The varied career—and consistent philosophy—of Comcast’s CLO.
By Renee Forcey
I am a woman in a leadership role. I am a mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend. I am a mentor. I am a student. I am also an executive search consultant.
In January 2012, during JM Search’s annual meeting, we decided to get more involved with “women in leadership” efforts. Our initial motivation was for our clients, because they frequently ask us how to attract more women into leadership roles or to help them think of ways in which to retain women in those roles. We are fortunate to have worked with many wonderful organizations with strong leaders who are female, and we decided to seek interviews to understand what attracted them to their positions. The editors of HRO Today have asked us to share those discussions with the readers of the magazine and with the attendees at the annual HRO Today Forum to be held in Philadelphia April 30-May 2, 2013.
The women profiled in this series have strong internal compasses that acutely measure their surroundings. Their stories inspire—whether male or female, recent graduate or tenured executive—and they clarify the notion that we are all responsible for promoting women in leadership. They will also promote the idea that we are all responsible for promoting respectful leaders, regardless of gender. Our goals are to promote reflection, elevate awareness, strengthen the rest of our internal compasses, and provide greater commitment to mentorship.
This experience has caused me to bear witness to my own choices—both recent, and well in the past. We are all in this together. We have long ago gotten past the burning of the bras to learn from our mistakes, achievements, and opportunities so that we can advance even further. We all have access to the data—we know more women occupy leadership roles now than ever before. But that is not enough. There are not enough good leaders, male or female. That is one reason why, in this series, we are less interested in labor data than in the human element. After all, that is what the H stands for in HRO.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to partner in Philadelphia with Martha Soehren, the chief learning officer (CLO) and senior vice president of learning and development at Comcast. Although I only met with her two times, she left a lasting impression on me as a leader and professional. After she recently agreed to an interview, we began by discussing Comcast’s internal initiatives and best practices. But beyond that stretches her personal story—thoughtful, planned, and not left to chance.
As a 12-year-old girl, sitting on the front porch, she told her father she wanted to be a teacher and own the family farm one day. Her father, whom she credits with being her first champion and who was “forever energizing,” told her she could be anything she wanted, but that by being one of several children, she probably wouldn’t own the family farm all by herself.
Fast forward, and here’s what has transpired: An MBA from the University of Detroit Mercy; a Ph.D in educational leadership and policy studies from Wayne State University; an adjunct teaching career that spanned 13 years; a government career and a non-profit career. And, now, Soehren is CLO at the country’s leading cable provider. Oh, yes, and she is the proud owner of that family farm, nestled in the hills of North Carolina.
When asked if she could recall the specific moments, or events in her early career that laid the foundation for her future roles, Soehren shared a particular story. While she was pursuing her master’s degree and working for the United States Army as a civilian, Robert Swint (the highest ranking African American on the Army Installation at the time) had chosen her to lead a project developing a pulse survey of 8,000 team members. Being the rare female in a predominately male environment, and not having led a project of this scale before, Soehren was nervous. But she met the challenge head on and excelled. (Which is precisely this type of moment, opportunity, and growth experience that women must seize.)
The amount of time and effort that went into this engagement was extremely demanding. But when she finished, Soehren heard four words that would forever change her. “Where have you been?” asked the installation commander, his rhetorical question praising Soehren’s achievement and success in front of all the leadership members.
She recalls this boost of confidence as life-changing. “Confidence isn’t to be played with,” she says. “It is a very real thing, and getting it, and doing something with it, is a really powerful thing.” Of course, that life-changing moment would not have happened if she hadn’t seized the opportunity and run with it. Swint had taught her the power of positive visibility, and Soehren learned to trust her instincts and ability. She was so affected that she left the Army for two years to work for a non-profit.
Soehren then returned to her career with the Army and also turned her focus to teaching. When she first applied to teach as an adjunct professor, upon hearing the news she did not get the position, she persevered. She quickly presented a proposal to the dean, offering to teach for a semester as a trial period. If the students didn’t like her, they didn’t have to pay, and she would go away. If they did, she would stay and be put on the payroll. The result: 13 years as an adjunct professor at Lawrence Technological University and William Tyndale College.
Always furthering her academic career in tandem with her professional career, Soehren next set on teaching in the corporate world. After completing her doctorate while teaching at Tyndale, she was offered a director-level position with Comcast. Her Army employers felt the role was not right for her, so they proposed that she undertake the challenge under a sabbatical for six months to test her decision. Instead, she trusted her instincts. She resigned. That was 12 years ago.
That self-possession is clearly one of her most powerful traits. “Owning my career—always. I have had some great leaders try to own it for me, and I found a way to overcome their passion and energy about my career so that I followed the path I wanted. I will say to you I have always had career goals. But they have not always stayed the same. They have evolved and changed over time.”
Asked what needs to be done to attract more women into leadership roles, Soehren articulates a committed but balanced approach: “Making sure we live, walk, breathe, and talk, [for] the care for women, while upholding our men as well.”
Soehren credits both her father and her spouse for providing needed support over the years. And she has never forgotten the leader who took a chance on her, and publicly acknowledged her success. She also says she has been humbled by her experience as a mother, making tough decisions, and by her time spent working for a non-profit. But above all, she counsels male and female professionals alike to always own their careers and not to leave them to chance or in the hands of someone else. And for women, in particular, she also advises that they guard against being on the defensive.
These days, Soehren delivers programing at Comcast’s senior executive levels, focused on the development and promotion of women leaders. (Neil Smit, president of the cable division, is the champion of the Women’s Employee Resource Group at Comcast, and is committed to this important initiative.) Soehren also serves as an executive sponsor of Comcast’s Veterans’ Resource Group, ensuring that male and female veterans are recruited, hired, and recognized for their contributions and careers.
Given her past, Soehren’s present is no surprise. And her future would seem to deserve examination down the road.
This is the first in a series of articles by Renee Forcey, an executive search consultant with JM Search, a national search firm based in King of Prussia, PA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This topic will also be discussed at a panel at the HRO Today Forum, April 30-May 2, 2013.