A Conversation with Amy Blair about Employees and Innovation
Diane Christman, SVP and Chief Programs Officer at The Cable Center, was thrilled to sit down with Amy Blair to discuss Liberty Global’s innovation efforts. As SVP and Chief People Officer, Amy is passionate about intrapreneurship and has a rich legacy of support and engagement with The Cable Center.
Liberty Global and Liberty Latin America have sent more than a dozen team members to IA and have implemented several of their alumni's IA projects. It’s no surprise that innovation has always been a central value in the Liberty Global culture, and it was this topic that kicked off their lively conversation.
Amy, can you start at the beginning by sharing a little bit about Liberty Global’s history of innovation?
We can trace our Liberty Global roots all the way back to 1950s when the ‘Cable Cowboys’ built one of the first U.S. cable systems. These guys had a vision to do something different, they were risk-takers that didn’t back down, and they had grit to keep going, forging the path that is our industry today. Since then, we’ve established a long history of pioneering new services like Triple Play back in 1999 and products like Horizon, our leading TV product in Europe. Over the last 25 years or so, we've increased the average internet speed at least 20,000 times over, consistently landing as the local 'speed leader', and moved in and out of markets, continuing to reinvent ourselves. We carry that legacy with us today.
What’s the secret to continuing to be an innovative company?
The secret to continuing to be innovative is to have the right people to lead the way and the right culture in place.
With people, there needs to be a balance between the big-picture dreamers and the people that make things happen. It’s all about the mix. The magic happens when we create teams of both innovative self-starters who are curious about the world and powerhouse executioners.
The other key ingredient for continued innovation is culture. At Liberty Global, our culture is rooted in our early days as a start-up. You can still feel that spirit of entrepreneurial energy, family, and friendship. The key is to preserve it and make sure that our people understand and support our culture and ethos. In 2018, we took an important step to capture and articulate our company culture to make sure we could easily speak to it, reinforce it with our employees, and make it really clear and authentic to those who join us.
How is Liberty Global investing in innovation within the workplace?
There are many innovative programs and activity happening all across Liberty Global. One example stands out as a major shift in the way we structure teams to promote faster innovation. We recently made a major investment to move to an agile organizational model at Telenet, in Belgium, and VodafoneZiggo in the Netherlands. Agile models promote innovation in three ways. First, people work in small interdisciplinary teams, focused on collaboration to achieve a collective mission. Second, teams work iteratively to solve problems, testing ideas and prototypes, creating room for failure. Finally, teams are empowered to make decisions fast.
We’ve seen breakthroughs coming out of these new agile teams. One of the earliest achievements at Telenet was solving a big pain point at their customer service desk – a disparate landscape of systems. In less than six months the new team, or “tribe”, was able to build a simpler system which has led to happier agents and happier customers.
Can you spend a moment on how innovation is evolving at Liberty Global?
As a company steeped in innovation, we foster creativity and advancement at every level – from our commercial Product Development to our own office spaces. We recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere at any time and encourage innovative thinking and action from our employees in out-of-the-box ways, beyond their day-to-day jobs.
Internally, we tap into our employee base through our Spark platform, which enables innovation and collaboration in a really simple and powerful way. Employees can submit new ideas at any time, participate in specific campaigns, learn about innovation techniques and receive recognition for big ideas we end up implementing. We’ve seen really amazing employee ideas come to fruition. For example, our UK company implemented new same day service swaps for customer set top boxes using customer accessible lockers placed throughout cities for a lower cost than traditional service calls and improved customer experience.
On a broader strategic level, our Liberty Global Ventures team keeps their eyes open for groundbreaking opportunities outside of our company, investing in promising startups. We proudly invest in companies which bring new technology, services, and efficiencies into our existing businesses like Plume, a company which offers a cloud coordinated pod system to extend WIFI through the home. We also invest in companies that are thinking about and developing really forward looking technology, like Mojo Vision, a startup developing smart contact lens.
How does Liberty Global then motivate people over the long haul to keep them focused on innovation?
It begins with building an organization that encourages teamwork, creativity and doing things differently and better—and that acknowledges and rewards people who excel. Through the years, we have continued to evolve our reward programs, increasing the focus on incentives for people to both work hard AND challenge the status quo.
We recently launched a new approach to Performance Management to replace the old fashioned annual appraisal system. We did away with ratings and annual reviews and are instead focus on high quality coaching conversations, continuous feedback, and recognition. By focusing on growing careers and the impact people make, we’re engaging employees and providing the right environment to think differently about challenges, opportunities and how we move forward.
How has the current COVID-19 crisis enabled innovation?
I’ve seen slow decision making at the top stop entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike in their tracks. Right now, organizations are facing a unique challenge with COVID-19. The crisis demands rapid movement and change. We are forced to experiment in an unknown environment.
In the perfect example of “necessity breeds innovation,” we were able to transition and mobilize 21,000 employees to work from home in a matter of days and weeks. In every location, I have seen agile and pragmatic solutions being developed swiftly to respond to the evolving needs of our employees.
To give you one example of many, the Virgin Media Ireland team had been considering and scoping a new virtual call center for years. When the country went into lockdown, they moved rapidly to create the new storied virtual call center, equipping 300 call agents in Limerick over a weekend. During the first week, call agents started having problems with the quality of their voice calls due to home network issues. Again, in the span of a weekend, the Liberty Global Technology team partnered with the local Irish Technology team to create and implement a solution.
Our industry is constantly evolving, and in this time of uncertainty, innovation is thriving and has been happening at all levels and in all disciplines. Amy, can you tell me how The Cable Center and the Intrapreneurship Academy Program has helped to advance employee innovation at Liberty Global?
Yes, exactly. And, yes – IA has been so valuable. To date, we’ve had 13 employees from across our company participate in IA. It is a highly interactive development program which teaches participants the fundamentals of taking an idea to fruition.
One of the major IA differentiators is the integration of applied learning, a technique where participants move a real-life project through the process as a way to make the learning real and immediately applicable. Alumni bring their learnings back to their teams and are empowered to lead the way for addressing business challenges.
We’ve seen alums apply learnings both in and outside their function. For example, one recent IA participant from our Finance team has been working with our HR team to improve our employee onboarding experience. It’s a great program and our intrapreneurs are doing great things.
Amy, in your 29 years as an executive in this industry, can you share any final thoughts on innovation and intrapreneurship?
In an industry that is so fast-paced, standing still is actually moving backwards. Bringing creative people together to collaborate around new ideas and ways of working not only builds incredible energy, but it will ultimately get you where you need to go. Think big, think new and have fun along the way.