A Q&A with Debra Smith, special adviser to Seattle City Light in Washington state. She served as City Light’s general manager and CEO from 2018 to 2023, having previously served as general manager for Central Lincoln People’s Utility District in Oregon and spending 17 years with the Eugene Water and Electric Board, also in Oregon. Debra served as the first chairwoman of the Public Power Council and served as chair of both the Fish & Wildlife and Long-Range Planning committees. She is on the board of the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee, the Electrical Power Research Institute, the American Public Power Association, and the Pacific Northwest National Lab’s Energy and Environment Directorate Advisory Committee. She has also served on APPA’s Climate Change Task Force, the Large Public Power Council’s Steering Committee, Puget Sound Energy’s Beyond Net Zero Carbon Advisory Committee, and the Columbia Basin Collaborative.
How did you come to work in public power?
I made no conscious decision to move into public power or the utility industry. In my mid-30s, I worked for a local (Eugene, Oregon) computer software company as its chief financial officer. When that company was bought out by its largest supplier, I decided to take some time off, because I had three young kids.
After reflecting on the possible paths ahead, I made the decision to go back to school to get my MBA. At the same time, a friend said Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) was hiring for a part-time job share for a senior staff accountant. I thought I would just work for a little while until I started school. I thought it would be great, low key. I loved it.
Since the accounting position was part time, I wanted to be open to other opportunities. I had the opportunity to work on the trading floor when markets were just becoming liquid, and the focus was on risk management. After that gig, I started moving around — I literally did almost every job there was at EWEB. Some advice I give to anyone new in their career: take every lateral assignment that’s offered to you. We often come into our jobs because we are subject matter experts and we can get stuck in whatever role we’re hired into. I thought, if I can develop more breadth, it will make me more viable. I think I was right!
What key lessons have you learned from working in this sector?
Embrace the governance structure, whatever it is. I’ve had the opportunity to work for utilities with very different governing models. At EWEB, we were attached to the city but had a great level of independence with a stand-alone, elected Board of Commissioners. In Seattle, we report to the Mayor’s Office, but the City Council approves budgets, contracts, and other long-term commitments. The duality is at times challenging, but it’s also exciting to be part of the city structure. At Central Lincoln PUD, we had five commissioners who were elected by the district, and we were outside of any city governance. That structure is particularly supportive, because commissioners are paid, which means there is more continuity and less time spent educating new commissioners so they really get to know the business.
I believe in leading with kindness, I believe in authenticity, and I believe in people’s resiliency. That means people can hear really hard things if they are delivered with enough safety and kindness. Going back to my time at EWEB, I taught a class about how to have safe conversations. I don’t believe that the answer is ever to not have them. The people that have worked for me all know that if you have a people problem, it is automatically your number one problem. People want to be heard, respected, and to know that their beliefs matter.
What challenges should public power’s future leaders be prepared to face?
I love public power and believe that essential services should be provided without a profit motive. But the investor-owned utility model can also serve its customers well. In the West, we are talking all the time about resource adequacy, markets, transmission constraints, staffing challenges, and regionalization. And those are not public power only issues. There is a tremendous opportunity for us to work together [with IOUs] to solve issues, because we’re all dealing with the same stuff.
I’m super proud of how City Light dealt with COVID. Utilities that didn’t have leaders who were focused on their people, quickly learned that they needed to be. We’ve talked for years about bringing your whole self to work. And then, during COVID, we really did. People weren’t necessarily bringing their physical selves to the office, but they were bringing their selves, their pets, their kids, their problems, their fears — they were bringing all of that to the table. If we’re going to ask people to be engaged at that level going forward, then we need to be prepared to deal with them holistically.
There’s a lot we need to do — and a lot we can do — if we want to be attractive to the next generations. We want engaged employees who are partnering with us in creating this new energy future. If we want to engage employees’ hearts and minds, we need to meet them where they are. For instance, if an employee is a single parent with a sick kid, we can provide the flexibility they need. We’ve learned how to work remotely, so let’s tap into that knowledge. Let employees be the parents they want to be and get their work done in a way that supports everybody else in the organization.
Is there an accomplishment you are most proud of from your time in public power?
One is the relicensing of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. Relationships with the Indigenous people who came before us to settle these lands really matter. We filed the final license application at the end of April, and it includes fish passage on all three dams, which was hugely important to the tribes. The global settlement process will also include off-license agreements with the three primary tribes who call the Skagit Valley home. I believe that my team would have gotten there without me, but I took on some of the hard stuff so that they could focus on the science. We’re in as good a place as we could be right now. I’m appreciative of the opportunity to work with all the license partners and participants.
Second, I came into the industry when most utilities were run by white male engineers. But senior leaders today are starting to look differently as do their credentials. In the Northwest, we have embraced gender diversity and we have a number of female CEOs (Tacoma Public Utilities, Idaho Power Portland General Electric, Mason 3, and others). I like to think that my time in the seat will have some influence on the future.
I hope that when people look back, they say that I was smart and that I did really good work. I want folks to think of me as a model of what it looks like to be vulnerable, authentic, and accessible. I loved my employees — in fact, I often said that every employee has a right to a supervisor who cares about them and their career. That’s a critical component of servant leadership and that’s how an engaged workforce is built.
It has been a remarkable career. Now, I look forward to narrowing my scope a bit.