Colleen Abdoulah Walks the Walk. CEO/President Colleen Abdoulah, of Wide Open West (WOW!), a regional Internet, cable, and phone provider headquartered in Denver, is a vibrant, energetic, enthusiastic, and motivated leader. Her values are strong; her compassion is deep and her personal philosophy, enviable. Most of all, she walks the talk. As a child growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, Colleen Abdoulah was taught that “to those whom much has been given, much is expected.” And has she delivered. In an economy where companies are merging, laying off employees or even closing their doors, WOW! had a good first quarter in 2009. Not only did they exceed plan, the company is committed to adding employees where necessary and awarding promotions. Abdoulah will be the first to tell you that it’s a team effort, but she leads a company that’s ready to negotiate the tough times with confidence. How does that happen in today’s marketplace? It starts at the top.
The daughter of a Lebanese father and Romanian mother, Abdoulah is the fourth of five children (three older sisters and a younger brother). Her mother didn’t allow her children to speak badly about others, and her father treated everyone with the same respect — regardless of title, status or what they owned. One of the most important lessons he passed onto his children was that they should never let anyone treat them with any less regard. Growing up in a “very ethnic” home, she learned family and friends were everything, always around to share a meal or a special occasion. “Your friends are your family, and your family are your friends,” she was told. Consequently, she has close, lifelong friendships that she treasures. Abdoulah and her siblings were required to work in the family restaurant business. Her father believed in sharing the wealth; if business was profitable, he made sure that every employee received a bonus. Life wasn’t without obstacles — her mother was a recovered alcoholic — and as a child she learned a lot about life and her own values by going to Al-Anon with her father. “I loved what that program taught me about control. You only have control over one thing — your response. It shaped my thinking and understanding of relationships and what role I play,” she says.
Admittedly a “bossy kid,” Abdoulah was always a natural leader; she was president of her high school and her sorority. She remarks, “I naturally gravitated to leadership roles. I have since learned it is not about being bossy but about motivating, inspiring and, most importantly, serving others; that’s what a true leader does.” Abdoulah earned an associate degree in public relations/marketing at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta, and later went on to receive her M.B.A. at the University of Denver. She worked as an advertising account executive in Canada and the United States for five years, then consulted for TCI and ultimately came to Denver in 1989 as the director of marketing for WestMarc. She eventually moved from cable into satellite services with Netlink and back to TCI. She opted out of the industry in 1999 for three years to spend time with her adopted daughter and to work in a leadership coaching partnership with Cathy Sunshine (Sunshine Consultancy).
Along her journey, Abdoulah developed and internalized compassionate, holistic values and an unwavering moral and ethical foundation for her personal and business philosophy. And she practices it every day. From her heart, she believes that what people bring into the workplace enhances productivity.
“Corporations can suck the passion right out of a person, and passion leads to high energy and motivation. If you pigeonhole people, you limit them and their true potential. If you pay attention to what some may call the ‘soft-skills,’ you get hard results — healthier, more productive, powerful people — the results are staggering,” she explains. As part of the initiative to focus on mind, body, and spirit at WOW!, a high priority is placed on overall wellness. Over $1,200 per employee is spent annually on professional and personal development. Abdoulah has the loyalty, love, and admiration of her employees with job satisfaction ratings of 97.3 percent.
Believing that change comes from within, she feeds her body, mind and soul through daily meditation and an annual five-day trip to a monastery that allows her to step back and gain perspective on her very busy world. These retreats provide the silence and solitude that nourish her spirituality and give her the gift of understanding and learning. She says, “Years ago I received a clear message: to pay attention to the motivation and intention of your heart; if it’s pure, then let go of the outcome.” As a personal litmus test before making an important decision, she asks what her motivation and intentions are. Drawing on her mother’s example, she asks herself if it’s kind, if it’s necessary and if it’s true. “A leader has an obligation to be self-aware and open to learn from others,” she comments. “I understand what I am good at and what I am not, and make sure I have smart people working with me so we may complement each other. The team I work with at WOW! is incredible. They know themselves and are sensitive and aware of others. Higher self-awareness allows you to be more authentic, and that results in great things — it allows others to be real, and so deeper levels of trust and respect are formed. You don’t always have to be liked or agreed with, but if people trust and respect you, it’s magical what you are able to give and receive.”
Abdoulah also embraces the lesson of giving to those less fortunate through her philanthropy. Her donations go primarily to causes affecting women and children, including Juvenile Diabetes and Micro-Lending in Uganda and Rwanda. She sits on four boards besides WOW! — the American Cable Association and C-SPAN, and two community boards, the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center and Women’sVision Foundation. The mission of the latter resonates with her own beliefs of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. She says, “We have to break through barriers and influence cultural change. As women, we need to do a better job finding ways to partner with men. Men and women complement one another. Women’sVision understands this. A high level of collaboration and comfort between men and women sharing power creates far better results.” She has researched the statistics, and Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards financially performed significantly better than others.
Very close to her heart is the time Abdoulah gives as board chair to the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit organization that aggressively provides legal representation to nearly 1,000 abused children each year. She is passionate when she talks about the plight of children in the foster care system. “These are children with a heart and soul and not a piece of furniture that can be moved on a whim. They deserve a stable, safe and supportive family,” she stresses. Her life is full of children, including 10 nieces and nephews, 10 godchildren and several overseas sponsorships. She had always wanted to be involved, and when one of the attorneys at Rocky Mountain suggested she adopt a child, despite the fact she was single and living alone, she did just that, adopting 11-year-old Alex, now 24.
Colleen AbdoulahIn January of 2005, Abdoulah was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. By that time, it had moved into her lymph nodes, requiring six months of chemotherapy, surgery and six weeks of daily doses of radiation. Determined the cancer would not be the center of her world or consume it, she moved forward by going to work bald; sitting in on meetings; traveling to the field; and receiving the love and support of her family, her partner, Ruth, and daughter, Alex, and her WOW! team and board members. During the course of her treatments, she managed to navigate through the sale of the company to its present owners. To her, “cancer was a blessing in many ways” because it allowed her to slow down and truly listen to God and to others. When diagnosed, she asked God to help her learn from the experience, not to miss anything, and to be gracious towards others, no matter how bad she might feel. “I found out early on that what I really needed to learn was how to be gracious towards myself. I think women especially can be critical of themselves and what we expect ourselves to be and do,” she explains.
Wide Open West is headquartered in Denver and has locations in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, with a customer care support facility in Colorado Springs. The company has grown from 600 employees to over 1,300 in the past six years. The focus of Abdoulah and her team drives the culture at WOW! She says, “We need to have the right people in the right place doing what they do best. Then we will serve each other well, enabling us to serve the customer with excellence.” Validating that philosophy, the company has a 93.7 percent very good-to-excellent customer rating and has received seven J.D. Power and Associates Awards for excellence in the past six years. What does Abdoulah envision whenever she might retire? She answers, “To travel more, spend even more time with my partner, family and friends, and continue to give back. Today, I can give money and some of my time. Once retired, I will be able to give even more of my time.” She was flattered when DENVER WOMAN asked if she would allow herself to be the cover story. Her response was as elegant and humble as she: “What could I share that would be important?” We would say quite a lot.