Energy Leadership is a Shared Experience

Hindsight is 20/20. Old phrase, so true. After 40+ years in some facet of energy, I was asked about energy companies, great leaders, and how the public can spur corporate energy excellence. I am fortunate for where I have worked, so I have opinions, especially how people can be heard. Here goes.

Every trait in a great company shares the common thread of change. In the 1970s the petroleum industry had radical change. (The electric industry has that decade now.) Starting in the mid-1970s I sat at the feet of professionals navigating change unpredictable just a few years earlier. New technology, asset sales, mergers and demergers, new executives, macro-economic upheaval – all parts of the puzzle.

That impressed on me fundamental traits of successful companies…

Change before the need to change is obvious.

The oil industry was a “hired for life” and “go along to get along” culture for a long time. Suddenly it wasn’t.

What a change! Squeezing out inefficiency, stripping out old systems, exiting lines of business, and even asking the ultimate existential question of corporate existence. All fair game.

I recall an electric company shareholder meeting after the company sold its crown jewel – a major pipeline. Shareholders asked the CEO, for all purposes, “Are you crazy?” The CEO said the sale was at the right price and would reshape the company for the long term; do not live in the past.

Invite change. “There’s danger in the comfort zone,” admonishes a business book decades ago. Comfort breeds complacency which equals falling behind.

“When you challenge all the assumptions you have about life and business, you come up with contingency plans that help you stay on top of your situation,” said Entrepreneur magazine. “By challenging your beliefs, you disrupt your thinking. And it takes disruptive thinkers to pave a way forward where everyone else sees a dead-end. Disruption breeds innovation.”

Challenging assumptions works. The oil company I note led the industry in patents. It created entire new lines of business. Most telling, other companies followed the lead. Remember, imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Exceptional companies and leaders change before the chorus calling for change is deafening. They change for real, productive business reasons, not for change in name only, not for the sake of executive ego.

Practice humble, open communications.

“Keep us real,” was what the CEO and COO of a major oil company said when I became the “management communications coordinator.” Any experience was fair game to keep them in touch with employees and stakeholders. They greeted employees at the 7 a.m. shift change at a refinery,  walked plants at 1 a.m. to meet the night shifts (without local management), met with field hands for BBQ in the gas fields, and participated in safety meetings and civic events.

Several citizens advisory panels jump-started dialogue. The panels were chosen by third parties, not the company, to forestall any claim that the deck was stacked. The panels learned about the industry and asked questions.

Most vivid, though, was the oil price collapse of the mid-1980s. It was going to be a long drought. Layoffs were expected. The CEO and COO videotaped a frank message to employees. The debate: Say something before or after the holidays? There was no question about it. Communicate early and clearly and openly to everyone. All the cards were on the table.

Such companies are glass box brands, a brand of transparency and authenticity. Integrity underpins such leadership. Respect, not playing games. Complete facts, not partial. Some companies may publish just those parts of facts that make them look the best. Beware.

Develop people in non-traditional ways.

Great companies enhance new thinking, not stifle it. The best companies make employee development a genuinely individual thing, an ongoing press for fresh thinking.

I recall a VP of Human Resources lunching with employees. An administrative assistant complained about a process. The VP suggested a task force to figure out a better process. He wanted her to help lead it. She demurred, and his response was that we’ll teach you how to lead a task force. That is development.

The same VP called me to his office when I was assigned to a new job at a chemical plant, in a different arm of the firm, far away (had to move). “Find what make you most uncomfortable. Do that until you learn it, then go to the next thing that makes you uncomfortable,” he said.

The company tested my mettle. That is development.

Employee development improves companies, and make no mistake, it improves the places where those people live. Where companies are smart in their people development they are located in pretty smart communities, too.

Seek different opinions.

“Public Affairs” was the name of my department in my first job. My manager sat me down Day One and said, “Public is part of our department’s name. We serve the public, we need to keep in touch with the public, you need to be part of the city and industry.” Direct interaction. No filters.

Great companies learn. They sift the flood of opinions, data, and news to point to their True North. “The best leaders know they must have intentional focus,” said Sherri Baldwin, Principal of LeadAdvantage, a Charlotte-based leadership consultant, “Otherwise, unintentional consequences will occur like loss of profit, people, and productivity. Leaders focus on what matters most … the target, not the distractions.”

