Interview Date: 1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
WILSON: Sharan Wilson, S-H-A-R-A-N W-I-L-S-O-N. And I’m president Sharan Wilson Resources Limited.
INTERVIEWER: Just to warm up, could you tell me how you initially became involved in the cable industry?
WILSON: I became involved in the cable industry in the late ’70s. I worked for a newspaper, and went back to get my master’s degree and one of the professors that was on my thesis committee was one of the local “rent-a-citizens” that cable companies used to go in and get to obtain a franchise for the particular market. She took my resume, and sent it into a cable company. And the next thing I knew, I had a job.
INTERVIEWER: At the time you began your career, what do you think was the most striking thing about the cable industry?
WILSON: I think it was the pace. Everything was happening so fast. HBO had just gone up on the satellite, and there was now real programming that was of interest to the general public available and we just couldn’t build it fast enough. It was trying to get franchises in every major city, and then get it constructed and up and running. The pace was just incredible.
INTERVIEWER: You worked with Bill Daniels in the ’80s?
WILSON: Yes, I did.
INTERVIEWER: Talk a little bit about that, and that experience.
WILSON: That was probably the most incredible experience of my life. You never forget when you’ve worked with Bill Daniels. A true gentleman and a businessman. And his word was as good as, you know, anything, a handshake was all it took. It was the most incredible time. Again, lots of activity going on, and Bill had a philosophy that a lot of companies have adopted since then. He always believed if he took care of his employees, they would take very good care of the customers, and then the customers would take the service and send in the money. Lots of profit would be made, and that was a whole different approach in the cable industry back then.
INTERVIEWER: He was sort of integral in looking at customer service, would you say?
WILSON: Absolutely, but through the employees. He just took such good care of his employees that you just wanted to do the same thing for the customers. And so they were well taken care of, and they stayed on the service. I think the Daniels cable customers were some of the most satisfied in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Was he your main mentor, or your only mentor? Were there other people who helped you at an early point in your career?
WILSON: Bill was an incredible role model. There were also some women that were breaking ground when I first got in cable, or that were actually further down the road. June Travis at ATC, Gayle Greer at ATC. They were doing things that women had never done before in terms having jobs and positions, and they were sort of role models also.
INTERVIEWER: Any specific lessons they taught you that helped you with your career?
WILSON: I think the lessons that I learned from both of them were many, but just do your job, not get side-tracked in a lot of the political things. If you didn’t act like women weren’t supposed to be there, then people in some instances didn’t treat you that way either. So just do you job, make things happen, and it seemed to work.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think it was easier for women in the early ’80s when there were no definite rules in cable to enter the profession?
WILSON: I don’t know. I’m not sure if it was easier back then or not. There was a lot of groundbreaking, because they just didn’t think about women in certain positions. But at the same time, the pace that I talked about earlier helped. There was so much going on. They had to have good people. They overlooked a lot of things, I guess. I mean, they just hired the best people they could find. Nowadays, there seem to be more jobs, more companies, more opportunities, but they’re at a different level because of all the consolidations and things that are happening. There aren’t as many leadership roles, or maybe chances to move up. So I’m really not sure if it was easier then or now.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk a little bit about that, and the rapid changes in the industry. Do you see it as having a particular effect on women and men in general in terms of their career? Will there be more opportunities, or fewer opportunities?
WILSON: Again, I’m not sure about what impact all the changes that have been going on, what impact that’s going to have on women in the industry. The company numbers are fewer, but the companies are larger. There seem to be fewer positions at the top. There’s a lot more downsizing and flattening of organizations so that a lot of the mid-level management positions are not there. There’s not the opportunity that there was in building systems, and doing things like that. But, yet, at the same, there’s all the opportunities with telephony and data; opportunities in the MIS area that have never been there before, so I’m not sure. Hopefully, there’s a balance, and there’ll be plenty of opportunities for everyone.
INTERVIEWER: As you surely know, cable was initially an entrepreneurial business. Do you think with women now more and more becoming entrepreneurs, do you think that’s the way that they’ll become equal within the industry entering as an entrepreneur? Do you see entrepreneurship as sort of an equalizer between men and women, women entering the business as entrepreneurs as a means of leveling the playing field?
WILSON: I think the entrepreneurial spirit has hit a lot of women, maybe more so now than when I originally got into the industry. 20 years ago the way to get in, or the way a lot of women got in was through the marketing/sales side. Now, I think more women are coming in with their own companies doing consulting, and various and sundry ways. That’s the entry point. I don’t know whether that’s going to put them at the level of equality with the men that are running the larger companies, but I think it is another way. There weren’t a lot of women starting their own companies in the cable industry 20 years ago, and I think there are a lot more now.
