Atlanta Spotlight:Jennifer Hightower
If it is true that the temper of a company is reflected in the quality of its best people, then Cox Communications must be more than satisfied with the recognition recently extended to Jennifer Hightower, Senior Vice President of Law & Policy.
On September 10th of this year, Hightower was honored by Women in Cable Telecommunications (WITC), the oldest and largest organization serving women professionals in the cable industry, as the recipient of the “Woman to Watch Award.” Given to women in cable who show tremendous promise for transforming the industry, the award is also in recognition of her strong leadership skills, dedication to the industry and to her own organization.
“Jennifer is an exceptional leader and trusted colleague,” said Cox CFO Mark Bowser, “and fully deserves the WICT Woman to Watch Award this year. Our industry has become increasingly competitive and our business priorities are evolving. Jennifer’s vast experience is critical to guiding Cox through this changing environment.”
The 15-year Cox veteran leads a team of 68 lawyers and subject matter experts in overseeing all legal operations, compliance, litigation, regulatory and corporate affairs. Through her tenure at Cox, Hightower’s efforts have played an essential role in helping the company clear the requisite regulatory and political hurdles that enable Cox to cultivate innovation and grow as a company.
Jennifer Hightower was born in Boston and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. The daughter of a GE executive, her entire primary and secondary education took place in the Louisville area. She attended college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she majored in political science and minored in economics, religious studies and fine arts. The outgoing Hightower was also very involved in numerous campus activities; serving as president of her sorority, president of the Political Science Association, Senior Class Representative to the Student Body Government Association and work with the Honor Society. “I didn’t date much,” she says, “I had a lot of committee meetings.”
Hightower knew that she wanted to be a lawyer and was especially interested in litigation. This led her to chose Emory University School of Law for their National Institute of Trial Advocacy program. She enjoyed law school and went to work at Drew Eckl & Farnham, in Atlanta, after graduation. As one of the southeast’s largest pure litigation firms, Hightower worked for four years handling court cases for the firm before accepting a position as Senior Litigation Counsel at RaceTrac Petroleum. “I found that litigation was not a natural fit for me,” said Hightower. “Litigation is about winning. I wanted to focus more on understanding the nature of the business and help it.”
After a year at RaceTrac, Hightower moved to BellSouth where she worked on regulatory issues for BellSouth corporate. The Telecommunications Act was in prospect, passing in 1996, and was the biggest overhaul of telecom law since the 1930s. “We had to figure out a strategy for moving into long distance,” said Hightower, “and do a lot of cost benefit analysis on what to give up and what to keep in order to go in to the business.” She did a lot of negotiation with the Public Service Commission, convincing them that BellSouth was making enough concessions on local service to merit entry into long distance.
Working at BellSouth proved to be a wonderful learning experience for Hightower. Not only did she move away from litigation, she also learned a lot about lobbying, administrative law and community activism. It was also at BellSouth that she met her mentor, Randy New. New was BellSouth Assistant Vice President of Corporate Strategy at the time and taught Hightower how to take a complex problem and really break it down, to make it simple. “I still keep in touch with him,” said Hightower. “I learned how to focus on the business interest at stake – what would be the benefit or detriment to the business in every case.”
After two years, Hightower was recruited to come over to Cox Communications in 1997. Although she was sad to leave BellSouth, she was excited to be at Cox.
“It was much smaller and I felt at home,” she says, “turf wars and corporate politics were non-existent. Everyone worked as a team.” She immediately became involved with Cox’s top initiative – getting into the telephone business. At the time Hightower was the only attorney in the company who had ever done telephone work.
Although not widely realized in Atlanta, Cox Communications began evolving as a company in the early 1990s. It was the first cable company to offer business service in 1993 and was also the first to offer the three product bundle; voice, video and internet. Hightower became the “go to” person in legal who supported various new initiatives – doing the legal work but also setting up processes and procedures for making the work run smoothly – then turning the work over to a newly hired attorney before moving on to another area. Among these new initiatives was a joint venture that she helped put together between Sprint and Cox called “Pivot” in which Cox would sell Sprint cell phone service and Sprint would sell Cox video. This was largely a marketing cross sell agreement and lasted only a year. Nevertheless, it further showed that Cox was willing to employ innovative strategies to approach the marketplace; and that it needed inventive people like Hightower who could make them happen.
In 2004, Hightower became Vice President of Regulatory for Cox. In this role, she oversaw state regulatory policy and compliance. Cox Communications is a licensed telephone provider in 17 states and she interacted with the state public service commissions and their legal departments. Hightower also did a lot of federal policy coordination with Cox’s federal policy office and the Federal Communications Commission. The role put her forward as a spokesperson for the company in the policy arena which “was both challenging and rewarding,” says Hightower, “I enjoyed the work.” She also spent a lot of time working with the industry leading trade group National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Based in Washington, DC, NCTA represents operators providing 90 percent of service to the nation’s cable television households and digital phone service to millions of Americans. Today, the President & CEO of NCTA is Michael Powell, whom Hightower had met when he served as Chairman of the FCC. Powell is also well known as the son of former Secretary of State General Colin Powell.
Cox Communications has continued to evolve in the “new economy-new media” environment. Today, the company is more streamlined and able to turn out new products faster. Senior management at the top has changed. Operations have restructured to be more efficient. This includes Hightower’s department. Cox recently merged all of Legal – regulatory affairs, governmental affairs and legal – into one group that reports to her. Hightower accepted the leadership of the redrawn department in January, 2012 as Senior Vice President of Law & Policy.
Hightower believes that all the Cox changes have been handled well. At her first meeting with the personnel of her three merged departments “I saw enthusiasm instead of ‘change fatigue’,” said Hightower. “Everyone is seeing the benefits both to themselves and to the company. Bringing everyone together has provided synergies for being more successful. The company continues to grow and we have a lot more work to do – but we get all the extra work done with the same number of people – we handle it.”
Hightower reports to Executive Vice President and CFO Mark Bowser and has constant interaction with the senior management team. She makes frequent presentations on policy issues and risk and is vigilant about being proactive. This is in addition to her constant interaction with, and management of, her own team.
“I’m fortunate to be where I am,” says Hightower. “Not everyone gets to work with really good people. And I can honestly say that the people at the top in Cox Communications are smarter than the people working for them – and they do an excellent job of challenging us to learn and grow. Trust and respect for the top leadership team is an indefinable perk that you can’t get everywhere.”
Hightower is married to former Cox Communications employee Scott Hightower. They have twin boys age 9 and another boy of 6.
Secret to Success: Always work with the smartest people you can. People who you know are committed to both the company and the company leadership.
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