“Challenge the supposed absolute truths,” distills the leadership advice of a veteran energy leadership coach. For more than a dozen years Sherri Baldwin, Principal of LeadAdvantage, Inc., a Charlotte based leadership development company, has coached hundreds of energy employees in the Carolinas, mostly women. ECC asked Sherri about the changes she sees in energy leadership. She gave us some names, too.

So you’ll know, this post started as a general energy leadership blog. That changed as I dug into the issue. The issues of getting more women into the energy workforce, in decisive roles, is important. (I have also observed Sherri’s work firsthand in an emerging leaders program.) There has been good work here with women in energy leadership. More work to do, but lots done.

This blog puts some women’s leadership issues out there. I’ll follow-up over the next few weeks with other points from leadership experts and interviews from some inspirational Carolina women in energy.

Energy has been a boys’ club for a long time. It’s a highly traditional and technical industry. One reason, a strong engineering emphasis and females have not traditionally been a big part of STEM graduates. That has been changing. The energy industry has been playing catch-up on women in leadership spots.

Sherri Baldwin, Principal, LeadAdvantage

Where to start

Leadership is leadership. That is a constant according to Sherri. “One caveat is there is a bias that we put on ourselves or that others put on us.” That takes fortitude to prevail over such perceptions. “The question becomes how to overcome the bias and excel in the  position.”

A textbook example of that is Crystal Rookard, now General Counsel and VP of Legal Affairs at South Carolina’s Lander University. She has contributed to the energy industry starting at Midlands Technical College, where she attended an emerging leaders program. Working with other energy professionals and women in a predominantly and traditionally male-dominated business, Crystal practiced what she learned from Sherri: Be deliberate. Crystal said, “I have been deliberate.”

Rookard served as General Counsel and Special Advisor to the President for two MTC presidents, both of whom stressed the importance of STEM education. In addition, they nominated other MTC female executives to participate in the emerging leaders program.

Crystal had people who cared, and she took their guidance to heart. “One person in particular helped me as a mentor. I was assigned a very demanding workload.  Some folks would shy away from that or become frustrated.”

Crystal Rookard

That – composure under fire – is another mandate Sherri teaches. Crystal saw the learning opportunity; did not take it personally, but as a professional road sign.

Crystal increased interaction with others. She reached out, gathered more input. “I volunteered to help others with their caseloads. I trained with others, developed skills.” She stretched herself. “When a position opened elsewhere, I was qualified, and it was exactly what I wanted.”

Before coaching and mentoring, Crystal may not have felt qualified to “go for it.” Now she views her energy experience and leadership coaching as a steppingstone that provided courage, conviction and commitment to take the next step in her career.

In 2017, Rookard was hired as the General Counsel for Lander University at that time becoming the first African American woman to serve on the university’s Cabinet.  In 2019, she was promoted to General Counsel and Vice-President of Legal Affairs. Crystal is an example of professional transformation.

“Transformation is a challenge in the energy industry,” said Sherri. “The need is for flexibility, a fluidity. Be resilient. People in the industry have been there, they know it. But the need for innovation and flexibility will get bigger.”

Way outside the fence line

Amy (pseudonym) is a prime example of this personal development. She is in a Southeast investor-owned utility and worked in a big power plant. Her personnel rating – “high potential,” and was picked for a relocation to an HQ spot. It was not the normal kind of job change in that company. “I was put in charge of a group doing something I had never done before. I was technically challenged in this spot.”

Amy knew it was a positive for her but had apprehensions. She knew the plant, had friends at the plant. She could advance there, no question. A nice and predictable future.

Being tested like this had risks. Her friends at the plant could not understand why she would leave. A lesson – sometimes people outgrow their current work environment. To stay may be too stagnate.

A few years after that assignment, Amy got another assignment. It was another brand-new discipline to learn. This one involved a staff to win over. Another chance to learn. Another chance to show management of her abilities.

Having a staff provides another chance to grow. Another of Sherri’s focus areas: Create unity on the team. Know the people. Develop them. Step up and handle conflict and feedback.

Not easy. Sherri notes, “People often wait until they are frustrated or mad to voice their feelings. Leaders need to be in touch. this does not mean conflict avoidance, which can only let problems grow, it means managing conflict and addressing before they become bigger issues so the team can keep moving ahead.”

The career growth for Amy: “It was what I think of as ‘forcing function’ to get more varied. I got more exposure to my company and other utilities in the process, so I learned more.” After a long career runway at a plant, Amy was now outside the fence line. She says, “I went from a planet to a galaxy.”

Felicia Howard

Challenge yourself

Felicia Howard employed another Sherri axiom: Be competitive with yourself.

Felicia is Vice President of Economic Development Strategy at Dominion Energy. She strategically expanded her skill sets. Over 28 years Howard eagerly pursued career shifts – Key accounts, demand-side management and gas operations, and fossil/hydro. An engineering degree preceded an MBA. Don’t count out the merger experience with Dominion.

Howard was also the first African American woman to be an officer in SCE&G.

Felicica sees more change coming for herself and the industry. “In many ways, the utility industry is entering unchartered waters and for that we need all-hands-on-deck, including women. The utility industry faces increasing challenges to do more than simply keep the lights on.” Felicia cites the changing customer and community expectations for areas like sustainability, environmental stewardship, economic development, and diversity and inclusion.

For all rising leaders, these women demonstrate positive career advice that condenses into this – become the obvious “good bet” when jobs or projects come up. That reinforces an important bottom-line Sherri tells her women clients: “Look at how to do things differently, but also how to do different things.”