Powering Strong Communities

Cultivating Tomorrow’s Workforce: Leadership Advice from Public Power’s 2022 Awardees

Q&A with select individual recipients of the American Public Power Association’s 2022 Outstanding Public Power Leaders.

Responses from:

  • DEREK BROWN, City Administrator, City of Albany, Missouri, and 2022 recipient of the Larry Hobart Seven Hats Award
  • CRYSTAL CURRIER, Controller, Vermont Public Power Supply Authority, and 2022 recipient of the Mark Crisson Leadership and Managerial Excellence Award
  • AL FISER, Administrator, Village of Pioneer, Ohio, and 2022 recipient of the Larry Hobart Seven Hats Award
  • WES KELLEY, President and CEO, Huntsville Utilities, Alabama, and 2022 recipient of the Mark Crisson Leadership and Managerial Excellence Award
  • ANGIE LUNA, Director of Power & Public Works, City of Acworth, Georgia, and 2022 recipient of the Robert Roundtree Rising Star Award
  • GEORGE MORRISSEY, Director of Public Works, Cuba City Light and Water, Wisconsin, and 2022 recipient of the Larry Hobart Seven Hats Award
  • DAVE OSBURN, General Manager, Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, and 2022 recipient of the Mark Crisson Leadership and Managerial Excellence Award
  • CHUCK RALLS, City Manager, Comanche Public Works Authority, Oklahoma, and 2022 recipient of the Larry Hobart Seven Hats Award
  • STEVE WRIGHT, Former General Manager, Chelan Public Utility District, Washington, and 2022 recipient of the Alex Radin Distinguished Service Award

What does it mean to you to be a public power leader?

OSBURN: It is an honor and a huge responsibility. It doesn’t matter whether you work for a joint action agency or a municipality, you have been entrusted with the stewardship and care of a very valuable asset — possibly that community’s most valuable asset. The performance of your organization directly impacts the lives of the community or communities you serve.

CURRIER: I have the opportunity to share with my staff and colleagues my experiences, what I have learned, what has worked and what hasn’t, in the hope that they will be able to use that knowledge to make public power stronger and explain to others the difference public power can make in their communities. Being a public power leader provides a certain amount of gratification. People go to work every day and while the work they do makes an impact somewhere (typically a financial impact), knowing that my role has a direct effect in the communities where our members work and live is satisfying.

KELLEY: Public power is public service. We must never forget that we are stewards operating on behalf of
others. We are in positions of trust. The public trusts us to build, operate, and maintain assets that empower their lives and enhance our communities.

WRIGHT: It’s the fulfillment of a lifetime objective. I believe serving the public interest provides meaning and purpose that is tremendously rewarding. Public power is the essence of serving the public interest because we start with a focus on serving our customers and enhancing our communities. We have great challenges in terms of big picture global and national issues like climate change and cybersecurity protection. We also have local issues that provide an opportunity to make significant differences in the quality of life. It’s been a tremendously rewarding experience to be in public power.

What are the benefits of working for a small public power utility?

FISER: Having a job in the same town you were born and raised is something very few individuals get to experience. When this job involves serving customers, most of whom you know on a first name basis, it makes the experience that much more special.

RALLS: I have worked for large corporations and you feel very disconnected. I love knowing all of my employees as well as their spouses and children. You are [also] able to know your customers. It allows me to meet with them and be more empathetic to their needs, which allows for better customer service.

MORRISEY: The benefits of working for a small utility are plentiful, rewarding, and humbling. There is an immense sense of pride individually and community-wide when you see the fruits of work daily. There is a sense of community buy-in to the project(s) at hand, whether it is a distribution rebuild, electric extension, water and sewer upgrade, street reconstruction, or improvements in our parks. The fact that our staff (five employees between all departments — electric, water, wastewater, streets and parks) is responsible for these duties and takes pride in all their work makes my job that much easier.

BROWN: With a small staff that invariably comes with working for a small system, every employee is at some point faced with a situation that they aren’t always equipped or trained to deal with. Over time, and with both good and bad experiences, this creates a more dynamic staff that contributes to the system being better able to serve the needs of our customer-owners. It also doesn’t hurt that you personally know most of those whom you serve.

What attributes shine through (or do you try to foster) in the public power workplace culture?

WRIGHT: Fostering a culture that is focused on serving the public interest. For-profit companies have as their primary duty a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders. Non-governmental organizations need to meet the desires of their donors. Sometimes governmental organizations can be overly focused on their specific mission without seeing the larger picture of how their actions fit into the mosaic of improving the quality of life in their community. The goal should be to think deeply about how to enhance the quality of life for the people who live in our communities, while keeping an eye on the bigger picture of how we fit into making our state, country, and world a better place.

CURRIER: The employees who work in our member utilities wear multiple hats and are pulled in many directions. If the VPPSA employees can understand that day-to-day pull on our member managers (and their employees), they can do a better job of helping to meet their needs. Knowing that your work is helping the communities where our members reside is very different than simply working to earn a profit.

LUNA: People who serve in the public power industry are first of all servant-hearted. They wake up every day with a strong desire to make life better for others. These are people who are creative, confident and bold. There is a very strong family culture in public power. All of these attributes together are what makes working in public power unique and enjoyable. You have a sense of belonging and a sense of home at work. You are working toward the greater good for the community and each other.

