Purpose At Work: How Comcast NBCUniversal Puts Values First In Crisis Decision-Making

This post is part of a series highlighting the inspirational thought-leaders convening at the 2020 Social Innovation Summit. For the first time in history, the Summit will be held for free online, making it accessible to an even wider, global audience. From June 2nd to June 4th, entrepreneurs, business superstars, and social visionaries from some of the world’s leading organizations will gather to discuss the future of impact and strategy. For this article, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dalila Wilson-Scott, Senior Vice President, Community Impact, Comcast Corporation & President, Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation.

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Simon Mainwaring: What is the purpose that informs all you do?

Dalila Wilson-Scott: It’s interesting to think about our broader brand promise given the number of businesses we’re in. Most people know Comcast and NBCUniversal, the theme parks, and more recently Sky. What informs all we do is the idea that we connect people to what matters most.

Through COVID, the notion of connection also has taken on an added dimension. We’re all relying on a technology to connect “virtually”. At this moment, we’re all focused on staying connected in different ways: to news, health, family, and community. So, we are thinking even more than ever about how broadband powers all of our businesses and brands. It’s really at the foundation of our business.

SM: How did you retool in the face of COVID?

DWS: At first, it felt like it was happening in a relatively isolated fashion in one part of the world or country. Then it swept through all of our regions and started to affect more employees and many areas of our business.

From the beginning, we were focused on safety and the latest information that we could not only get out to our different consumer audiences, but we also needed to figure out how to best serve our employees — both our safety, as well as our ability to work remotely, where possible. We focused on making that call as early as possible. This was critical to our customers and employees, especially when it comes to theme parks and crowds, but also film makers and broadcasters and retail employees.

I’m proud to say that we moved quickly. The company made it a priority to take care of our employees — especially our technicians who were going out to install service in people’s homes, and our call center employees too. We wanted to make sure everyone who could work remotely could do so, if at all possible. That was important. It’s one thing to have various impacts on your business, positive and negative. It’s another thing to experience it as an employee and to feel like ‘my company is doing the right thing.’ There was great pride, no matter which brand or team you’re a part of.

At the same time, we’re experiencing some business risk. Most of our parks haven’t reopened and we are not broadcasting or filming as much content as we would otherwise. There is, however, increased demand for broadband connectivity. With many schools, workplaces and community centers closed, we wanted to make sure that low-income families here in the US who don’t have broadband could have access to affordable service as well as to low-cost computers. We have a great program for this, called Internet Essentials. It is designed to help close the digital divide. We’ve been at it for nearly a decade and have connected more than 2 million households, or about 8 million individuals, to the Internet at home.

We are also working to support the increased demand from school districts and other communities that are trying to figure out distance learning and working from home for the first time at this scale. We’ve offered 60 days of free Internet service to new Internet Essentials customers. I’m glad to say we’ve stepped up and the response has been amazing. We also know that connectivity is just a starting point, we want to help make sure families have access to quality education, training and other online resources provided by our core nonprofit partners.

SM: Are there any positives you’ve seen come out of this?

DWS: Absolutely. There are people focused on risk management and mitigation. Then there are people focused on how we can do things differently. For example, some of our products and services can now be delivered virtually. We can even work together in different ways.

As I mentioned, when technology was the alternative form of connecting, people didn’t put as much focus on it in the past as we do today. Now, people are intently focused on the quality of that connection. We’re on Microsoft Teams leveraging video conferencing and helping our nonprofit partners understand how to do that as well.

You see people going out of their way to be respectful to fellow colleagues and reaching out. You’re not having that casual pass by in the elevator, but we all understand how important it is to take the time to reach out to one another. People are dealing with things on a very different level. This is an important mental health moment for the world. Having that space to focus on your own mental and physical health as well as being able to sustain yourself through work is important. Fortunately, Comcast has always embraced wellness, but the demand for these resources across the company in the past couple of months has been eye opening.

SM: How did you go about reassuring employees that you are on top of it from a storytelling point of view?

DWS: Storytelling is interesting because we think about our multiple audiences. If you narrowly focus on one of them, it’s never going to ring true for your brand. If we were doing amazing things in the community, but not treating our employees as valued resources that would catch up to us and vice versa. So, having consistency across those pieces is key. It’s then validated by community partners and customers. If you are purpose-driven, it’s easier to make decisions about what to do and what not to do. You’re not constantly questioning the things that were hobbies or “nice to dos” at the moment. Instead, you consistently stand for things you value.

We’ve been working on broadband connectivity and closing the digital divide for almost a decade. We just reinforced our commitment there. We didn’t have to question that because it was part of our values. Inconsistent storytelling is really what kills a brand.

SM: What initiatives are you enacting around COVID-19 that made a material difference to employees inside the company?

