Managing Talent as a Competitive Advantage

Lillie, Charisse

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week’s show is about managing talent as a competitive advantage at Comcast. Our guest is Charisse R. Lillie, the Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Comcast.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Charisse is one of the most extraordinary women I have ever met. She’s also one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. She’s the former Chair of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. She served as the City Solicitor for Philadelphia from 1990 to 1992. She began her career as a law clerk in the US District Court of Pennsylvania and was a Justice Department lawyer for five years.

Charisse is the recipient of numerous honors and it would probably take hours for me to go through all of them, so I’m only going to pick a few. In 2007 she received the Operation Understanding Outstanding Service Award. The Liberty Award from the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of Women in Cable Telecommunications. She also received the Paragon award from the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications and the Philadelphia Magazine Trailblazer Award. She also won the Women of Distinction Award and the Learned Hand Award from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

She is just an amazing human being. She’s also the recipient, I have to add in here, of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund Award of Excellence. She has been honored in so many ways as a distinguished woman and she is a Houston, Texas native. She has her JD from Temple Law School in Philadelphia and she has an LLM from Yale. She was awarded a doctorate from Seton Hall University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

I want to tell you that Charisse is a business leader in her own right. She joined Comcast in 2005 as their Vice President of Human Resources for Comcast Corporation and she’s the Sr. Vice President, Human Resources of Comcast Cable Communications.

Among her many leadership roles, she was a former partner in the law firm of Ballard Spar Andrews in Ingersoll, Philadelphia and a member of the Boards of Howard University and also Penn Mutual.

Ms. Lillie is a proud past Chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Anti-Diversity and as the most senior human resource executive as Comcast, Ms. Lillie focused on positioning Comcast for success in an ever-growing market that is so challenged with diverse needs. She says, “a good employer will assist its employees in setting goals, give them feedback, reward them, and on a differential basis, according to the quality and depth of their performance, as much as against the goals.” Welcome Charisse.

Charisse R. Lillie: Thank you. Cathy, the only clarification is that that was an honorary doctorate from Seton Hill.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Thank you very much for that clarification. It is still a doctorate.

Charisse R. Lillie: Yah, and I am very proud of it, I’ll tell you.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Charisse, we are really excited that you are on the line. We want to kind of pick your brain about some of these things that you are doing at Comcast and just really about leadership in general, just to have your expertise is going to be wonderful. Tell us a little bit about yourself; how you came to Comcast after such a terrific career as an attorney.

Charisse R. Lillie: Right. Well I actually came to Comcast because Comcast was one of my clients. I was working as a labor and employment lawyer at Ballard Spar Andrews and Ingersoll, and I loved the people with whom I worked at Comcast. I never really had a desire to be an in-house attorney, so a general council position was not attractive to me at all. By the way they didn’t call to ask me to be general council, but when they called about this position, it was really very enticing to me because the only frustration that I had was that I loved practicing law, I loved being outside council, and I loved doing the trial work.

The one thing that was frustrating to me was as a trial lawyer in any area, but particularly in the area of labor and employment, you would come in, put out a fire, either settle a case or try the case and there was a little frustration in not being able to set policy. Sometimes litigation will give you a window into structural deficits. I always felt frustration with all of my clients, but I couldn’t really make change. I could fix the particular problem, but the opportunity to come to Comcast and really be in the forefront of change in terms of the way policy is set for leadership development and in the leadership development area, really, I’m improving on everything that we have here. There are new things we are doing in terms of performance management and really trying to up the ante on communication with our employees and setting rewards, and trying to make sure the people feel that they are being paid and adequately rewarded for their performance.

These are things that we really are going into full force and it’s just an exciting time to be here. Plus, when I met the business leaders like Brian Robertson and Steve Burke, here at Comcast, I just felt that I was going to be working with really enlightened people who really understood and got HR and understood that the success of the company is really dependent on its people. The people that we have here at Comcast are our greatest asset.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You know Charisse, as you were just talking I couldn’t help but think, who would you say is most influential as a leader? Who has influenced you as a leader in your life?

