTE and WICT and other organizations are working more with academia today to try to inspire more women to get into the field. The women who get there, though, generally do quite well, quite well. They pretty much have a ticket to move and all of their dreams and accomplished their goals as long as they do what’s right for the business.
Arenstein: Career advice: I mean we can’t sit here with somebody like you and not ask what do you tell a youngster who really wants to get into the cable industry. What do you say?
Soehren: How old would that youngster be, Seth?
Arenstein: Let’s say somebody who’s in high school. 15, 16, 17.
Soehren: So the way I work with even adults, all right, or the way I would work with a high school student or a college student is I would have probing questions that would require research. In other words, I want you to go research the types of products that these companies offer. I want you to see if you’re intrigued by them. I want you to look at the success stories of these companies and see if you’re intrigued by those stories. Look at some of the hardships they’ve dealt with. Are you willing to go through hardships with a company? What are you really willing to do? It’s not unlike someone trying to decide, “I want to go back to school to get my master’s degree and I just don’t know what to do or what to study.” Do your research. Do your homework. Do some self-learning and then come back and see me. I’ll tie it to how I mentor is well-said. Because I mentor a lot of men and women, and they vary across ages, they vary across roles, and titles and so forth. And very often, a mentee for the first time will show up at my table and say, “You know what? I just need you to help me decide what I want to do next.” And I immediately say, “You know what? I’m going to let you help yourself, right? And I’ll help move the dialogue along. But you need to self-learn and figure out and explore and try a special project. Don’t be afraid of shadowing someone.” I’ll never forget my first shadowing experience. When I first joined Comcast in Southfield, Michigan—I hadn’t been there long enough—you know what, I’d love to be a general manager. It’s when we had the general manager roles—today, they are regional senior vice-president roles, right? So you have these regional leaders. And I thought, you know, I would really, really like to explore that. Because I have a pretty good business sense about me. And I thought, OK, I could shadow, and I chose to shadow Rusty Robertson in Indiana. My boss supported this and one of the areas I really wanted to learn about was the local franchise agreements because I had no knowledge of that. I am still learning so much because cable is so different from what I’m used to. And what I learned from that was I didn’t want to be a general manager, right? So the point is, when advising students, whether they’re in high school or they’re in college or they’re within the organization just wanting to move forward, I think it’s important that you and I and others drive self-exploration because a lot of people would love for us to tell them your next job should be “X,” and here’s what you need to do to get there.
Arenstein: Right, right, right.
Soehren: But it shouldn’t work that way. I think my career advice to every person I mentor or coach is, stay in the driver’s seat, know where you want to go. Because others can take you off your path. They can steer that car into a muddy hole on the side of the road or into a tree and just really throw you off balance. It sort of goes back to when I was debating on leaving the defense industry to join Comcast, right? I could have stayed there. I could have gotten that promotion, right? I could still be there and I would still have the most secure job in probably all the world along with a lot of other people who had those kinds of jobs. But I would not have had the pleasure and the opportunity and the exposure and the experience to join the cable industry and to be a part of Comcast. And remember, when I joined Comcast, we were very much a follower, right, from a technology perspective. Today, we’re the leader. We are like really leading the path when it comes to the products that we offer.
Arenstein: Why don’t we sketch that in a little bit? You mentioned that when you started at Comcast, there were about 25,000 employees and now it’s about 159,000. Tell me what it was like at Comcast back then, what was the structure, who was in charge, what did the company look like back then?
Soehren: When I joined Comcast, Steve Burke was the president of cable, and we had six geographical divisions at the time. I worked in the Midwest division. It was led by Dave Scott, the president. He went on to do a lot of other great things, still is, with Comcast, right, but a phenomenal leader. So having that exposure right out of the gate, it doesn’t get much better than that. With 24,000 employees, I would say that the pace—it’s always seemed fast—but I believe how we got things done within that pace were—I’m going to use the word “unsophisticated,” again. Like if you look at our billing system and where it was then compared to where it is now. Or if you look at just like the TV guide, and what it was then to where it is now. So we watched our processes and our people and our technologies progress in a really, really great forward-thinking, forward-doing kind of way. It’s about scale, right, and how we build the work that we do so that we can really accomplish a lot of great things, but reach a lot more people, whether it’s the workforce of 159,000, which of course includes NBC Universal. Or it includes our 29 million customers.
Arenstein: Now there was a point in the research, I know, you wanted to talk about Time Warner Cable, I believe.
