Lee Schroeder, evp, government and community affairs and chief diversity officer for Altice USA, was honored with WICT’s Woman of the Year – Operator award. Below is an excerpt of our Q+A with Schroeder.
The D&I program at Altice USA was launched last year, and now scored a perfect 100 on the 2019 HRC Corporate Equality Index. I know you were a huge part of it. Can you tell me about the program and ERG and affinity groups?
While we are early in our D&I program, we are really encouraged by the employee’s level of enthusiasm and enjoyment in this program, and secondly by the strides we’ve been able to make in a year. At Altice, we consider ourselves a disrupter, and to be able to do that we need to attract and retain talent that’s diverse in its thinking. We create a culture that celebrates diversity of thought. A big focus of our program has been how do you create that culture that makes people want to come to work with us and then stay with us at Altice? An incredibly important [part] is the affinity groups. We currently have seven, and the way that we determined which affinity groups to start with as an organization is really through employee feedback.
As we announced we were creating a dedicated affinity group, which neither Suddenlink or Cablevision had, we asked employees. We wanted to know what issues were important to them, and specifically what affinity groups they would like to have. We ended up with HER Impact Network, focusing on women’s issues, one focusing on issues in the Black community, the Hispanic community, one on disabilities, one on generations which is about creating connectivity between the generations, the military family, and the LGBT+ affinity groups.
This definitely came out of employee feedback, but also us thinking about who we have as an organization. We were originally traditional cable companies, we have a lot of people who have been in this industry for a long time. At the same time, we think of ourselves as technology companies and we’re doing more innovative things with advertising and the internet, and we’re trying to appeal to all our customers across the generations. We need people who have both the deep expertise and experience in the industries, and we need people who think in a new way. We need to attract both ends of the spectrum into the organization, as well as people in the middle. Yet there’s a reality about how those people are in their careers differently, they communicate differently, and we thought there needs to be a group in how to bridge those. One of the first things that the [generational] group did is they found and brought in an external speaker who is really an expert on these generational differences and how you bridge them. That speaker came and spoke to 200 people and was webcast across the whole company.
What do you believe is the importance of groups like WICT and Diversity Week at large?
I feel an internal tension around this issue, to be completely frank. On the one hand, I think it’s really important that we have intentional conversations and events and recognition and engagement around issues that pertain to ensuring that there is equal opportunity for everyone, and that there’s learning opportunities and that we recognize and hold up models for individuals, especially for groups that are disproportionately underrepresented at leadership levels. And I think WICT and NAMIC do this. There’s incredible examples of women leaders from different backgrounds and experiences. There are these examples and we want to hold them up and showcase them so that we really create examples that next generations can look up to. On the other hand, I think we need to be where it’s so commonplace to have 50% of the leadership be women, that you don’t have to hold a special week to realize it, and we are far from that. I think what this type of week of celebration does is it puts the fact that we need to continue to be mindful and purposeful about that so we can continue to make progress towards that day. I think we’re a long way away from that, and I think WICT and NAMIC are playing a really important role to make sure we have this on our mind as a priority.
It’s been just under a year since Altice left the NCTA. How has that affected your workload?
It’s been different. We go about our work a little differently. I feel that making that change really gave us an opportunity and enhanced the need to engage more directly with our counterparts to understand initiatives. I have great relationships with Comcast and Charter and Cox and others to create alliances on issues that we care about. I do that primarily in the realm of advocacy, and it’s been great because I think in some ways it’s forging deeper relationships between us and our colleagues in the industry that we formerly relied on going through NCTA.
Can you tell me about your career journey from government policy consulting over to cable?
I was one of those people that came out with a liberal arts education, which people say what the heck are you going to do with that? I was really fortunate to start working in state government, and what I found is that you can have some incredible experiences at a really young age in your career. I was fortunate to work for a great woman at the public utilities commission in Ohio, and it happened that she focused on telecom.
I came into the cable industry not through cable, but I was hired because of my expertise in telephone regulation. I was brought into the industry when Cablevision was getting ready to introduce switched regulation telephone. My experience in the cable industry has always been from the perspective of the disrupter, not the incumbent. I just turned 50, and it’s somewhat unusual for someone to stay at one version of a company for so long. I joined Cablevision in 1997, and I took the flyer to stay with Altice which was a tremendous decision. I was really uncertain, but it was the right decision for me and it’s been a completely different experience just the way that Altice and the leadership of Altice approach the business, it’s great. It’s empowering, it’s liberating, and it’s a culture that encourages thinking differently.
What’s some advice you would you tell your younger self?
I think taking chances and really challenging myself in different ways is something I would do differently. I’m really glad I had the career that I had, but I think there are moments and opportunities where I maybe should have said I should go for this opportunity. One thing I think about is how do women help women advance in the workplace? I feel that it wasn’t articulated enough to me and I therefore didn’t articulate it enough…
What’s been the proudest moment of your career at Altice USA, so far?
I think there’s two. The first is not so much a moment as an advocacy achievement. It is the consistent quality of the team that I feel I have had at Cablevision and Altice. If there’s one thing that I’m consistently thinking about and trying to evolve, it’s the quality of the members of my team. Both as professionals and experts in what they do, but also as the respect and who we are as an organization. Above all else, we are a team and we’re working to drive the company forward and we do it in a way that we can held our heads up high. My teams are my proudest accomplishment. The second one is really becoming the CDO of the organization, and being able to contribute to the culture of the organization and actually have an impact on the way people feel about being at their job in a very meaningful way, and in a way far more meaningful than I anticipated. Part of what has come out of this D&I program are changes to our policies, which is impactful to more than just one or two individuals. I feel really proud of what we have accomplished in just a year, and there’s a team that definitely made that happen. I think bringing mindfulness and awareness to an organization.