Without focus, surprise is constant.

Companies have many different stakeholders, so firms need to know diverse viewpoints to operate wisely. “Just as every company has a carbon footprint it also has a social footprint. The question is whether the leader and company really know what that social footprint is that’s embedded in the way it does business,” says Barie Carmichael, author of RESET: Business and Society in the New Social Landscape. “It is cured by breaking through the blind spot to get at what it takes to make the change happen. Leaders who achieve break-through thinking cultivate dissension. I call it being a constructive skeptic. These leaders and companies learn from that exercise.”

Example: On the board of directors of my first employer, an oil company, was one of the nation’s leading environmental attorneys and a woman named black entrepreneur of the year. In an oil company, mind you. I sat in board committee meetings and saw vigorous debates. These directors weren’t sheep. No ignoring the outside world, there.

Diversity was practiced in a meaningful way. Not just gender or race, but expertise, viewpoints, centers of interest… The company aired opinions, issues, and outcomes. It was a learning organization.

District managers based in the cities with major electric franchises were the backbone of communications at the power company where I worked. They frequented diners, chamber meetings, high school programs … on-the-ground, they knew the pulse of the towns. They were front-line, fast sources of information. Two-way communications. Real-time, real contacts. No filters.

Great companies are part of a positive fabric of life. They work toward that end, well beyond quarterly earnings, executive incentives, or gaming a system. No boot-licking favorite influential people or hiding from reality. They thoughtfully manage the real world they face.

Stakeholders are Varied and Useful

All this seems removed from the average Joe or Jane who is a customer of a utility. Yet the average person has a role to support or influence the efforts of a utility company to do well. How?

Broaden your perspective. Learn about energy. This does not have to be through highly specialized energy publications. The Wall Street Journal has ample energy coverage, for instance. Or, check the National Renewable Energy Lab, Energy Information Agency, National GeographicDuke Energy,  NextEra EnergyDominion Energy,  or one of the best – the Switch Energy Alliance.

Triangulate information. When I had a Boy Scout troop, we took our Scouts backpacking in the mountains of New Mexico. On the trail we would lay out a topographical map and a compass. Scouts would spot several nearby peaks and their compass angles, which they drew as lines on the map. Where those lines intersected was where we were on the map.

Triangulating data works. The lesson: Use the data at your disposal. Explore disparate viewpoints. Learn. In energy, look at the way your utility compares to others. (There’s a lot online.) Know what other companies do well and match that to your utility. Are you getting what is possible?

Communicate. Great companies know that old rules of public engagement are gone. “People are watching. Everything,” said Barie Carmichael. That can be a challenge. “An outside-in perspective does not come naturally to business cultures susceptible to groupthink. The need for a forward-looking corporate culture that anticipates stakeholder impact has never been more urgent.”

Let your utility hear your viewpoint in a constructive way. Explain why you feel this way. Include something about your situation to help the company learn from you. Invite a response that is productive, not a gotcha. If you want change, say it.

Get involved. Ask if your company has some sort of citizens’ advisory panel. If there is none, why not? If your utility is an investor-owned company, buy stock and be part of the shareholder meeting. If you are part of a co-op, attend the meetings. If it is a public power company, ask what sessions you can attend and get firsthand information and ask questions. If you get turned down, ask again, and again.

Get together. Find like-minded people who share your feelings. These may not be the mayor or school superintendent. Think about it, hairdressers and bartenders may have a better grasp of opinions in the city. Title does not confer wisdom.

Groups have louder voices than individuals.

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“There is no normal or even new normal. There is only the New Reality of working, learning, leading, and living differently. Adaptation will continue,’ said Baldwin. “When used correctly, leadership is the most powerful force we possess. Unfortunately, many people do not exhibit this type of leadership strength, especially during challenging times when it is perhaps needed most.”

Being smart, somewhat brazen, and thoughtful are competitive advantages for energy firms. As an energy consumer, you deserve that kind of company. Not just for you as a consumer, but as someone who has to live in the world that energy companies impact, the world they create environmentally, socially, and economically.