Balancing consistency with innovation: Durable values are key to more than a century of success

Cox Enterprises has pivoted and evolved its businesses for more than a century, but its story shows a rare constant: prioritization of care for its people and communities. 

As a 2021 goBeyondProfit Champion Award winner there’s a lot for companies of all ages and stages to learn about this source of business strength, which Cox describes as “staying true to values that have endured for more than a century.”  

Answers and ideas for other businesses lie in consistent values that are revisited for timeliness and relevancy, and made visible with strategic innovation.

Key insights and approaches:

Setting a New Executive Vision

When Alex Taylor took over as CEO in 2018, he set out a new executive vision. Why was that a valuable step? What can other CEOs learn from that process for setting their own vision?

“Every leader has their own style, approach and goals. Helping them clarify and focus their energy on what they most want to accomplish gets everyone on the same page. A company needs that cohesion of vision so people know what they do matters. It’s better for both them and the company when people know that their work contributes to a bigger goal and helps their business, their co-workers and people in their communities.

“At Cox, Alex partnered with leaders across our company and world renown author Simon Sinek to establish our purpose: ‘Empower People Today to Build a Better Future for the Next Generation.’ Our employees have embraced this approach because it’s a simple message that touches on so much of who we are as a company. We know our employees are the ones who will take us where we need to go. Empowering them to develop the strategies, execute on those plans and do the work necessary to move us forward is how we succeed today and for future generations. “I would recommend other CEOs take the time to focus their vision so when they go to employees with their plans, it’s a simplified message and one with staying power.

“You want this to be something that lasts, not an idea that changes every six months. If you want people to buy in to what your vision for the company is, you need to take the time to build it out for the long term. That way, as the years pass, you can look back and show your team the collective impact they’ve had on the company and their communities. This will increase buy in for new employees and keep the goals top of mind for everyone.”

Listening as Key Strategy Aligning Values and Employees

What are your key strategies for aligning 50,000 global employees to one set of values? 

“It starts before someone even applies for a job with us. When you read our job descriptions, visit our websites or do any research on Cox at all, you’ll see that we’re a company whose values are a living, breathing part of who we are. They guide our decision-making and influence how we relate to each other and our communities. The hope is we attract talented, purpose-driven people who bring a range of experience and perspectives to our business. So far, that’s worked out pretty well.

“We then hold ourselves accountable by asking our employees how we are doing in delivering against those values. For example, we developed our EXLab program (Employee Experience Lab) as a multiyear effort to reimagine our employee experience across our divisions. It started with the willingness to ask the question — how can we improve the employee experience? And then setting up a disciplined approach to listening.

“EXLab brings together teams of employees across disciplines to first understand the root of any problem. Based on a design-thinking model, employee teams lead with empathy first, listening to understand. So far, every EXLab team has helped us realize that the fundamental problem or misalignment of values and practice was not at all what we imagined it to be.  EXLab teams move through a process of evaluation and benchmarking to bring back solutions. The result are truly innovative solutions that address the actual problems and a cohort of employees fully invested in the success. 

“Innovation starts with listening. What do the people who have their boots on the ground think about things? They’re the ones who are living it every day, so you need them to weigh in if you’re going to improve employee experience, introduce a new service for your customers or take action to help your community.”

Putting Values into Action by Serving Communities 

How do you galvanize individual employees to “be good citizens of the communities we serve?” How did you redefine success during the pandemic year?

“When you start with an employee base that shares those values, it’s not really that difficult to encourage people to buy into being a good person, doing the right thing and helping other people. Whether that’s by reducing their individual or our company’s impact on the environment, or asking them to support their communities, it’s about doing good. And more often than not, we find that good people want to do good things.

“People at Cox are always open to physically volunteering to help others, Cox employees basically live out that Theodore Roosevelt quote, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

“A great example of this is our “One Call a Day” campaign. This matched a Cox employee with an isolated senior so they could call them when social distancing restrictions and loneliness were at their peak. In the face of a pandemic spreading fear and isolation, we wanted to show the importance of connection during difficult times and to remind the world what’s most important: each other.

“We also hosted a program called “Connecting Through Kindness,” which encouraged our employees to take on random acts of kindness in their communities. The response was incredible, with more than 11,000 actions taken by people doing things like making masks, creating homemade gift baskets for nursing home patients and collecting school supplies for children in need.

“Another example is something we did at Cox Communications to support a performing arts school in Nevada. The kids were all at home last year, which of course canceled the school play. Our team found out about this and knew we had a solution that could help. They contacted Oscar-winning director Patrick Osborne, and along with some cutting-edge technology, coordinated a virtual production that let the kids apply their voices to animated characters. The result is an animated short called “Drawn Closer.” Everyone involved did an amazing job, especially the kids.”

The Art of Making Values Visible to Customers

What is Cox Enterprises’ philosophy about informing customers about your values? How do you make this a differentiator or value enhancer?

“At Cox, it all comes down to how our people live out our Purpose. We want our customers and communities to understand our values, and we try to achieve that through our actions.

“It all starts at the local level. We have many employees that serve on boards and volunteer to support causes in their communities. In fact, we’ve recorded more than 100,000 employee volunteer hours since January 2019, and that number continues to grow. At the national level, we have partnerships with Keep America Beautiful, American Rivers, Girls Inc. and Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

“Through the James M. Cox Foundation, we highlight our values by supporting the causes of early childhood education, health, conservation and empowering families and individuals for success. We work with organizations like the Path Foundation, the Drew Charter School, Cleveland Clinic, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and many others. There’s really too much for me to list, but I encourage everyone to read our Impact Report to get ideas by seeing other ways we’re helping.

“Last year, we evaluated the work we’re doing in our communities and really homed in on what we want to accomplish. The result is a new goal we created for ourselves: Empower 34 million people to live more prosperous lives by 2034. We call it 34by34 for short, and it’s our plan to increase the impact we have in our communities and focus on social issues our businesses have the tools and knowledge to solve.

“This is part of our company’s purpose I spoke about earlier. We want to build a better future not just for the people at Cox but for everyone in our communities too. We have a lot of work ahead of us to reach 34 million people, but we’re off to a great start.”

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