Steve White | Working Together To Win Together
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
Here is my weekly email with some insights and ideas pulled from conversations I had on my podcast.
Stories worth telling.
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Working Together To Win Together
I want you to picture the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Imagine that every platform and staircase is swarming with people, and it's at full capacity (5000). That's got to be a lot of people, right?
Now multiply that by not two – not four – but six. And that's the number of people Steve White managed in his position as president of Comcast: 30,000 employees.
Steve came onto the Success Story podcast this September and absolutely blew my socks off with his hard-won knowledge of business and team-building. He's the real deal – a man who successfully revived Comcast from its lowest point to its highest triumph.
How is it possible for someone to manage tens of thousands of people, and come out so triumphantly? Steve pins it down to his strong set of purpose-driven strategies and attitudes. I can't wait to dig into our interview – so let's get started.
Steve White's Business Success
Steve was president of Comcast’s West Division for eleven years – so he was responsible for all Comcast Cable operations in the Western U.S., leading nearly thirty thousand employees, serving almost ten million customers, and driving annual revenue of nearly $18 billion.
Not long before joining Comcast, he'd achieved a baffling 430% net sales increase while serving a tenure with Colgate-Palmolive. Incredible.
By now, he's learned more about leadership and running a company than many of us could in a lifetime; he tirelessly helped the people around him move toward success, making his own endeavors successful by proxy.
Set Up To Be 'The Victim'
All this being said, I was intrigued to hear how Steve's story had begun; surely he was raised with opportunities aplenty and natural advantages?
As it turns out – not at all.
"I was set up to be the perfect victim," Steve told me. "I grew up in the housing projects of Indianapolis, raised by a single mother with an eighth grade education. When she decided to leave my father, she didn't even have a driver's license, had never held a full time job."
So I was wrong; Steve had grown up under less-than-ideal circumstances. But he'd had a mother who cared deeply about the values she instilled in her boys, and that made all the difference.
"While most kids on Saturday were watching cartoons and eating their favorite cereal, we were cleaning motel rooms; my mother would bring us along to help her. And what I learned from that foundation she established was hard work, love for family, teamwork, commitment.
“Clearly my mom's skill set was much greater than cleaning motel rooms. But she was clearing those rooms because her focus was on creating an environment where her four little boys would have a better chance at life than she did. She was doing what was necessary to give us a hand up, not a handout.”
The American Dream
Steve went into school and higher education with the attitudes his mother had instilled; mostly hard work, but also commitment to your cause, and the importance of teamwork.
He became the first person in his entire family to attend college at Indiana University in Bloomington; he enjoyed a great corporate career, not by being the smartest guy, but because he focused on the two things that he could control: effort and attitude.
“How does that happen?" Steve said, reflecting on his successes at Comcast and Colgate-Palmolive. "It's an American dream. But it highlights how when men and women are given opportunities to display their real talents, they usually rise to that occasion.”
I love what he's implying here – that everyday men and women, regardless of their circumstances, have the potential for greatness if given a hand up.
Steve's Comcast Triumph
If you're at all familiar with the communications world, you know that Comcast is a juggernaut. They're the largest cable company and home internet service provider in the United States.
Steve started out as an employee and then exec member of AT&T. When the company merged with Comcast for $72bn in 2001, he was one of the few AT&T execs who made the transition to Comcast.
"About six months into the job, " Steve told me, "I asked my leaders at Comcast – why me? And they said, 'Steve, our plans were to let you go. But at every opportunity, your employees said 'Let me tell you about Steve White. He was a light in darkness for us by developing us and creating opportunities; he committed himself to ensuring that our W-2 grew every year.'"
Steve didn't even put himself forward for the merger, but because he had led with such purpose and excellence, his employees did it for him.
“None of us can talk our way into a promotion. The majority of the promotions come because your teammates are pushing you up, and therefore you get elevated. That's how you get noticed."
Comcast made the right move; Steve was able to take an otherwise dwindling company and lead it to new levels of success.
Working and Winning As a Team
Steve has such an incredible story. I love hearing from people who truly overcame the toughest odds to get where they are – and so, I made sure to grill Steve on what his strategies are for working together and winning together.
The main motto that he lives by is ‘work together to win together’; it’s about prioritizing success for the whole, not just yourself. Let's take a look at a few more of his insights.
Don't Compromise On Your Why
In his book called 'Uncompromising' Steve talks about how important it is to identify the purpose and motive behind what you do.
"One of my favorite quotes is from Mark Twain: The two most important days in your life are the day you're born, and the day you figure out why you're alive. I truly believe each one of us is placed on this earth for a reason."
What an excellent quote and sentiment. I've written about this in the past, and it's quickly become one of my favorite topics; if you haven't got rhyme or reason for getting up every day and working towards something, it's going to be very difficult to find fulfillment.
"Life is about compromise. But once you figure out why you've been placed on this earth, that is what you're ruthless about. That is what you're uncompromising in your pursuit of understanding why you were placed on this earth."
