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Forum: Managing the Post-Millennium Cable Industry

From the start of the industrial revolution, businesseshave had to focus on where to acquire skilled management resources.

Generation by generation, business by business,post-industrial-revolution human commerce has been driven by superior management and thevision that such management imposes on value creation.

One such business -- cable television -- approaches themillennium with shortages of multifaceted managerial talent threatening to bite into cablecompanies' fast-evolving market and bottom lines with unprecedented severity.

Unquestionably, in seeking to harness vital new managementskill, cable-television leadership today finds itself at a critical crossroad.

Why is cable at risk? One reason why is because althoughchange takes place in all industries, it has occurred at such a rapid pace in the cableindustry that there has been no opportunity to "bring talent along."

Indeed, seniority in cable-management ranks may well bemeasured in months, and not years, and the "growth-from-within" cultureassociated with network-executive practices is a cable nonstarter.

Those familiar with the cable industry have identifiedselect additional "causalities" responsible for both the importance and/or thescarcity of top-level management talent. These "causalities" include:

Consolidation: With frantic merger/acquisition movementoccurring across business lines generally, and within the cable universe specifically,cable companies have explored economies of scale while still pursuing all-importantcritical mass.

The resultant cable entity is often fashioned, therefore,with little concern for leadership capital. Equally important, the need for larger MSOs,more subscribers and more cable networks has created organizations that are unfamiliar toa significant portion of their management.

Sorting this situation out and refining"consolidated" cable companies will continue to demand the attention and focusof talented cable executives.

Technology: With technology advancing faster than couldever have been anticipated by America's business schools, cable companies are beingforced to apply an ever-evolving competency framework to management ranks.

Skills-gap analyses are being analyzed almost monthly. Newproficiency areas are being developed just as rapidly as cable companies struggle toinitiate, manage and lead industry change.

Competition: Direct-broadcast satellite, regional Belloperating companies and traditional broadcast companies are reinventing themselves andre-entering the viewer-loyalty arena.

With renewed competition from this sector -- both forviewer attention and advertising dollars -- cable is facing rivalry from outside andinside its own industry.

There is more pressure now on cable organizations toprevent the development of "blind spots" -- management deficiencies -- whichcould threaten successful retention of viewers and dollars.

New Services: A proliferation of new services andproducts is being offered to the subscriber/consumer as quickly as these can be designedand rolled out. Very often, in order to bring the potential revenue stream online,beta-testing is replaced by actual implementation.

When and if difficulties occur, there is a need forinstantaneous, skilled management problem-solving.

Complex Organizational Structures: With morematrix-based organizational structures replacing classic leadership hierarchies, cablecompanies have turned to "mobility pyramids" to incentivize and empowermanagement.

Mobility pyramids are designed to encourage managers tothink in fluid terms -- not just with regard to their immediate organizational challenge,but also with regard to the length and location of their management assignment.

Such arrangements support multiple reporting relationshipsand interactions, while providing important standards of effectiveness.

Changing Profit Margins: Even though current profitmargins are expansive, there are no guarantees with regard to future profitability. Cablemanagement, therefore, will be looked at to increasingly provide streamlined operationswith an emphasis on economy and efficiency. Any operational savings will be recognized oncorporate bottom lines.

Changing Management Model: Historically, cableexecutives fell into separate categories defined by either creative or strategic talents.Certain management leaders were technology-friendly; others were corporate tacticians.

In the millennial cable era, cable leadership will berequired to meld these attributes and to offer multidimensional capabilities as functionalskills.

The question is then: Does the cable industry have themanagement strength needed to drive it forward? The answer is yes -- and no.

The industry and its management have always demonstratedthe capacity to be innovative, aggressive, creative and tough-minded. The industry alsohas the management strength within it to effectively react to any potential futureiteration that may evolve as a result of technological advances.

However, industry-watchers must also realize that cable maynot have quite enough. Therefore, while it embarks on a crash program of cross-trainingand developing the level of management skills in-house, it is critically important forcable to look elsewhere to supplement and complement what is already in place.

Where does cable turn?

As a result of the new management model, it is necessaryfor the cable industry to turn to industries that possess similar dynamics andcharacteristics. These are businesses that are growth-oriented, dynamic,consumer-sensitive, nimble and entrepreneurial or entrepreneurially comfortable.

These are industries that produce the renaissance executive-- that broader-based general manager who can flourish in the changing cable-televisionindustry.

Two industries that come to mind immediately as highlydesirable potential talent pools for cable-management-recruitment efforts are the Americancomputer industry and a select segment of the packaged-goods industry.

The computer industry very much resembles the profile ofthe cable industry. It must cope with and inspire both technology and content; it occupiesan explosive growth position on the global business register; its culture is dizzyinglyfast-paced; and it exists amid a landscape of extraordinary and unrelenting competitivepressures. In fact, it frequently finds itself fighting for the same consumer as the cableindustry.

The computer industry has also been successful indeveloping what are referred to as "hybrid" executives. These are managers whoare just as comfortable with strategic marketing issues and technology as they are withcontrolled risk and creativity.

It is exactly this new breed of executive that has enabledthe computer industry to grow exponentially and that could now help to augmentcable's existing management strength and even provide ancillary management ranks forfuture cable needs.

The consumer packaged-goods industry also has the potentialto be the source of management support for the cable industry. If one were to put thisindustry under a microscope, one would immediately note that it varies greatly on acompany-by-company basis.

For sure, there are a number of very large, somewhatslow-moving, "by-the-numbers" organizations. However, there are also a number ofrather deft, entrepreneurial-designed, risk-comfortable, creative companies that havehistorically produced outstanding, multidimensional general managers.

For example, PepsiCo Inc. and its many business units havealways been considered one of the best training grounds for smart, strategic andsuccessful general managers.

PepsiCo managers are thought to be consumer-focused,innovative and bottom-line-oriented. They reflect the same qualities and attributes bywhich cable has defined its most effective management ethos.

Thus, clearly, one key to targeting the best potentialexecutive pool is to select from the most adroit segments of a variety of industries withleadership strengths that are synergistic with cable's.

Other industries that cable might also seek to explore tofulfill its expanding management needs are automobile rental (The Hertz Corp., Avis Rent aCar Inc., etc.) and segments of the older and more traditional broadcast universe -- bothradio and television.

As noted earlier, this last category is shaping newexecutive and management cadres capable of competing against and, occasionally, outgunningtheir cable counterparts.

The automobile-rental world, forged amid the toughestcompetitive environment imaginable, has also evolved as a highly technology-driven servicewith a serious focus on profit margins and actual performance.

Both car-rental and broadcast operations are also tied into broad-gauge audience-loyalty building.

At the end of the day, however, when the crossroad is met,the cable industry itself will meet the management challenge that it faces. Strategicrecruitment, internal cross-functional management development and the seeding of anentrepreneurial spirit will all help to create the leadership that will lead the industryinto the 21st century.

Gary Klein is the managing director of A.T. KearneyExecutive Search's Global Media & Entertainment Practice.