From her crowded Chicago childhood home to her first job at a Michigan Avenue ad firm, to introducing high-speed internet in Southern California in the 1990s, Cox Communications COO Colleen Langner said every experience guided her to where she is today.
“I always say we carry these imaginary backpacks with us our entire life,” she told a crowd of University of Georgia students gathered for her Terry Leadership Speaker Series lecture at the UGA Chapel on Nov. 29.
Langner serves as executive vice president and chief operations officer for Cox, a company she’s been with for 28 years, overseeing cable, internet, and phone services for more than 6.5 million customers in 30 states. When she launched her career in the late 1980s, she had no idea where she would end up. Over the decades, she used every experience as a chance to learn and grow, building a backpack of skills that served her well, she told students.
Langner grew up the youngest of six kids in Chicago, the child of a banker and a police officer. Respect and kindness were key to keeping the peace in the house, and her mother — her first mentor — modeled generosity and confidence for the family daily. Her mother made sure those values were tucked into Langner’s backpack first, she said.
“There were eight of us in the house,” she said. “We had an extreme respect of space, people’s opinions, and what people stood for. I still believe in that today … My mother used to say to me, ‘Colleen, if you’re not going to say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’ That still makes me think sometimes about how I’m going to say something and making sure I’m being kind.”
When she graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor’s degree in communications and advertising, her first job was at an advertising agency on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. She learned a lot from each client, but working with the Chicago Cable Marketing Council on a campaign to convince Chicago households to sign up for cable set her on her path in the telecom industry.
When her family moved to Southern California in 1990, she could have continued working in advertising, but she knew she had options.
“I looked into in my backpack, I had all these experiences working in these different industries,” she said. “But for whatever reason, I loved the work I did in cable television. And so I started to look for jobs at cable operators.”
She found a job with Comcast Cable but moved to Cox Communications shortly before the company introduced the nation’s first high-speed internet connections to the Southern California market.
“(Cox) executives in Atlanta said, ‘Here you go, you’re launching high-speed internet, good luck,’” she said. “They didn’t give us a playbook. They gave us no models. They gave us a product, and said, ‘We need you to figure this out. We trust you’re going to do it right.’”
Those moments — when asked to create something from scratch — are her favorite. It’s one of her top reasons for working at Cox — the company is always changing and giving her new challenges.
“Give me a place where I can innovate and change,” she said. “I love the ability to create something from nothing and innovate and succeed. I absolutely adore that.”
While she now spends more time on long-term strategy and leadership team management, she still strives to be in the trenches with the 17,000 employees launching Cox’s next big innovation, taking care of the customers, and maintaining the cable infrastructure. She blames it on her marketing roots.
You can’t make good decisions without knowing what your stakeholders need.
“As a leader, I want to stay close to my frontline employees as well as my customers,” she said. “I will absolutely go ride on trucks; I will put my hard hat on. They won’t let me climb poles because they say it’s a hazard. But I want to care for my frontline folks and make their jobs easier. I will go to a customer’s home and see how they use our products and services, and how we can make them better.
“I use that to build the kind of knowledge base I learned to lean on in marketing, and I use that now when I’m in operations.”
Once again, when in doubt, check your backpack.
Her focus on people means spending several hours a week mentoring younger Cox employees or holding open hours in a café booth in the company’s Atlanta headquarters. They often ask her how to get to where she is today. Her answer is to take opportunities to try new things, work hard, and fill your backpack.
“Success comes to those too busy to look for it,” she said. “There are some folks who I’m not sure are always asking for that next step up. I always say, ‘Do the best you can at the job you have today, get your mentors, get your sponsors, and you’ll be successful.’”