INTERVIEWER: What would you say are the key elements of your personal success?
WILSON: I think there was a lot of just being in the right place at the right time. Having a background that seemed to fit with the needs, and there was just so much going on. It was a time of working hard, playing hard, and making things happen. There were so many opportunities that it seemed like you were moving every year or two, or changing positions maybe within the same company, but changing positions. And if you were willing to put in the hours, and make it happen, I think that was what helped me.
INTERVIEWER: Would you have any advice you would give young people entering the industry today? How to meet the challenges, and the expansion, and the pace? Any advice you would give them?
WILSON: Advice I would give would be to find a company whose values are similar, that you can believe in, and what they’re doing and just start working your way through. I’m not naive enough to believe that people are going to stay with the same company 30 years. It just doesn’t happen anymore, but you need to be happier, be comfortable with where you’re at. So my advice would be find a good company, one that you’re compatible with, and just do your best.
INTERVIEWER: This project is retrospective. We’re looking back at women, and the contributions that they’ve made in the industry. Do you think the industry at large has recognized the accomplishments of women in the past?
WILSON: I think the industry’s trying harder than it has in the past to recognize women’s accomplishments. There are several organizations that specifically pick women to honor. The NCTA has the Vanguard Award. CTAM, again, I don’t know that they’re particularly looking for women, but they have women that are honored each year. There needs to be a lot more visibility, I believe, for women in the industry, and chances for them to be selected for a lot of the standard vanguards and awards that are available too.
INTERVIEWER: There was a lot of talk in the early ’90s about a glass ceiling. Do you think there ever was a glass ceiling preventing women from achieving success?
WILSON: Glass ceiling is an interesting question. Organizations are pyramids, and there are a lot of people at the bottom, and there get to be fewer and fewer until there are very few at the top. That in itself is a glass ceiling. There just aren’t that many jobs at the top. I believe there were ever people sitting around saying, you know, that’s as far as she ought to go, or, that’s farther than she ought to go. But there’s just a natural limitation on the number of people that can be running companies. My concern is with consolidations, and the things that are happening now. There might even be fewer of those jobs, and I think that’s much more of a concern to me than the glass ceiling.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any insight on how women might position themselves to move up the corporate ladder?
WILSON: I think to move up the corporate ladder you’ve got to have a goal. I think it was Alice in Wonderland where the statement was, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. And you need to know where you’re going, and then make sure every assignment you take, every project that you volunteer for, even your community work, or organizational work helps fill in the blanks that’ll get you to where you need to go. But so many women, myself included, we just sort of worked hard, and waited for someone to say, you know, there’s this job. Would you like to do it? And I think my advice to climb the corporate ladder, if that’s what one chooses to do, would be figure out where you want to go and then fill-in what needs to be done on your background, or your experience level. Take the assignments that’ll get you to where you want to be.
INTERVIEWER: I’m not sure how to phrase this, but you said a lot of women just worked hard without having specific goals. I was wondering if have you seen a shift in women, and how they approach their career since you entered the cable industry?
WILSON: It sort of depends on the person. Some women that I run into now are more aware, and more of what I would call, in charge of their career. But I think the majority of them are just like I was. You think you’re just going to work hard, and someone will recognize it, and the opportunities will come. And they may, but at the same time, I guess I would recommend that they decide what they want to be as opposed to just waiting for the next job opportunity that’s presented to them and go after it that way. Be a little more aggressive in achieving what they want to do.
INTERVIEWER: As we obviously know, the industry is very demanding. And a lot of young folks today are concerned about balance – balancing professional and personal life. Has that ever been an issue for you? Would you give any advice to young people today on how to achieve balance?
WILSON: I think that’s a very difficult thing to achieve. Balancing your work life, if you want a full-time career, and your home life. Those of us who did it believe it can be done, but it’s not easy. When you have to decide between a kindergarten program and a very important business meeting, one of them has to give. I think my perspective has changed based on my age, and where I’m at in my career from what it was when I first got into the cable industry. Back then my career was very important, and I did what I had to do, put in the hours. I balanced it as best I could. Looking back, I wish now I would’ve spent more time on the family side, and less time at work. Having said that, if I would have I probably would not be where I am today. So it’s a tough balance. Someone said once that they didn’t know anyone who on their deathbed ever said, I wish I would’ve spent more time at the office. So I guess this is a common thing that people find. You have to work very hard to get to where you want to be, but then once you’re there you sort of question whether it was worth it. It’s just a tough thing. I believe you can have a good career and a good family life. My guess is everyone will always second guess whether they put in the right amount of time on each.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think society has changed in the last five or ten years to allow women to achieve balance at work, or is it just a continual struggle?