Soehren: I loved the work that we did when we had hoped to acquire Time Warner Cable. The people at Time Warner Cable are, still—I know they’re under the Charter umbrella now—really, really good people. I will say to you that if there is a cause in Comcast that needs to be rallied around, we just rally and we get her done. And we get things done right. And that’s what we did around that pending Time Warner Cable acquisition. Having talent management and learning and development, I got to know probably almost every executive working in Time Warner Cable. Some of the best lessons I learned out of that experience was, I would say there are probably two lessons. One is, when dealing with people who are—you know, they have a sense of insecurity about their future in their company, in their role, it is so important to recognize. You have to just treat people really, really carefully in your spoken word and your unspoken word. They all count and you can lead a conversation talking about talent and potential jobs in the future under a new company umbrella, and you can leave people damaged, or you can leave them feeling like they’re really important and a part of something that could be bigger and better, right? So that was one of the lessons.
The other lesson I learned from that experience, other than Comcast can rally on a dime—and I’m going to go back to that because it is amazing. We worked endlessly, seven days a week, tons of hours every day, and a huge group of people made that happen. The other was, in getting to know the Time Warner Cable talent, and where we might have placed those people within our organization, we learned a lot about our own talent. And where we had some shortfalls or gaps. And so we quickly rallied and built high-potential programs to target some of those areas, and it paid off nicely for our company.
Arenstein: I know Brian Kenny at the Cable Center, the librarian, always likes us to end with some legacy questions and some forward-thinking questions. What does the cable industry look like, let’s say, five years from now, ten years from now? I mean, when you started at Comcast, it was a—for want of a better term—it was a cable company. You can’t say that today, really. It’s a communications company. If you ask the average person on the street, it’s an Internet company now. What does it look like five years from now, do you think?
Soehren: Yes, I’ll take two approaches to that question, Seth. One is what I hope for Comcast. And that is, a lot less regulation because we do spend a lot of time, even from a learning and development perspective, tackling the regulatory side of things, and I know what Brian and the executive team has to do and David and the group is far, far greater. So I would wish for us less regulation. What I think that we’ll see five years from now, from a product perspective, is a wireless home. And all of these—maybe not all of them, but I think most of the cable, the fiber optics will go away eventually, and it will be a self-managed product and service. We’re already today working really hard to help our customers self-serve through what we call “Digital First.” And creating the right apps so that people can manage their accounts or troubleshoot. Like I had an issue with my X1 box in one of my bedrooms before my guests got in for Thanksgiving. And I knew this particular guest, the TV had to be working. I pulled up my account app and I did some troubleshooting and guess what, the TV worked for them. But it was because I was able to manage that wirelessly, and I think that we’re going to see a really, really strong focus on making on that the way of the future around all of the products and services.
Arenstein: Let’s get in terms of today, where do you sit? Do you sit in the Comcast global headquarters in Philadelphia or are you still in Michigan, or where are you?
Soehren: I sit in Philadelphia and I have been there since accepting the role as chief learning officer. And I love living in Philly. I live in the city. I love the energy around the city. I love the Comcast Center and the energy it brings, and the new technology center that’s going up, I think it’s a happening place. I think probably ten to fifteen years from now, that you’ll be sitting here interviewing folks and you’ll be asking, “How did you bring the Silicon Valley to the East Coast?” And we will have contributed immensely to that.
Arenstein: You told me or you intimated that you have quite a travel schedule. Where do you go? How many days a year are you on the road?
Soehren: I travel probably about 70 to 75% of my time. I have teams across the U.S. We’re in 39 states [and Washington, DC], and I travel to those teams. I travel to my business leaders. I travel for WICT and SCTE a lot. I also just came off the Association for Talent Development board, which is an L&D industry org, it’s the premier org in L&D. And I still serve them. I’m the chair of the board’s selection committee right now. So those kinds of things require some of my time and my travel as well. I don’t mind the travel, though. Comcast is so good to us. So I have the monthly membership for WiFi—Gogo WiFi—on the planes. It’s my best admin time in all the world. I can knock out some paperwork or emails when I’m flying. It works out beautifully. So being an efficiency expert, I really, really manage my time nicely.
Arenstein: OK, so you brought up efficiency. What about the Internet? What about Facebook? What about Twitter? What about email? It seems to me that I look up at the clock and I’ve done nothing but I’ve been working on email or Facebook or whatever for hours. What does an efficiency expert say about all this stuff?
Soehren: An efficiency expert would tell you to structure and organize your time. I believe that anything that gets scheduled pretty much gets done, right? So I know which hours of the day I’m probably going to do email if I need to do email. I don’t get distracted by my iPhone during the day. A lot of people are addicted to those things. When you’re addicted to a device, it’s going to pull you in and out, in and out, rather than having focused time to get that administrative work done. So I work really, really hard at that. I schedule family time. I schedule trips to visit my sister or my granddaughter—I have a nine-year old granddaughter and ever since the day she was born, I have spent a weekend with her every month. But I put it on my calendar—except for two months out of nine years. I had a month I couldn’t go and they had a month they couldn’t have me there because of things going on. But the whole point of sharing that story, if it’s important to you, figure out how to get it done. There’s no such thing in this life as work-life balance. And people who are chasing it, they’re not going to get there. I just refer to it as work-life flexibility. You flex your schedule around what’s important to you. And some of that silliness you spend your time on, just find a way not to put it on your calendar.
