Wired in Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Getting coffee used to be a very different experience for Stephen Pagano. A jaunt to get his morning joe could result in a chat with employees, and by the time he returns to his desk, he has learned something about customer needs or service issues.

Back when he oversaw fewer people at Time Warner Cable, he had the time to manage by walking around. Plus, because more of his employees worked in the same building, he was more likely to bump into them during his rounds.

But it’s not that easy anymore. As the executive vice president over the West Region of the media giant — which has 7,000 employees sprawled across Southern California, Hawaii, Lincoln, Neb., and Kansas City, Mo. — Pagano has to find more creative ways to reach his people.

“When the customer service department’s right in your building, you can get your cup of coffee in the morning and just sort of wander down there and pull people aside. It can be a much more informal operation,” says Pagano, who shares Los Angeles office space with mostly management and back-office positions now, instead of customer-facing employees. And whether you are moving up the ranks or are already in the top spot dealing with a growing organization, it’s not easy to communicate.

“It’s more challenging when you’re removed from that environment to stay in touch. You really have to work at it harder,” he says. “I had to do a lot more reaching out and actually organize more formal events like lunches or breakfasts and carve out portions of the day to have these meetings.”

It’s been a challenge for Pagano to shift his style without sacrificing the time he likes spending with his reports — or the valuable input it elicits. He’ll have to keep adjusting his techniques now as he transitions into another executive role, where he will be overseeing customer care, original programming and other national initiatives at the company, which posted 2008 revenue of $17.2 billion.

No matter what changes face Pagano — whether it’s a new office that’s even farther away from the communal coffee pot or just more employees and, therefore, less time to spend with each one — he keeps his priorities straight. And at the top of his list is listening.

“The challenge is putting yourself out in front of the employees and listening, making the effort and spending the time,” he says. “Don’t spend your life in an office. Most of it should be spent with the people you’re leading.”

Here’s how Pagano overcomes the obstacles of time and space to stay in touch with his employees.

Funnel input

Because Pagano can’t sit down with every employee in the company, he has to pack the most punch into the interactions he does have. For him, that means going after the people who can funnel the most input together. So instead of going after each employee individually, he has employees go to other employees who go to other employees. Then he asks them what everyone is saying.

To do this, he arranges frequent lunch meetings with supervisors. He sees them as the midpoint between management and customer-facing employees. He refers to them as “concentrated customer service agents” as well as noncommissioned officers, borrowing lingo from his Army-base upbringing.

“They interface with the front-line employees — who are interfacing with the customers — and they also interface with management,” he says. “So I can tell both what a customer thinks of us through their interaction with the front-line employees and what they think of management: if we are listening, if we’re getting the message, if we’re paying attention.”

Pagano brings together a mix of supervisors from various departments and geographic regions. While he’s trying to learn what’s happening in each corner of the region, he reminds himself that he’s not the only one who’s curious. Everyone else in the room also benefits from a varied chorus of voices.

“Not only can I hear what’s going on, but they can each hear for themselves what’s going on in different parts of our region,” he says. “Everybody gets the benefit of hearing from everybody else.”

Of course, sharing the benefit of feedback also requires sharing the floor with everybody. For Pagano, that’s as simple as telling the supervisors that the agenda is theirs.

Your employees need to understand that meetings are their chance to share what’s happening — not just to keep everyone informed but also to vet ways for running each department more smoothly. If nothing else, reminding employees that the end goals are to make their jobs easier and to make the company more successful should get the ball rolling.

“I want you to tell me what you think I need to know, so that you can do your job better and I can do my job better,” Pagano tells his supervisors in the meetings. “It’s really that straightforward.”

But usually, getting employees to talk isn’t that much of a battle. You simply have to ask.

Generally, the questions stem from one: What’s happening? To make sure his employees bring the extremes to the table, Pagano then asks specifically that supervisors point out areas where their departments are either improving or backsliding.

“That information is kind of what they live with day in and day out,” he says. “When they see a problem … then it sort of gets filed away. So when you do ask these questions, they have a lot of specifics. Oftentimes it’s over my head, but I’ll make a note of it and we’ll make sure that we get an answer or we resolve the problem.”

