Passing the leadership baton

In June 2019, Coleman Smoak, general manager of Piedmont Municipal Power Agency in South Carolina, will complete a year as chair of the American Public Power Association’s board. He will pass the baton to Decosta Jenkins (DJ), president and CEO of Nashville Electric Service in Tennessee. These two leaders talked to Public Power Magazine as they traded advice and inspiration, recounted the Association’s accomplishments, and outlined the challenges that lie ahead.


What has been the Association’s most significant accomplishment in your term as chair so far?

SMOAK: Several things come to mind. The most gratifying accomplishment was the response of the membership to the plight of thousands in the Navajo Nation who are without electric service. About two dozen community-owned utilities from around the country are sending crews this spring and summer in a pilot project to “Light Up Navajo.” I hope this sets a trend of annual projects to assist these people. Additionally, in March 2019, we had great visits with all the ratings agencies and many of the bankers in New York. It was nice to see how highly public power is regarded. Finally, the 2019 Legislative Rally was fruitful this year, and we were well received on Capitol Hill.


What are your top priorities as you take the baton from Coleman in June?

JENKINS: As chair-elect, my biggest challenge is to put in place new leadership at the Association. My greatest accomplishment is that I convinced Coleman to serve as chairman of the board selection committee for this. 

As we recruit a new CEO, we must ensure a smooth transition. We must not lose momentum with our work on the Hill. We must continue to offer the type of programs that members view to be of value. We’ve got to make sure we maintain and improve our operating results. And we’ve got to continue our momentum on the strategic plan. The executive committee and the other members of the board must provide the type of support and leadership for the new CEO so all these things continue seamlessly.


What advice do you have for your successor?

SMOAK: After DJ has been chair for a while, I think he’s going to be even more impressed with an extremely efficient and knowledgeable Association staff. They’ve made my work as chair so easy, answering every request I’ve ever had. They’re right on the money when it comes to answering my questions and the questions of others across the nation.

DJ is going to be exposed to so many more people in public power than he has been in the past. He will go to meetings where he’s going to meet accounting, IT, customer service, and PR folks, lineworkers, and many others. And the more he deals with these people, the more he’s going to realize that there’s a real optimism about public power. These people are working hard, and I am inspired by their enthusiasm.


What leadership lessons have you learned from your predecessors?

JENKINS: I’m honored to follow great leaders like Coleman and other chairs before him. I’m blessed to have this opportunity. When you look back at all the past chairs — their hard work and the commitment of time, energy, and resources — they all had one common goal, and that was to make the Association just a little bit better than it was the day that they took over as chair. That is what I hope to do as well.

Following Coleman is a tall order. He has vision and understands the importance of culture. I hope to mirror that as I move forward because I’m going to be supporting new leadership. Earlier, the board had to continue to block and tackle and run the plays. Coleman was a little more challenged in a year of transition. He had to make sure we had a playbook that would meet our needs going forward and that we had enough buy-in.

One of the first things I’ll need to do, along with the other members of the board, is to sit down with the new CEO and see how they feel about the vision. Where do they see the Association being in the next five years? Then we have to talk about culture. With both members and staff, there is a culture — a chemistry — that seems to generate morale. How can we maintain that? What does the board need to put in place to help the leadership make sure we don’t lose any of that?

As a leader, you’ve got to lead and set clear direction. You must have clear expectations and not surprise your CEO or the staff. At the same time, you’ve got to interact with members and make sure that you understand their needs and balance them with staff resources. 


What do you think are the industry’s biggest challenges today?

JENKINS: We’re looking at drastic changes in an industry that’s very slow moving. First is the distributed generation discussion — as technology moves forward, we’re going to have to decide what products we as electric utilities are going to offer. Earlier, we could tell everyone we were offering safety, comfort, and security through electrons, but now much is happening at a level closer to the end-use customer. We have to understand solar, battery storage, and other new technologies and find out where we fit in this market.

Customers, particularly the younger generations, want to manage all their needs using their mobile device, and so we’ve got to embrace that technology. Whether it’s billing, outage reporting, or project tracking, we have to figure out how to let them manage everything through their phones.

The use or leasing of electric poles by telecom providers is a big issue. In the next two years, they will be making significant investments in infrastructure so that they can start deploying 5G. We need to understand where that’s headed and how it impacts us. For those that don’t have broadband in their community, is broadband a market they can get into? 

From a political standpoint, this country has moved to the extremes. Either you’re a Republican or a Democrat, and there doesn’t seem to be much room for anything in between. So, depending on who’s elected, the policies shift dramatically, and as an industry, we’ve never had that before. Take, for example, the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan and then the immediate change of direction with this administration. And the next administration may go with something totally different.