DWS: The Internet Essentials initiative resonated with many people. Some school districts weren’t able to move forward because 40% of students didn’t have broadband Internet service at home. That struck people across the country. The need to be connected immediately became imperative, not just a nice-to-have, that many of us often take for granted.

The businesses and nonprofits we work with had to completely reinvent the way they’re doing things too. Needs changed almost overnight. They could no longer come together in a physical space in the same way. So, how do they deliver what they need to deliver safely? How do they work remotely effectively?

Many of us take for granted that it’s a relatively easy shift to work remotely. Nonprofits may not have the ability or the technology required to serve their communities.

It’s important for us to show that we can be flexible for our long-term partners. We want to understand where they are and how we can help them manage through this crisis. When you’re in the midst of a crisis, some people communicate less. I think it’s important to communicate more and we are proactively reaching out to long term partners to best understand what changed, and whether we can help.

SM: How far do you plan ahead when you’re trying to play a meaningful role in this?

DWS: When you’re defining your purpose, ideally you’re choosing something intrinsic to your business proposition. When that’s tied in, it’s easier to evolve from a community as well as a business perspective.

None of us can predict the future. We can do our best to prepare. We’re working. We’re listening closely. We’re watching the data. We’re making sure we’re relevant. While there was data suggesting there might be a pandemic at some point, it still caught people by surprise. The more we know our partners, the more we build in that type of flexibility that is important to all of us.

Smart philanthropy is iterative. You want your purpose to be solid and resilient. You also want to be responsive to what’s happening in order to keep moving the needle.

There’s been lots of talk about collaboration and how critical it is. At this moment, there’s no way to get through COVID-19 and to weather the storm that it continues to bring without working across sectors.

People often look to the private sector for innovation and the public sector for scale. We’re going to need a good dose of both to make it through this. It’s not just about mitigating for the crisis we’re in, but mitigating for the crises that are yet to come. So, it’s important to take a step back and consider how our work fits into a bigger ecosystem.

SM: Is there any particular collaboration that’s a signpost for the future?

DWS: I would say collaborations happen with a lot less reluctance than before. There’s an urgency to get through this. The first step we saw is the variety of public-private partnerships coming together around the immediate COVID-19 response funds.

You have community foundations, local city government, and state government coming together more urgently and singularly focused on immediate response than you did in the past. A lot of those conversations are migrating to, ‘What does long-term recovery look like in my city, in my community, for the audience that I serve?’.

We know there are disproportionately impacted networks. Some groups were already significantly at risk, whether it’s communities of color, impoverished neighborhoods or other disadvantaged populations.

It just got a lot worse for the communities that we are committed to serving. What do we need to think about differently? There’s no way for any of us, regardless of size and scale, to do that alone. I feel positive about the types of collaborations that may not have come together so quickly if we weren’t going through this.

SM: How are we going to prepare for future crises?

DWS: As we move out of this immediate response into recovery, we have to remind ourselves that financial capital and media exposure are only two assets that Comcast NBCUniversal can bring to an idea or a cause. We also have thousands of employees that have been moved by this pandemic, and want to serve up their talents in different ways. We have always had a strong commitment to volunteerism but we are still figuring out how to leverage all of the resources we have. How do we bring those together for a more collective, stronger impact?

How can we do fewer things well? It’s always a challenge when you’re in a multinational, multi-stakeholder business. While we’re grounded and consistent in our purpose, it means different things at different times to different people. We’re continuously figuring out how to do that better.

Every experience makes us a little stronger. We’re applying what we learn and trying to innovate. It’s not only about thinking of incremental changes from what we’ve done before, but also challenging what we’ve always done and completely rethinking our approach.

Crisis allows us to step back and gain perspective. That’s sometimes hard to do when you’re chipping away at that block, especially on something as big as the digital divide.

SM: How do you think this will change the role of business at large?

DWS: Over the past decade, a new bar has been set in terms of what shareholders, employees and customers expect from companies. Stakeholders want to see what businesses stand for and how they define their purpose.

COVID-19 increased that growing expectation. Hopefully, people will be more focused on long-term value versus short term response.

How companies respond in the midst of this crisis will define them in the future. The companies that are able to adjust quickly will be the long-term survivors.

You can’t do this great work in communities if you’re not focused and making smart and often tough decisions about the business. How you do business will matter a whole lot more than just earnings.

Simon Mainwaring: What makes you optimistic?

Dalila Wilson-Scott: You can’t be in this line of work if you don’t have some optimism. Every tragedy or crisis helps us formally recommit to what is meaningful. So many more people are aware of how many individuals don’t have broadband Internet. That’s something we are uniquely prepared to step up and do something about.

I see cross-sector collaboration, purposeful commitments from employees and customers holding business accountable. We will get through this. There’ll be ups and downs, but I believe we will eventually be in a much better, more resilient and prepared place than we are today.

Written by

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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