Charisse R. Lillie: Cathy as you know, I have been blessed with so many mentors. My first bosses in the law were federal judges, and these men who have now passed away were really very strong leaders in the legal profession, very strong leaders in the field of diversity. I would have to say that the biggest influences on me, really, were my parents. My late father was a jazz musician and a very well known music teacher and mentor to young people. My mother who is still alive, is still involved in the arts but just recently retired at the age of 75 from the University of Pittsburgh. These were people who mentored the young people who were their students and who really extended a hand and who were constantly paying it forward, and who had very, very high standards in terms of education and the need to be active in the community and the importance of mentoring people and the importance of paying it forward.

Although we didn’t really call it that, it was really doing what was expected of you in the community.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Did they encourage you to go into law, because they are both in the arts in one way or another?

Charisse R. Lillie: Well it’s interesting. I initially was moving toward the arts and I actually have formal theatrical training and really spent a lot of time on the stage in high school and was involved in debating. Debating in Texas is a big thing.

My parents really encouraged my sister and me to do whatever it is we wanted to do. If I had gone into arts they would have been happy, and they were pleased that I went into law. My sister is a Dr. of Public Health, so she went into the public health field.

I actually use my theatrical training very often in the courtroom and the settlement process, so I use those skills. They didn’t really encourage us in a specific way. The exposed us to an awful lot of things. I was in the Houston Youth Symphony Orchestra. We did ballet, tap, music lessons: so we were thoroughly enmeshed in the arts.

There’s a slight disappointment in both of them that we didn’t go into the theatre. They encouraged us to really be the best we could be.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: How does your work at Comcast in the Human Resources area differ from what you experienced as an attorney working in Human Resources?

Charisse R. Lillie: Well, you know I think that the role; essentially, I was outside council and now in this capacity I am the client, so it really means that I am setting the policy which ultimately would come under scrutiny by either the legal system or any employee that had some concerns.

The way that my days are really organized, is I spend a lot of time really thinking about policy type issues, speaking with our business leaders about what their aspirations are for the business. In many ways the practice of law is very transactional. You get a case, you take some depositions, you interview the witnesses, you go to court, you file legal papers. In this capacity, I’m really on the front end of all of that work so that I’m setting the policy and working with a lot of people who are executing Comcast.

We are a big company. We have almost 100,000 employees; we are in 39 states and the District of Columbia. So there is an element also of putting out fires, but taking one situation that occurs in one part of the country and then deciding whether or not we have got to change policy throughout the country and the basis of really making the business operate better.

So it’s much more policy oriented and in the practice of law I was giving advice, I was giving council, and I was dealing with the transactional part of the practice of law.

Dr. Relly Nadler: As I hear you talking Charisse, and I’m sure Cathy it’s probably similar for you, the difference of sometimes doing training which is transactional and you are imparting information, then translating that into coaching which sounds a little bit like you are saying Charisse, where you really work on the person. You can see change over the lifespan of the individual or their career, kind of like you are doing at Comcast, as far as policy setting.

Do you see any difference in the leadership requirements from being a lawyer to the head HR person for Comcast.

Charisse R. Lillie: Well, I think, and remember at Ballard, I was also chair of the litigation department, so I in addition to doing the transactional work, there I was supervising associates in my work, but I also was a leader of the litigation function at the law firm, so I was leading.

The number of people I am leading now has greatly increased. I think that the kind of requirements of leadership at the firm and here are close to the same. That I have to articulate a vision for how we are going to move the company forward and how we are going to position Comcast to be a leader in the field of telecommunications.

I have new tools though, here at Comcast because we make great use of Intranet we have. We have an internal Intranet for communications. So in addition to meetings and speaking and spending time with employees here, I also have the opportunity to do taped messaging. We have a lot of employee communications that are done by tape so I think I have much better tools here, but it’s a much bigger platform.

I think it’s role modeling, it’s also mentoring my direct reports and serving as a role model for other HR professionals that are in the organization. Being a voice of Human Resources at the table with our business leaders. That I think is different because in the leadership position at the law firm I was member of the executive committee, but it’s different here. In a sense, my clients here are the senior executives of the company who are setting forth strategy and we are trying to help them with the people strategy and executing and moving forward.

You can listen to the entire interview above.


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