Arenstein: So Martha, as we come to the close here, I guess I have to ask a question a lot of other interviewers have asked of you, and I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m looking forward to hearing it. How does a girl on a farm gain all this confidence, gain all this surety, gain all this wisdom to where you are now? How does that happen? I know it doesn’t happen overnight. Who are some of the people that helped you get to where you are and was there ever a moment where you said, “Oh, wow. I can do this, I can do that, I can get to where I want to go.”
Soehren: A lot of it goes back seriously to the way I was raised. I worked hard and I always worked hard at doing a great job, and at the end of that great job, regardless of what it might have been, my growing up on the farm, there was almost always positive feedback when the job was done right. And there was corrective feedback when the job wasn’t done right. So I learned early on to be bold, to go for it, to always do your best, recognize that rewards are important, right? It’s important that we receive them. It’s probably more important that we give them. So I don’t know that there’s ever been anything in my life where I framed a goal around it that I didn’t just make it happen. I would go back to be a returning adult learner to earn my bachelor’s degree. That was tough, right? It was really tough. My son at the time, he was about five years old, and it meant having to make sacrifices for him, making sacrifices for the family, and I learned a lot of lessons from that, that I never gave up. One of the coolest rewards that I got out of that experience of going back to school and compromising some things for my family to get that done was a letter that my son wrote me when he finished college. And he thanked me for being the role model for him and the example that I set. And he realized that it was hard to do what I did, right? And that we all did some giving and taking. But at the end of the day, it was about the long-term vision. Earning the degree wasn’t just about me, it was about my family, it was about the success of all of us. And you know what, Seth? Today, it’s still about the success of all of us.
Arenstein: So we like to do some legacy questions. We like to do these summation type questions. This is an oral history. People will be watching it presumably many years from now. What do you think the cable industry’s legacy is going to be? And, it’s kind of early to talk about your legacy, but let’s talk about it.
Soehren: Seth, for the cable industry, I think the legacy will be that we really created a way for people to connect. Whether it’s families connecting, students connecting, businesses connecting, but in profound ways. For me, I think it’s pretty simple. I want my legacy to be that I made a positive impact on a lot of careers and therefore, a lot of lives.
Arenstein: Great. I’d like to ask one more question and that’s about product demonstration labs. This is an education question. I’m guessing that it’s when you’re—instead of having people or instructors talk about doing something, you actually sit in a classroom or maybe at home, and you have your fingers on the keyboards while an instructor’s saying, “Now you move this here and you do this…” Is that what they are and how did it come about?
Soehren: Pretty much so. So with the National Executive Learning Council, one of the big projects that came out of that, which was very strategic and visionary, was to build a product knowledge portal that houses lots and lots of learning objects. Most of them are video-based, two to three minutes at the most. Our employees can consume these small content objects between calls or when they’re out on, or waiting for a job to start or those kinds of things. It’s easy to access and it’s very visually appealing, each of the objects in there. But to complement that, we were also asked to help the business build product labs across the country. There are over a hundred of those labs today, and they’re hands-on lab experiences that employees can either go into a lab as an individual regardless of their job title, and they can experience our product. Or you might find a supervisor or a senior executive who might just want to take a group of folks in and say, “Hey, let’s look at our product. Let’s work on this. Let’s troubleshoot something.” Maybe you have an issue that you’re working in a market. You could pull people into that product lab for a hands-on demonstration. They’re all built to a certain standard which was really important to the Learning Council as well. Because we want our employees, regardless of title or job function, to be product ambassadors. So the labs and the portal are helping us get there.
And Seth, I’m going to share with you my best lesson in resilience because it came about from the product portal. The first time that my team and I went into the Learning Council to show the first mockup of the portal, it got a resounding thumbs-down. I mean, it was like really, really tough and what was interesting, the person who owned product at the time, we had just showed it to him the week before and he thought it was really cool, but the council said, “No way. This isn’t good enough for what we need to give to our employees.” Which was really, really great. But there was a great lesson in resilience for me there. You accept the feedback, it’s not right, you bounce back and you go make it happen. So that’s what we did.
Arenstein: Martha Soehren, this has been a pleasure. I’m learning while I’m sitting here so I guess this is a great experience.
Soehren: My pleasure.
Arenstein: Thank you so much for being here. Looking forward to talking to you again soon.
Soehren: Thanks, Seth. It was great. Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW