8 leadership lessons from Comcast’s Innovator-in-Chief
Comcast tech executive Tony Werner shares what he's learned about great leadership.
Cracking the Leadership Code
By Sudhir Ispahani, CIO
To say that Comcast tech executive Tony Werner is a legend in telecommunications is an understatement. Not only has he been at the forefront of innovation in the industry since the early ‘80s, he’s even the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award in honor of his distinguished career as a technologist, innovator and leader.
The secret to his longevity, he says, begins with choosing the right company and the right team.
“I’ve heard that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. I don’t know if that is exactly right, but I do know that the people that you spend time with –– the leaders and colleagues around you –– really do influence you a lot.”
As President of Technology, Product and Xperience, Tony oversees the design and development of Comcast’s consumer-facing products, including TV/streaming apps and home internet/Wi-Fi. His division is also responsible for managing the customer service, user experience and tech ops teams that make those products work, as well as the company’s R&D.
It’s a dizzying amount of responsibility, but Tony realized early on that being a leader means “you’re measured by producing results through others, not by yourself,” he says.
Great leadership, for Tony, is absolutely critical for his company, and the industry itself, to meet the challenges that await us.
“The amount of change we’re going to see in the next 10 years is going to dwarf anything we’ve seen in our careers so far.”
1. Strike the word ‘impossible’ from your vocabulary
Tony grew up on a farm, as the youngest child in a family of six. His family was “fairly poor,” he says, adding that, even though they never went hungry, “we didn’t have any luxuries –– in fact, we didn’t have things that would be considered staples today. I was 10 years old when we first got running water.”
His humble upbringing taught him that “necessity is the mother of invention,” Tony says. “You end up inventing a lot of things to solve everyday problems, everything from gates to farm machinery. My father basically thought nothing was impossible.”
That’s why Tony’s mantra is to “always look for how to do things, versus why things can’t be done.”
2. Give (and get) respect
In his family, Tony learned to show respect to elders, guests and one another. That’s another core value that’s central to his career.
“Over the years, I’ve found that people will generally respect and follow someone who respects them. If you want people to follow you, show respect to them. And it just about always deserved, because if you’re trying to hire the best in class at all levels, you need to respect what they bring. Understand that there are areas they know more about than you do.”
It’s also vital, says Tony, that your team knows that you have deep respect for their technical knowledge, their leadership and their work ethic.
3. Know what you don’t know
“When you look back on your life, it sometimes looks like a well-rehearsed novel that’s all turned out perfectly, says Tony. “Now, looking back, it’s come together so nicely, it seems like it was a plan I always had.”
But in the early days, he wasn’t sure where he was headed.
“Early in high school, I knew I wanted to be in technology,” he says. “I loved electronics, building things, repairing … I worked my way through college repairing TVs and other electronics. I knew that [tech] was what I wanted to do, but I never viewed myself as a leader. I just thought I’d be a subject matter expert.”
Then, all of a sudden and “through some good fortune,” Tony says, he was managing a team. That’s when he realized that he was no longer a technical expert in certain areas, and that he needed to hire people who filled in those gaps.
At that point, a leader’s primary tasks are to support that team. It’s a transition that can happen slowly at first, Tony says. Trying to maintain one’s tech-geek superiority is “detrimental to leadership.”
When he let that go, Tony had a “eureka” moment.
“That happened for me in my late 20s, early 30s, when I first had a staff of a few hundred people,” he says. “All of a sudden I said, gosh –– I’m not [an expert anymore]. I let them have their space.”
That’s why, as Tony says, “I give direction with a compass, not a road map. Let’s align on the fact that we’re wanting to head east, looking for a sunrise. Then my teams figure out the map. I’m not prescriptive.”
4. Choose wisely and create momentum
“If I’ve done anything right, I’ve been good at selecting great companies,” says Tony, whose first executive position was at Rogers Communications in the early 1980s.
“I learned a lot from [founder] Ted Rogers. He was so vibrant –– I have flashbulb memories of him, of how animated he was, and that stuck with me.