RALLS: Through fostering customer service skills, we are encouraging all employees to engage with the public. We have been seeing a changing trend on social media where they thank us for no outages after a storm and thanking [crews] for enduring the weather while they are out on an outage. They have even taken them coffee or thanked them by name. This is a positive culture shift.

BROWN: I have always tried to implement a culture that stressed the importance of family and community endeavors. We have implemented liberal time-off systems that allow employees to engage in a healthy and robust life outside of work. We believe it increases productivity and job satisfaction, but most of all it is just the right thing to do.

MORRISEY: I do not go the team route; I go the family route. Small towns and small workforces need the sense of family and self-value, these values increase productivity and increase longevity in any work environment.

KELLEY: We owe it to our community to get better every day. That doesn’t happen if we aren’t deepening our knowledge and learning from those around us. We must always consider what’s best for the customer and the community–not our convenience.

OSBURN: Public power is unique in its closeness and relationship with the customer. I have always tried to operate under the model of doing what is best for your customers, not necessarily what is best for you. In many public power communities and joint action agencies, the customer or member can be very involved and want to have a say in the practices and operations of the utility. Here at OMPA, I operate as if I have 42 bosses. When I was at Richmond (Indiana), I used to say I had 30,000 bosses. [Customers] don’t get that kind of access to top management from private corporations. The other trait that typically shows up is “fairness.” Do what is fair, and right, even if it means admitting you were wrong.

What skills do leaders of small utilities need to be able to master?

BROWN: Organized and focused communication skills. I have no public information or marketing staff and on occasion have struggled finding the time or expertise to effectively communicate with the public, governing board members and employees. A close second would be highly effective employee engagement. A small system leader cannot afford to sacrifice teamwork just because the team is small in numbers.

MORRISEY: The ability to empathize with your customers and community members. In the small-town setting everything becomes personal, and the ability to relate to and understand an individual’s concerns or comments is paramount. In a lot of cases those concerned individuals may have children in your child’s class or be on the same sports teams. The ability to promote and foster citizen participation and buy-in is also a critical skill that becomes invaluable. I believe the future for current and future people in these positions is to be active in the community and lead by example. This demonstrates your personal buy-in and belief in the direction that you are promoting for your community.

FISER: Communication, trust, and compassion. Citizens need to understand they can approach you with their issues and concerns. Sometimes you can solve their issues and sometimes you cannot, but if they trust you have listened to them with empathy for their circumstance, then almost always an amicable solution can be found.

RALLS: In a smaller utility, you are often making the decisions and then required to implement those decisions. A small utility leader must be able to multi-task and manage time well. You must also understand the entire process from the financials, the planning and engineering, and the implementation or installation. I could not do this job without all the knowledge I have gained from mentors throughout the years. The next generation needs to understand the importance of a good mentor and develop a strong leadership network they can call on when they have questions. The best skill you can have is the ability to find answers when you don’t have them.

What skills does the public power leader of the future need? How/where can rising leaders attain these skills?

LUNA: Public power leaders must have the skills necessary to grow strong workplace culture, encourage and motivate employees, and attract talented people who want to be a part of serving their communities. Leaders need to have strong skills in influencing their people: communication, motivation, humility, collaboration, creativity, flexibility, empathy, adaptability, employee development, etc. Many of the skills that are necessary to lead their staff are also the same ones needed to create the partnerships and working relationships with other departments and community organizations to ensure staff has the resources needed to perform their work safely and efficiently. Everyone on our staff has taken the DISC assessment which is a tool for understanding each person’s strengths and weaknesses as well as their personality type. This has helped tremendously with being better able to communicate with each other and balance everyone’s strengths and weaknesses to the highest level. The skills can be attained by anyone who is willing to learn and work toward growing their own personal development. There are many and varied ways to attain the needed leadership skills such as conferences, webinars, courses, and training seminars. I regularly read leadership books [and] conduct book studies with my leadership staff.

OSBURN: I have always felt good leaders exhibit the following traits: knowledgeable of business/industry, has a vision of where the company should be heading, is a good communicator of that vision, and is passionate. In recent years I have added another trait — flexibility. Our industry is changing at a rapid pace, along with our customer’s and staff’s expectations. You must be able, and willing, to adapt. Think of leaders you have worked with before and try to emulate the positive traits you admired about them. It is also helpful to have someone who is willing to challenge you and keep you centered. Regarding industry knowledge and vision, take advantage of any opportunity to stay current on trends and changes in the power industry. APPA has been a great resource for me over the years.

CURRIER: Technology, innovative ideas, adaptability. Our member utilities have been around for decades (some more than a century), and while the basics of the utility infrastructure have not changed, the way it works and the demands placed on the industry have. Public power leaders today need to be abreast of technological advances in the industry and utilize them to make their utilities stronger. They must bring innovative ideas to the table and be adaptable. The regulatory and environmental landscape changes constantly and leaders need to be in a position to make those changes benefit the utility rather than seeing it as an opposing threat. Using resources such as joint action agencies, APPA, local training centers and mostly learning from our industry colleagues is key to success.