Mentorship has been a defining theme of Vonya Alleyne’s professional life. The central aspects of mentorship—transferring knowledge, building relationships, listening, responding—have made a critical difference at each juncture of Alleyne’s almost three-decade career. For nearly half that time, she has been with Cox Communications in Chesapeake, Va., where she and her 13-member team oversee HR for about 2,000 employees in the Virginia region.
“Mentoring and being mentored have been constants in my career,” says Alleyne, who holds a SHRM-SCP credential and serves as vice president of people solutions at the telecommunications company.
When she joined Cox as an HR director in 2007, Alleyne’s first mentor there was J.D. Myers II, who is now her boss. Myers, senior vice president and Virginia region manager, notes that Alleyne is always looking for continuous improvement. “I joke that Vonya’s brain works in Six Sigma all the time,” he says, referring to the renowned data-driven process-improvement method.
And, in fact, Alleyne aims to learn something new each day. “I call them micro-development activities,” she says.
One career lesson she learned in recent years: While the message matters, so does the delivery.
“I’m an extremely direct communicator,” she says. “You don’t have to guess what I’m thinking because I’ll tell you. But I had to work on knowing my audience so my message doesn’t get lost in the delivery.”
Listening and Responding
Like Myers, Ellen Hudson, a current mentee of Alleyne’s, uses the term “problem-solver” to describe Alleyne. “She sees not only down the street but around the corner,” says Hudson, vice president of field HR at Cox Communications in Baton Rouge, La.
Hudson benefited from Alleyne’s problem-solving skills in 2019. At the time, the company was experiencing a spike in employee calls to its ethics hotline, which was run by a third party. When Hudson reached out to Alleyne to discuss what HR could do to remedy the problem, Alleyne suggested creating a more open environment to make sure employees knew they could go directly to their leaders and HR with any ethics concerns, rather than turn to an external party. The strategy included educating leaders and workers on the company’s open-door policies, training and communications on various platforms. “The plan was very successful,” Hudson says.
In providing advice in that situation, Alleyne relied on one of her guiding principles: Leadership is about two-way communication, not one-way directives. It’s a tenet she has followed more than once. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide social protests last year, for example, Alleyne helped lead listening sessions with workers “to talk about what keeps them up at night,” she says. “We heard from them that they want to have more of an impact on our region.” As a result, Cox formed a team of employees that launched new partnerships with local organizations, including workforce development programs for underrepresented populations.
This ability to both listen and respond helped Alleyne through what she considers her greatest professional challenge to date. In 2014, Cox began a transformation from a decentralized company, where managers had autonomy over their own regions, to a centralized, matrixed structure. At the time, Alleyne was only about six months into her current HR VP role. She also had just been asked to don another hat as a VP of operations. There was an enormous amount of activity happening simultaneously, she says.
Alleyne helped the company make that organizational and cultural shift, she says, by listening to what company leaders and other employees had to say and acting based on their input. For example, in the newly reorganized sales unit, workers’ shifts were going to be determined by their performance. “That didn’t sit well with some employees,” Alleyne says. “It didn’t seem fair [to them] since they were just starting in this newly formed entity. So we said, ‘OK, what would be fair?’ ” The employees suggested other criteria that were reviewed and ultimately approved by company leaders.
“It’s important to me that our employees have a good experience,” she says. “But I can’t answer what ‘good’ looks like. Only our employees can answer that.”
Myers notes that Alleyne has always shown a commitment to employees. At Cox, company leaders sometimes accompany front-line workers such as engineers and technicians to offsite jobs. One of these excursions, known as “ride-outs,” took place during especially bad weather. The technician asked Alleyne if she would rather not go. Myers recalls Alleyne’s response: “She said, ‘If you’re working, I’m going. Meet me out front.’ She says all the time that front-line employees are the pulse of our company,” Myers says.
A Career-Defining Decision
After earning her bachelor’s degree in business administration at James Madison University in Virginia in 1993, Alleyne got an offer to enter the management trainee program at Pizza Hut, then owned by PepsiCo. “At that time, PepsiCo was world-renowned for its HR practices, but I didn’t know that,” she says. “I just wanted the job that paid the most money to start my [professional] life as soon as I could.”
Accepting that offer proved to be career-defining. About six months into the job, Alleyne received a promotion to manage her own Pizza Hut in Falls Church, Va. “I didn’t know I got a store that wasn’t very desirable,” she recalls. The restaurant had poor customer reviews and high turnover, and it was losing money. But in just one year, Alleyne’s store went from the district’s worst-performing location to its best-performing one.
Headquarters took notice. The national chain dispatched representatives to get an up-close view of Alleyne’s work. But on the night of their visit, the restaurant ran out of pizza. Deliveries were delayed and took more than an hour. “It ended up being the worst night of my life,” she says. “I thought I was going to get fired.”
Instead, she got another offer. The reps were so impressed with the way the recent college grad deftly managed a diverse staff of about 100 employees, who spoke multiple languages and ranged in age from high schoolers to senior citizens, that they asked her to apply for an HR coordinator position. Alleyne got the job, and she’s been in HR ever since.
During that early-career experience, Alleyne learned the value of diversity and inclusion and the employee experience. “Every voice matters,” she says. She figured out how to put workers together to form a highly functional team—from teens working part time to retirees who were working for extra money. “It taught me you can get creative in how you staff an organization.”
Alleyne went on to earn a master’s degree in organizational management at the University of Phoenix, but she started her HR career by tapping the know-how of the many mentors around her—HR experts in employee and labor relations, benefits, training, safety and security, and data analytics.
“I will forever be indebted to those team members—and I still remember each of their names—who took me under their wing,” she says.
She has found a similar benefit as a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which she joined more than two decades ago. “Particularly at the beginning of my HR career, when I didn’t really know what HR was, I went to SHRM for everything,” Alleyne says. “SHRM was my go-to for all the questions I didn’t have answers for.” In addition to consulting SHRM’s resources, she used the association’s vast network to connect with other HR professionals and gain knowledge about the HR field, as well as specific industries.
Alleyne’s early turnaround of that Pizza Hut store revealed another defining trait: her competitive spirit. She has a drive not only to succeed but also to exceed expectations. After joining Cox in 2018, Hudson witnessed that firsthand. That year, the company held a contest to see which region could get the most employees to create their own individual development plans. Hudson’s region achieved an impressive 98 percent completion rate—just behind Alleyne’s perfect 100 percent. “She edged me out,” Hudson recalls fondly. “She’s just that committed.”
Alleyne traces this drive to her parents. Her father, an immigrant from Guyana, owned a moving company. Her mother, a native Virginian, worked in training and benefits for an insurance company. “They were both top of their class, and they expected similar results from my sister and me,” Alleyne says.
Both of her parents also stressed a strong work ethic, which Alleyne exhibited at a young age working for her father in the summertime by helping in his office and packing customers’ moving boxes.
She demonstrated those traits again in 2017 as the founding president of the Virginia chapter of the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications (NAMIC). In its first year, the chapter surpassed all markers of success. It attracted more than 200 members—well beyond the chapter goal of 25—and held two events per quarter on average, twice the minimum expectation.
The following year, the national organization recognized the new chapter’s achievements with three of NAMIC’s six industry awards. The group was recognized for its marketing and event management efforts and as chapter of the year. And, Alleyne notes, the Cox workers who made up 95 percent of the Virginia chapter’s membership got a rare leadership development opportunity to network and get better at their jobs. No wonder Alleyne considers that experience her most significant professional accomplishment.
Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.