WILSON: I think society has gotten better about allowing women to have better balance, and men also. There are more initiatives available. There are more daycare options, and things like that. I don’t know if the true feeling of people has really changed though. I still think when it comes down to it, if you have a career, you’re expected to be there for most of the important things. So maybe it’s a little bit better, but I think in reality it’s still very difficult to balance the two.
INTERVIEWER: What do you consider your most memorable contributions during your presidency of WICT?
WILSON: I was involved in WICT for so long, I guess I don’t distinctly think about the time period when I was president because we did so many things.
INTERVIEWER: Maybe it wasn’t even during your presidency, just a project that you contribute to.
WILSON: Cable Force 2000. I think that was a really important initiative for women in cable.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell me about Cable Force 2000?
WILSON: Cable Force 2000 I think was one of the most important projects that WICT took on. There was a general awareness that finding good people was going to become more of an issue than it was at that point in time. And WICT wanted to sort of point that out to the industry, and see if there were things that could be done to help prepare for that. So the research was done. It did come out the way everyone had thought it would, and it was quite a marketing job to get that information out to people and get them to really believe that where we are today is where we would be with such a shortage of really qualified people in the positions that were needed. And I think that was a great project. It was one of the first major projects WICT took on to make the industry aware of issues that were of great importance, and needed to be thought about. The cable industry had been so ready, fire, aim for so long because there was so much going on on that project. Cable 2000 helped make them, I think, a little more aware and more strategic about preparing for something a little bit further down the road.
INTERVIEWER: I guess that was a point where WICT really influenced the industry. Do you see WICT influencing the industry in other ways too?
WILSON: Absolutely. The Betsy Magness Foundation, I think is a great program. I think WICT influenced the industry in a lot of different ways. One of the more important ones to me is the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute. I never actually went through it, because I guess my company determined I was at the level that they were trying to get women to when it started. But I can remember going as a representative of our company with several of my male counterparts who were totally blown away entering a room of hundreds of women and being the only men and suddenly realizing what women went through on a regular basis at leadership meetings. I think it changed the way they looked at things, their perspective, the way they dealt with women in meetings, and strategic conferences, and things like that. So I think WICT greatly influenced a lot of men whose hearts were in the right places, and were great business leaders. But it gave them another perspective that they hadn’t had before.
INTERVIEWER: What initially inspired you to become involved in WICT? Is there a person who invited you to a meeting, or did you join on your own?
WILSON: I decided to get involved in WICT right from its beginning. I was in a small system in Council Bluffs, Iowa and was the only woman for miles. I thought there ought to be some way to get involved in the national organization since there wasn’t enough membership available to make a chapter. Could not pull it together, and just over the next couple years tried again, and tried again, and tried again. And finally, when I ended up at Daniels in Denver, Erica Shaeffer who was on the national board said, now’s the time to get on the national board. So I ran, and got involved, and worked my way up.
INTERVIEWER: Did you see WICT contributing to your professional growth, or your personal growth in any significant way?
WILSON: I think WICT contributed to my professional and personal growth in many ways. Professionally, the network that I established through Women in Cable was phenomenal. There were so many people, and so many different situations that I ran into, the management conference, things like that that. At other points in my career when I needed information or examples, or anything else, they were there to contact. Personally, it was wonderful to have a place you could go, and listen to things that were very gender specific that just had something to do with me, the programs, the educational seminars, and things like that. So I think there were many ways that WICT contributed to the improvement of myself and my career.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see a time when WICT is no longer necessary, or do you see it as something that continually evolves to meet the challenges of the day?
WILSON: I guess I think WICT will be around forever, and should be. Changing a culture is a lifetime thing, maybe many lifetimes, and it’s an organization that is good for women and for men also to learn more about women in the industry, and women in business in general. So I don’t believe there’ll ever not be a need for an organization such as WICT.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything that I didn’t bring up that you want to mention just to include on the tape either about WICT or the industry at large?
INTERVIEWER: What made you to decide to run for the presidency of WICT?
WILSON: I think I just felt I needed to give back to the organization. It had done so much for me that it seemed appropriate that I do something to further the organization and the mission. So that’s why I decided to run.