Steve didn't know it at the time, but he was discovering his 'why' from the moment he set foot in those motel rooms to clean alongside his mother. His life would be about opportunity; finding it, seizing it, and extending it toward others.
The Table of Prosperity
A term Steve kept bringing up in our interview was something called the 'table of prosperity.' This, as it turns out, is a key part of his business teamwork strategy.
"Imagine Thanksgiving in America," Steve said. "You invite your family over and everyone brings something. Somebody brings a turkey, somebody brings the ham, somebody brings the stuffing, somebody brings the sweet potato pie. Think about the feasts you can create when more people bring something to the table.
"So now, just envision that in life and in business. The more I can get people around the table, the more we all eat. We're not socialists, we're capitalists. But even I can understand that the more people you place at that seat of prosperity, the more they will reward you and the more they will support you."
It's a simple yet incredibly eloquent way to look at things. Steve explained that too often, we get caught up in the 'me' mentality – my purpose is to further my career, pursue my goals, and so on.
But when we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it's clear that working together and supporting one another is not only the right thing to do; it's also the smart thing to do.
What does this look like in practice? I interpret the table of prosperity as being supported by anything that grants opportunities to others – so mentorship, development programs, unexpected promotions, and challenging responsibilities are all things that push people forward and help them to prosper. They also build your team into people who elevate your business as a whole.
"This idea of serving others constantly pays itself back. The more you've poured into others, the more they will pay you back, many, many times over."
Hire the 'Failures'
The next strategy we talked about was Steve's unique approach to recruiting. He spent a fair amount of time at Comcast just building his ideal team; a group of people with 'chipped shoulders', as he described them.
"We don't want cookie cutters. We don't want robots. We certainly want hard work and team oriented people. We wanted somebody with a chip on their shoulder; not a bad chip, but somebody that had something to prove."
I totally see where he's coming from with this. When you've been beat down by another company or told that you're not good enough, it makes you want to work twice as hard to prove everyone wrong. And Steve has found that this is an incredible motivator for employees.
But here's the issue: how do you find out whether someone's got that shoulder chip?
"Tell me what you've accomplished in your life," Steve said, "But more importantly, tell me about some of your failures. Because when you come through a big failure, that tells me something about you; that tells me that you've got a chip on your shoulder that you've been punched, you've been knocked down, but you dusted yourself off."
So often, we only focus on people's successes. But Steve has found that it's the failures – and how someone deals with them – that really tells you what kind of person they are.
Accountability is Key
I'm often surprised at how many companies fail to get their accountability system in order. How can you hope to keep employees on track with half-yearly meetings and annual reviews? Steve has a much more regular and scalable system.
"Literally six to eight times a year, I will sit down with my leadership team. We'll talk about how we're doing, what's working, what's not working. And then they will cascade it through their organization."
It's genius, really; Steve doesn't sit down with all 30,000 employees, but by using the cascading model, he influences each and every interaction and sparks consistent chain reactions of meetings.
"The reason our performance management works that by the end of the year, I can literally write my own review, because my boss has sat down with me six or seven times.
“So now there's no misunderstanding around what my responsibility is and how I'm doing with that level of communication. There's no misunderstanding. There's no lack of clarity about where we're going."
If Steve could do this with 30,000 employees, imagine what you could do with your team of five or 10. Just by being clear about your expectations and then holding people accountable to those expectations on a regular basis, you can create a culture of excellence in any organization.
Respect Your Team's Livelihoods
The final thought I'll touch on from my interview with Steve is this: your employees are not coming to work just to say hello to you every day. They have bills to pay, families to support, and lives outside of work. Alongside giving people development opportunities and a clear path to progression, it's important to keep broadening their monetary horizons, too.
"I remember one of my frontline employees saying to me, 'Steve, I'm going to give you two keys to success in keeping your employees excited. Number one, you always respect your employees. And number two, you make sure my W-2 grows every year.'"
Of all the businesses I've researched and seen first-hand, the best are those that manage to strike this balance between developmental and financial incentives. If you want to keep people motivated and excited about coming to work every day, make sure you're doing everything you can to help them improve their lives – not just their job performance.
"For example," Steve told me, "Every month our leadership team will see how all of our salespeople are performing relative to their bonus, their commission, and how they're performing versus a year ago. Because let's be honest; people are there to work because they want to care for their families. So my job is to make sure we're winning."
In all honesty, I think the employees that don't understand this will become victim to the 'Great Resignation'; the silent quitters, the job-hoppers, and the disengaged who slowly but surely become a detriment to your team's morale.
It's crucial to demonstrate your understanding of – and respect for – the lives your employees are working so hard to maintain.
According to Ernest Hemingway: "Every man has two deaths; when he is buried in the ground, and the last time someone says his name." For Steve, I suspect his second death will come long after his first!
Steve White is a pleasure to speak with and a joy to listen to; he's practically brimming with business insights and advice. I walked away from our conversation feeling motivated to be a better leader, and I hope you did too. Don't forget to check out his book and watch our full interview here.
Thanks for reading, as always!
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