Women in leadership: Unique strengths, unique challenges

Women have long played a prominent role in public power leadership. Under its strategic initiative to “support workforce planning,” the American Public Power Association provides many networking and professional development opportunities for women to grow and contribute in public power. We asked five women who serve on the Association’s board of directors to share their perspectives and tips on how women can recognize and leverage their strengths in a competitive world.

FEATURING

  • Leslie James, executive director, Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, Arizona
  • Laurie Mangum, energy director, City of St. George, Utah
  • Kimberly Schlichting, chief operating officer–senior vice president, power supply, Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation, Inc., Delaware
  • Jolene Thompson, executive director, Ohio Municipal Electric Association, and executive vice president of member services and external affairs, American Municipal Power Inc.
  • Jackie Sargent, general manager, Austin Energy, Texas
     

How has the public power community evolved over time to provide a path for women interested in pursuing leadership roles?

Laurie Mangum
Laurie Mangum
City of St. George, UT

JAMES: I would characterize it as opportunities more than as a path. My perspective is based on 40 years of experience in the utility industry, which has traditionally been male-dominated. Until women became more interested in public power careers and trades, we didn’t see clear paths for involvement and advancement. It has been more about individual managers and supervisors providing guidance and leadership to women on a one-on-one basis. 

MANGUM: I have witnessed many changes in the industry in the 42 years since my first day as an operator in training at a California utility. I realized later that I was hired to meet affirmative action requirements, although at the time I was in awe of myself beating over 350 applicants. On the first day, I was asked to meet the personnel manager in a parking lot one mile from my work site because they didn’t want me to feel threatened by the affirmative action protesters — men, women, and children bearing signs with messages of unfair hiring practices toward men with families.

Back then, for a woman to get a job in the utility industry other than office work was an anomaly. I was only the second woman hired for the apprenticeship program in this large utility. Even 22 years ago, sitting in board meetings around the state of Utah, I was the only woman in the room besides the administrative help. I was intimidated, and my comments were often ignored. But because of my education and background, the members at the table started to listen. As time passed, I gained much respect and my confidence grew.

Well, that was then, and many things have changed since. Women are now hired for their dedication, abilities, and the value they bring. They are educated, creative multitaskers with strong analytical abilities.

It’s still not easy for women to get into leadership positions. Today, I am the only female electric utility director in Utah, and I don’t see many other women following my lead.

Jackie Sargent
Jackie Sargent
Austin Energy

SARGENT: Today, we are seeing more women in leadership roles than ever before. However, the road has been long. Austin Energy will soon be celebrating 125 years of success in serving our customers and the community, yet I am the first woman to serve as general manager. Sue Kelly as president and CEO of the American Public Power Association is viewed as a role model. Getting more women into leadership positions helps pave the way for more to follow. Congratulations to all of you rock stars out there — you can do it!

SCHLICHTING: Public power has been a leader for over 100 years in many different aspects of the industry. Therefore, it’s no surprise that we would be encouraging and welcoming to women. We’ve engaged with community schools and youth groups to promote and encourage girls to enter STEM careers. As more women gravitate to what was traditionally considered a male-dominated industry, public power entities have a much more diverse pool of candidates to consider than ever before. This is a win for both public power and women seeking employment in public power.

THOMPSON: The presence of women has certainly increased in the 30 years that I’ve worked in public power. However, looking back through the lens of AMP, OMEA, and the American Public Power Association, public power has long been welcoming of women leaders. Vera Claussen was chair of the Association’s board of directors in 1996–1997; Janine Moon was an executive at AMP/OMEA in the 1990s; and there were a number of female mayors and community leaders in our membership. As I started my career, observing these women in key leadership roles meant that I didn’t doubt the potential for moving forward. I’ve also had the good fortune at AMP to work for and with leaders who have provided valuable mentoring and encouragement for their teams on an equal basis.

 

Is there more that public power can do to offer leadership opportunities for women?

JAMES: I’ve seen and heard of women-directed rotational and networking opportunities within the public power community, and maybe public power organizations that have had experience in these areas could be encouraged to share their insight and recommendations with others.

MANGUM: It is vital for the public power sector to go out and find the talent. You can’t wait for the women to come to you. Go to the community and talk to people about how women can help by getting an education and working in the public sector. Work on team building and mentoring the women when they have been hired, to encourage them to succeed.

