The company now known as Cox Enterprises was founded nearly 120 years ago by James Cox, a man who would become the Governor of Ohio. It began with his first media property, the Dayton Daily News, and developed into a media conglomerate covering many cities. It is now a $20 billion private, family-owned company with 55,000 employees. Cox Enterprises operates across three business categories: Communications, which includes Cox Cable; Automotive, which includes Manheim Auctions, Kelley Blue Book, and Autotrader; and media, which dates back to the company’s founding. Much of the media business was divested in 2020, though the company still owns the Dayton Daily News and a few other properties. Much of that part of the company was divested in 2020, though the company still owns the Dayton Daily News along with a few other properties.
The company’s chief information officer is Richard Cox (no relation to the founder). He joined the company in 2013 as part of the Autotrader.com team and took on the CIO role in October 2019. However in 2018, he took a break from his ascent in Cox Enterprises to join the City of Atlanta as Chief Operations Officer, which proved to be a seminal experience for him. The current mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, was early in her administration and called upon Cox to help her set things up. “We went to high school together,” recalled Cox. “I hadn’t talked to her in 30 years, so it was just this really interesting opportunity. Cox [Enterprises] allowed me to go help her at the City of Atlanta for about a year and a half. I was an executive on loan.”
During his first week in that role, Atlanta experienced the largest ransomware attack in its history. This was a few months before Atlanta was to host the Super Bowl, making the situation all the more impactful and stressful. In retrospect, Cox sees it as a blessing in disguise. “I am absolutely convinced if we had not gone through that, that Super Bowl would have been [all the more] challenging,” remembered Cox. “We were on high alert during the Super Bowl. We were being scammed on a regular basis, but because we were really prepared [due to the earlier cybersecurity attack] it was seamless. We didn’t have any security issues at all, and the city now is in a good posture.”
Cox says his time in government accelerated his progress as a leader. “During those times, you can’t pretend to be a leader, you have to prove it,” he noted. He brought back much of what he learned in taking on the CIO role at his old employer. Cox encouraged open dialogue across the team to understand how the company could improve. That led to a group called Action Speak, which increased Cox Enterprise’s focus on diversity and inclusion. “Now we have paid time off for people to vote,” Cox said by way of example. “Regardless of what your political views may be, you will be supported to vote. We’re being more intentional in terms of making sure that we look across all levels in how people of color are represented across not just our front lines, but (also) middle management and the executive ranks.”
Cox has also focused his team’s attention on reducing the complexity of the company’s diverse set of businesses. “We have worked on making sure we take a step back and build a strategy that is holistic,” he said. “In the past, we just had this tendency to work in silos.”. An early way in which he accomplished this was by conducting numerous interviews and surveys to understand how customers viewed technology. By doing more together, Cox reasoned, the customer’s experience would improve.
This approach extended to the technology that the customer might not immediately notice. For example, Cox focused on creating a comprehensive cloud strategy and incorporating better data and analytics capabilities. These priorities have improved reliability and resiliency and helped Cox identify new ways to improve customer experience.
These priorities were part of a three- to five-year plan that accelerated dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Cox, the pandemic was a chance to improve. “In these times of crisis, you can take a step back and regret what you didn’t do along the way, or you can look at it as an opportunity,” he said. “We have looked at this as an opportunity for sure.”
Communication is the essential element to pursue during these times of great change, Cox said. “What’s non-negotiable: you have to communicate. You have to be proactive, and you have to communicate relentlessly.” There are several formats that have worked best. With groups of 10 to 15 at a time, he met with every member of his team to communicate plans and listen, noting their concerns, hopes, and the like. Additionally, town hall meetings and more impromptu “ask leadership” sessions have added to the frequent opportunity for conversations and learning.
With each challenge and crisis he has faced, Cox has gained lessons and confidence for the next one. Though he hopes he won’t be tested again, Cox knows he and his team have what it takes to guide Cox Enterprises through turbulent times.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written two bestselling books, and his third, Getting to Nimble, was recently released. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.