In the end, the reason employees bring problems to the table is so they can find solutions that will make their jobs easier and their customers happier. Because your employees have the best insight into their problems, they also have the best ideas for solutions. So Pagano asks what tools, specifically, they need in order to progress in the right direction — even if something from another area of the company is affecting them, such as marketing messages or bundled offerings.

While he depends mostly on his supervisors to filter issues up through their departments, Pagano also looks to other groups for more specific feedback channels. He conducts in-house focus groups to bounce around ideas or introduce offerings.

He either pulls people in randomly for general topics or more selectively if he’s looking for niche feedback. In other words, if he wants to test how Hispanic audiences will react to a programming change, he’ll ask Hispanic employees.

“Our front-line employees are like very concentrated customers because they talk to so many customers on a daily basis that they have a really good understanding of the customers’ wants, needs, frustrations,” Pagano says. “That’s not to say that we don’t survey customers, but I do think 90 percent of the answers lie within your front-line employees.”

Keep employees informed

Pagano’s position changes have upped the ante for his outward communication. He has learned that the more employees he has and the further they’re spread, the more important it is to keep everyone on the same page however he can. And that comes down to not only gathering input from everyone but also delivering your own message.

“If you’re listening, then, at some point, you’re expected to respond,” he says. “That’s where you need to have a message, and you need to make sure that message gets back to everyone.”

The first way to respond is simply to do something about the issues employees bring to you. But not every problem they bring up is always worth the whole team’s effort. If the supervisor who mentions the challenge seems to be alone in facing it, it may be a department-specific problem as opposed to a company issue.

“If, all of a sudden, half the room is saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and they’re all starting to jump on board, then you can highlight that as one that really needs attention sooner than later,” Pagano says.

The problems with the largest shared volume become priorities. When a pain point is shared by several departments, it usually means they can’t handle it on their own. So the first step is often forming a multidepartmental task force to tackle it from every angle.

“We take some people from X, Y and Z departments and say, ‘OK, here’s the issue. Now, you guys are the experts,’” Pagano says. “‘No one department can fix it by itself. So you guys work it out and let me know if there are more resources or more expertise that you need to resolve that issue.’”

He has learned the bigger the segment of the company he’s leading, the bigger the challenges they face and, often, the longer it takes to resolve them. When it takes more than a couple of meetings to brainstorm and implement solutions, that just means you have to communicate what’s happening that much more thoroughly and frequently.

Pagano takes notes of the issues that evoke the biggest reactions in meetings and then verifies those with the next level of managers and directors. Sometimes, he discovers that one of the departments is already taking action against the problem.

“Now, it’s just a means of communicating that gap,” Pagano says. “Maybe what I’m not doing is making them aware that we know the issue. We have a plan. We have timelines and benchmarks set to resolve the issue.

“It is always the bottom up that initiates it, but there’s as much responsibility coming from the top down after you recognize it — even after you start working on it — to continue to communicate what you’re doing.”

Pagano relies on several methods for doing that. There’s the internal Web site, newsletters, online video and, of course, meetings. Twice a year, he travels to each location — or at least the bigger locations, in which case the smaller locations are invited to attend — for a series of breakfast meetings.

“Give people a chance to hear from the leaders and ask questions,” he says. “That’s the best way to do it if you can: in person.”

Making those rounds is increasingly difficult as the company expands. But it’s also increasingly important.

“The easiest mistake to make is not to put yourself in a position where you’re in contact with the rank and file,” he says. “I think a lot of leaders are on the 20th floor. They never leave it, nor do they ever invite anybody up to it. It’s a pretty isolated ivory tower.”

So Pagano gets in front of employees every chance he gets. But he also realizes that he can’t be everywhere at once. So to fill the gaps, he also relies on his direct reports to carry the message when he can’t be there.

“At some point, it’s not physically possible for one person to cover that much ground. But what is possible is to have the subordinates doing the outreach, as well,” he says. “So, at the end of the day, it’s not one person leading an organization. It’s one person leading a group of people, who are leading another group, who are leading another group.”

How to reach: Time Warner Cable, (310) 647-3000 or www.timewarnercable.com/socal