Rogers always hired other great leaders, Tony says. “I learned good leadership techniques –– how they do things, why they are so effective. I modeled myself after them a bit.”
After decades of C-suite experience at telecom companies like Liberty Global, Qwest and TCI/AT&T Broadband, Tony joined Comcast in 2006.
“I couldn’t have landed in a better company,” he says.
If you find a right-fit company, there’s a sort of domino effect to your leadership journey, Tony adds.
“Inside that great company is a good culture that you build upon. Then you attract great talent, and great talent begets great talent … it starts to build on itself as you go. Once you get positive momentum, it’s hard to stop.”
5. Manage with integrity
“When I was in my mid-twenties, I didn’t know how to manage people,” Tony admits.
“I particularly didn’t know how to deal with employees who needed to improve their performance and things like that, so I took a few college courses and other classes on management.”
What he learned, both in and out of the classroom, he distills into five major takeaways:
When providing feedback to an employee, don’t criticize them in a way that damages self-esteem. “If you do that in a public forum, you create an indelible scar that they don’t forget. After hearing that idea in one of my classes, I witnessed it [in the workplace] several times. It was done to me and I’ve seen other people do it. It’s a management style we don’t tolerate here in our group.”
Be respectful. Everyday slights may be more minor than public criticism, but they’re not a good way to build a thriving team. “If somebody comes in to talk to you, and you pick up your cell phone,” says Tony, that’s a clear sign of disrespect.
Express gratitude. “Taking people for granted, either individuals or group efforts, is a big thing you can’t do.”
Don’t micro-manage. “If you’re hiring high-powered people, they are not going to tolerate micro-management for long.”
Don’t accept bad behavior. “Be prepared to act in favor of your team if a leader strays from the culture of respect you’ve built. Sometimes that’s difficult to do in a timely manner,” Tony says, if they’ve got great technical chops or a history of achievement in your organization. But “if they’re actually demoralizing people, even in a highly visible way, the cost to the company and its image –– and the reflection on yourself and your leadership –– is far worse than the loss of their technical ability.”
6. Stay young at heart
Even as the workforce shifts toward younger generations, Tony finds that a culture of integrity –– one built on those tenets of respect, honesty, empathy and humility –– never change.
That being said, his protégées offer new insights.
“I’m inquisitive, because I’m curious,” Tony says. “The thing about Millennials and Gen Zs is that they will fact check you in real time. Brevity has become more important. And the why is more important than ever.”
Younger employees, Tony explains, want to know: “Why did we design something a certain way? Why is that there?”
Another valuable lesson from digital natives?
“I buy into ‘fail fast,’” Tony says. “But not at the consumer’s expense.”
It’s always been the case that “there are successful projects, and there are those you learn from,” he notes. But it wasn’t always part of corporate culture.
“Being on time and on budget is important, but some of the best successes in my career weren’t on time and weren’t necessarily on budget. In the early days of broadband, CFOs would tell me to shut projects down because they cost too much.”
Tony invited its author, Paul Scharre, to speak to Comcast employees.
“It’s about autonomous weapons, the power of artificial intelligence and what it means to the future of warfare and the future of the world,” he says. “Scary on one side and intriguing on the other. I highly recommend it right now.”
“It was a good book on leadership and on internal self-discipline.”
8. Personify your values
If first impressions are everything, what doesTony hope to impart to the many people he meets?
“I like to leave them with a sense of excitement. That they liked me, and they’d like to meet me again. And with the sense that I’m reasonably humble, and so is the company I represent. Those are our values at Comcast.”
Among his team in particular, he adds, “we take our work and our contribution very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. That’s absolutely key. I don’t know if that’s something that you can instill, but it’s a trademark we think is important.”
On a personal level, Tony says, he tries to go to bed every night feeling as though he’s left the world a better place than it was in the morning.
“Some days that’s measurable, and other days it’s not, but that has to be your objective.”