Education. Hard work. Loyalty. Susy Ponce de Leon has found in these values a recipe for success—one she learned from her parents, both entry-level workers who rose to middle management and modeled a work ethic that Ponce de Leon has replicated throughout her own impressive career.
But Ponce de Leon has not always been able to use her parents’ career paths as a guide. While her parents were able to attend university after high school, college was not on the table when Ponce de Leon immigrated to the US from Mexico City. Instead, she found a job in retail, and discovered a passion for human resources—a passion that allowed her to further her education through company-sponsored HR and management courses. “Leaders saw this work and gave me opportunities,” Ponce de Leon says of her studies.
Rising from that springboard, Ponce de Leon earned a bachelor’s degree in HR management from Judson University, as well as a master’s degree from the Keller Graduate School of Management of DeVry University. Today, she serves as director of business human resources for Cable One, a leading broadband communications provider serving customers in twenty-one states. In this role, she has been able to offer Cable One associates the same types of educational opportunities that were so important to the development of her own career by spearheading company-sponsored, online educational programs.
“I saw the opportunity to make learning accessible to associates from their phones or tablets or whatever they have available,” Ponce de Leon says. As she explains, Cable One offers an array of curriculum choices, including many programs that might otherwise be cost-prohibitive. The only thing that should limit an employee’s ability to learn is his or her own interest in the programs, Ponce de Leon emphasizes.
“The power in this education is that it makes our associates owners of their destiny,” says Ponce de Leon. Nevertheless, she knows that truly accessible learning must have buy-in, recognition, and motivation from direct leadership. To that end, as she facilitates content, the HR director also facilitates conversations between associates and managers. “It’s more dangerous to not invest in associates,” she asserts. “Associates are going to leave if you don’t invest in them.”
Education is critical, but it is not Ponce de Leon’s singular solution for improving employee experience and output. “Engagement and development of associates is multifaceted,” she says. Some of her go-to methods for engaging associates include offering additional responsibilities and coaching leaders to navigate difficult situations with their teams.
Ponce de Leon’s prioritization of associate engagement is mirrored by the company’s focus on culture. “Cable One has spent years building a culture founded on respect,” she emphasizes. “We are proud and protective of this culture.”
The director’s leadership style also relies on these tenets of empathy and respect. She is careful to delegate, build safe spaces, and encourage others to grow from their mistakes. “It is ‘when,’ not ‘if’ with mistakes,” Ponce de Leon points out. “The real question is, how do we recover? As a leader, you must allow associates to continue their growth and development.”
Ponce de Leon remembers one associate who was verging on termination when she began engaging them in conversation about the areas in which they needed to improve. The employee quickly understood the benefits of change, and was not only able to keep their job but was eventually promoted.
Though well practiced in nurturing associates as well as adapting to the fast-paced environment that is HR, Ponce de Leon still looks to learn. In June 2020, she completed another milestone: graduation from the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute. Selected by Cable One to attend, Ponce de Leon spent a year with a cohort of other women leaders and executives working in telecommunications. She has already implemented new practices learned during her time at the Institute into her work as HR director. These include the strategic repackaging of training content in order to better acknowledge the reality of gender disparities at all levels.
At Cable One, however, which was previously owned by The Washington Post Company during Katharine Graham’s tenure and is now led by President and CEO Julie Laulis, Ponce de Leon characterizes herself as a proud member of a long line of women executives. This tradition plays out in many impactful ways throughout the company, says the HR director. In fact, her entire team took the afternoon off to watch The Post in theatres as a celebratory team building event.
When Ponce de Leon pauses to consider her journey, she is rightfully proud. “When I moved to the US twenty-six years ago, I had just a high school diploma and spoke limited English,” she recalls. “Now, I am director of HR at a publicly traded company.”
Ponce de Leon expects this tradition of hard work to continue: she and her husband will celebrate her daughter’s college graduation later this year. The HR director is eager to discuss her child’s already extensive list of accomplishments—accomplishments that are founded, she believes, on that same time-tested formula of success: Education. Hard work. Loyalty. And a touch of parental inspiration.