What else should be keeping us up at night?

SMOAK: I agree with DJ’s assessment that customer expectations are just going to increase. We’re now expected to react in the way they want to deal with us, whereas in the past, we dictated the way we dealt with them.      

I’m concerned about the cyber and physical security of this industry as well. Though I realize that it would be very hard for someone to bring down the entire grid, I hope public power won’t be the point of entry into the system. We’re going to have to continue to be vigilant in this area.                    

With regard to what DJ said about legislative matters and energy policy, we have to keep demonstrating public power’s relevance in this industry.

I’m concerned about the shifting mood of politics also. Many believe every industry should be a private business enterprise, and government and the people should not be involved in owning and operating their electric utilities. But we must remember that public power started because the private businesses would not serve many communities. So, we’ve got to know what our story is — why we were established and why we should remain in this business. We must continue to tell our story and emphasize that we’re community-based and community-owned. 


In the face of all these challenges, what are public power’s strengths? What makes us resilient?

JENKINS: What makes public power relevant is that it starts with local control, and that story resonates. It’s important that we continue to tell that story — that we are your local power provider, controlled by the local governing body, whether it’s the mayor, council, or electric power board.

Public power, as Coleman said, was formed to meet an unmet need and continues to do that. 

The Association must keep on reminding members to tell that story and help us message it right — you’ve already done a great job with that. We’re a bunch of propeller heads and bean counters and need help packaging the messages and delivering the elevator speech that everyone gets.


How did you get to the leadership positions you’re in today?

SMOAK: I went to work full time for the local utility straight out of college and had already worked there during breaks while in college. So, public power is pretty much all I’ve ever done. 

The thing I had to learn about leadership was that to lead, you have to serve. That you actually have to be a servant of your customers, a servant of your employees, a servant of your governing board, and that “you cannot push a rope.” If you’re going to lead, you can’t do it from behind. You’ve got to actually get out front and try to move an organization in a strategic direction. 

You can’t lead in a vacuum. You have to make sure that all who work with you understand where you’re going and what you’re trying to accomplish. Make sure everybody understands the big picture.

JENKINS: My background is that I’m a recovering CPA. I was with a firm (now called Deloitte) for 11 years, and Nashville Electric Service was a client. They needed a VP of finance, and I took that position so we could stay in Nashville. I served in that role until 2004, when I was promoted to president. I went back to school and got an associate’s degree in electrical engineering in December 2011. 

Leadership means to lead, and first you’ve got to have vision, because if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. You must communicate that vision, and you can hold people accountable to help you get to where you want to be.


Is there a secret to juggling so many responsibilities — as leaders of your own organizations, involvement with state and regional organizations, and with the national Association? 

SMOAK: You’ve got to be able set priorities. You’ve got to know what the No. 1 matter is at the time. And just as you learn in school, you have to do more than eight hours of work a day. You have to be willing to do your homework.

JENKINS: When you get into a role like this, there’s much expected of you. As Coleman says, you have to set priorities. Then, you’ve got to make sure you’re prepared, because the worst thing you can do is not be prepared when you go into a meeting — it’s a disservice to you and to the organization.


What is a book you’ve been inspired by and would recommend to up-and-coming leaders?

SMOAK: I’d recommend Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. Senge talks about the five disciplines of life and how we need to develop personal mastery and the skills to be the best at our jobs.      

Senge helped me understand the idea of mental models and that my view of the world may not be someone else’s view. He helped me suspend my thoughts momentarily so that I could listen to other people’s points of view.

He also talked about systems thinking. You can’t cut a cow apart and have two cows — all you have is hamburger. All the pieces of an organization work together, and if you tweak one, you might affect another one. There may be unintended consequences you had just not thought about. That shaped a lot of my leadership — understanding that you are part of a whole, of something that’s larger than you.

JENKINS: I suggest Good to Great by Jim Collins. At NES, we’ve adopted a big, hairy, audacious goal as he recommends. We’re trying to “get the right people on the bus,” and we believe that some of the concepts he suggests in that book are the things that make us a little better than others, and we like to think we are. 


What is your advice to other public power utilities on how they should be involved with the Association?

SMOAK: Take all your key people and get them involved in the correct place with the Association. It’s not just a place for CEOs. And make sure you take advantage of all the webinars, education opportunities, conferences, workshops, and more, so you can truly build a better team. 

JENKINS: The Association is a tremendous resource. Spend some time with the Association staff, understand a little bit more about the types of resources that are available, and take advantage of them. 

If you don’t have the resources you need internally, all the more reason to turn to the Association. That’s what we do here at NES. Whether we’re working on safety or a 5G issue, we first see what’s available through the Association so we know what we’re talking about and where to go.