When I assumed the role of president and CEO of the American Public Power Association in January 2020, I knew that I was taking on a new challenge. My goals were to build on and improve APPA’s internal culture — focusing on trust, accountability, collaboration, and transparency (an initiative that I dubbed “TACT”) — so that we could best serve our members during an exciting and challenging time for the industry. Little did I know that there were major, unexpected challenges just ahead with far-reaching consequences for our utility industry and beyond.
Within two months of starting as APPA’s CEO, our office moved to fully remote while the utility industry moved swiftly to adapt to safely keep electricity flowing in a global pandemic. Looking back at the early days of the pandemic, I am blown away by the response of public power utilities, and the entire electric sector, for acting so bravely and swiftly to protect our essential workers and mitigate the spread of the virus to ensure the lights stayed on. I am also deeply grateful for the focus and determination shown by my staff in continuing to provide excellent and seamless service to our public power members, even in the early days when we were forced to be fully virtual, often with school-age kids sharing our kitchen tables.
While those early days were dark, they were also remarkable.
I certainly learned many lessons about how often and how clearly I needed to communicate with my staff during that time. One positive step we took at the beginning was to organize our COVID-19 response into “buckets”: internal communications/HR/IT; business continuity/finance; member communications and media relations; helping members with their operational response; advocating for various industry needs in Congress and at the federal agencies; and enabling virtual programming of our meetings and educational offerings. Each bucket had a staff lead and work cascaded from there. We initially met twice a week to ensure we were making progress against issues identified under these buckets.
Even though each public power entity had to react to community conditions, they also needed to learn lessons from others, including beyond public power. Under the umbrella of the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, APPA and other trade associations, utility CEOs, and senior executives from across the industry pulled together quickly to ensure safety and continuity of service. Working with our federal government partners, public power volunteer leaders, members of the APPA team and I worked to create guidance on various elements of the response to utilities of all stripes on managing the pandemic while providing the electric service that was as essential as ever. That guidance was updated 10 times during the first year of the pandemic and shared far and wide. I’m proud to say that the work we did became a model for other critical infrastructure sectors. At the same time, our government relations team ramped up our advocacy efforts to make sure that public power was considered in the multiple pieces of COVID-19-related legislation that moved quickly through Congress.
While contending with the pandemic, our industry also faced historic hurricanes, winter storms, and wildfires — requiring an extra layer of planning and consideration of safety. I believe that what enabled the electric sector, writ large, and public power specifically, to respond so well to these challenges is its ability to triage – assess the situation; glean lessons learned via various groups such as the ESCC, APPA, state and regional associations, and joint action agencies; quickly apply those lessons learned; identify gaps and work to fill them. This requires leadership at all levels. It also requires a willingness to listen to others’ experiences and move ahead with that knowledge. Remember the early hot spots in Washington State and New York State? Utilities from those states took time to share their stories.
Another challenge was put before us in May 2020, in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, when our great, but sometimes imperfect, nation was compelled to acknowledge ongoing shortcomings pertaining to racism, discrimination, and injustice. Like many public power leaders across the country, I decided that it was necessary to bring these conversations into our workplace to look for ways for all of us to better understand the implications and to seek to improve. I renewed APPA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion by reviewing internal policies and bolstering training for staff in these critical areas as well as providing tools for our members to reference and use themselves. For APPA itself, this is an ongoing effort under the auspices of our cultural focus on TACT, to enable more innovative, open-minded, and dynamic teams.
It goes without saying that my first two years as CEO of APPA were not what I expected. Our association, industry, country, and world have contended with a confluence of major challenges. The fact that we have faced so many of them, often concurrently, highlights the incredible resilience of public power, our association, and the electric utility industry.
Thriving — not just surviving — during tremendous adversity is what all leaders should aspire to, and it’s ultimately what constitutes the heart of resilient leadership. To enable APPA to thrive, even under uncertain and difficult circumstances, has been my goal over the past two years — one that draws inspiration from the hundreds of amazing public power leaders with whom I am grateful to work and from my dedicated, whip-smart, and hardworking staff. I look forward to continuing to lead APPA as we face obstacles new and old and as we execute on our goal of helping our members provide reliable, affordable, and clean power to their communities.