Jolene Thompson
Jolene Thompson
American Municipal Power

SARGENT: Encourage and support. It is one thing to move into a supervisor or manager role, and it is another thing to be successful. As with all employees, it is important to ensure that women have the training and support to be successful in their current positions and have opportunities to grow. Identify stretch assignments so that employees are empowered and can experience all that they can be. Encourage participation in industry organizations such as the Association. Join a working group and take on leadership responsibilities — learning to get work done through others who don’t report to you is an important skill.

SCHLICHTING: While women have come a long way in the industry, they still have a ways to go. Public power’s current leadership sets the stage for its success in embracing the ideal of a diverse workforce. Most recently public power demonstrated its openness and support by hiring its first female president and CEO of the Association in 2014. Leadership from the top down must continue to recognize the strengths and advantages of creating a diverse culture that is inclusive of women. Embracing diversity might not come naturally, and therefore it should be an initiative that is planned for and acted upon. I was fortunate enough to have a male mentor who saw my potential and not my gender. Because he encouraged me, I was afforded the opportunity to grow and thrive in the industry.

THOMPSON: Advancing women in public power leadership roles begins with increasing the awareness of careers in public power at the high school and college levels. The service aspect of public power will resonate with the types of future leaders — both female and male — that we need in our industry. There are terrific opportunities for aspiring leaders in public power to grow and broaden their skills, as well as to build networks with their peers through the conferences, training programs, and committees offered by the Association, joint action organizations, and state associations.

 

What unique advantages do women have in making a contribution to the public power community?

Leslie James
Leslie James
Colorado River Energy Distributors Association

JAMES: I believe that women in general have a great ability to be good communicators and multitaskers. Those are characteristics that are essential in community-centered organizations, large or small.

MANGUM: There is a vast, untapped pool of women who haven’t had the opportunity to use their education and knowledge to potential. Until more of them are hired, the advantages are unknown.

SARGENT: Women provide another perspective. Having diversity on our teams helps to make sure that we don’t suffer from “group think,” that we truly consider all of the possibilities and, in the end, make well-informed decisions.

SCHLICHTING: Studies have shown that men and women tend to have differing viewpoints. Therefore, gender diversity provides companies with a wider lens through which to address issues and solve problems. As public power serves a diverse customer base, having a gender-diverse workforce should be our priority. While women are labeled for our soft side, we do have inner strength and an assertive side that we use as needed to advance our work and motivate those around us.

THOMPSON: Embracing diversity throughout an organization and bringing different perspectives to the table allows public power to more effectively relate to and connect with customers for a stronger end result.

 

What would be the one piece of advice you would give to women who aspire to leadership roles in public power?

JAMES: Treat everyone, regardless of gender, the way you want to be treated. Take a moment, every day, to do one act of kindness.

Kimberly Schlichting
Kimberly Schlichting
Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation

MANGUM: You must know what you’re talking about, and don’t be afraid to talk and be heard. Ask questions, get involved, and be interactive.

SARGENT: Identify where it is that you want to go. Be self-aware, honestly assess your current capabilities, and research the job positions you are interested in. Understand what gaps you may have — education, experience, skills and abilities. Develop a plan to fill in the gaps. Sometimes we have to take a step back to move forward. Rather than thinking about a ladder to the top, think about a lattice to move up, down, right, and left to ensure you have a broad base of knowledge and experience across all areas of the organization. But, most of all, don’t be afraid to try something new and different that challenges you and takes you out of your comfort zone.

SCHLICHTING: Embrace the fact that you are a wonderfully created, multitalented and multidimensional human being. Trust your inner strength and know that you bring a uniqueness to the table that only you can bring. When choosing a career path, make sure you love what you do and do what you love. Only true passion will spring you forward toward success. Public power is a wonderful industry whereby you can serve and provide a most essential service to better the quality of life and the community in which you work. And oh, by the way, if you love what you do, it won’t feel like a job but a satisfying and rewarding way of life.

THOMPSON: I would give the same advice to anyone who aspires to a leadership role — show up every day. That means listening, learning, engaging, having passion for what we do and who we serve, and not being afraid to take on new challenges.

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