The Stepford Utility

Our utility executives tend to have this disconcerting habit of stamping out employees in their image. That's not to say our executives see themselves

Our utility executives tend to have this disconcerting habit of stamping out employees in their image. That's not to say our executives see themselves as all-knowing gods, rather that they are quite enamoured with the mirror.

Some of our utilities even have internal colleges to hone the masses into products that can be dispensed as “full-time equivalents” (FTEs). Nothing could be more demoralizing than to realize you are a commodity designed to fill a slot in a production line.

The Palletized Man

So why is the concept of palletized FTEs so common? Because it seemingly makes a manager's job easier. Have a hole in an organization? Go to the depth flow chart and pick the next FTE in the queue. He or she has been through the proper stamping and forging operations, so there is no risk to you.

You can always blame the system if it doesn't work out. But woe to you who go with that unconventional someone. If he or she doesn't pan out, it's all on your head.

The Stepford Staff

As an industry, we find it easier to deal with people who look and think and speak just like us. We talk a good game, but we only give lip service to diversity.

We live in the land of the Stepford Staff.

I just had breakfast with a utility buddy who is vice president of operations in a mid-sized utility. I was sharing with her how my former utility had job descriptions for each job class, so the ideal person would fit the job perfectly.

Seems logical doesn't it? Logical, yes, but in hindsight, this may not be the best approach.

Think about this scenario. You just gathered superintendents together from all the divisions in your utility so they can share perspectives and best practices. After a few days, what is the typical result? Because you went to the same promotional pool and picked similar persons with similar backgrounds and similar training and put them in similar jobs, why would you expect them to the share different perspectives?

Instead of coming out of the “sharing experience” full of renewed vigor, you find you have funded a two-day gripe session that ends with all present feeling more depressed and demoralized than when they arrived.

Threatening the Status Quo

Now, put an odd flyer in the group with new ideas and what happens? You can be sure the other superintendents will take him down. Why? His ideas represent a threat to the status quo. After all, what are the odds of him being right and all the Stepford Superintendents being wrong?

There Is a Better Way

First, let's assume there is true value in diversity. Let's assume that having significantly differing opinions, skill sets and experiences within the same job classification is a good thing. Then assume that constructively handling the conflict that inevitably erupts makes a company stronger and better able to handle change. Yes, the clashing of ideas and personalities creates friction, but maybe we could generate sufficient heat to light the fire of change.

Right now, I see a lot of utility executives pulling back because of the downturn in the economy. Executives are cancelling travel, pulling their staff out of industry groups and hunkering down into holy huddles. This is a bad move for our utilities and it is even worse for employees.

I've never been a big fan of benchmarking, because we dilute ourselves to be the best of the mediocre. We can do better. The risk in incremental tweaking is actually greater than the risk of bold steps.

I like to say that innovation overcomes resistance. Why? Because resistance is not that bright. It often has a heart but seldom displays a brain.

What It Takes to Be a Smart Utility

Another utility buddy made a simple yet profound statement, “If we only knew what we already know, we would be the smartest utility in the country.”

Why is he so right on? Because our utilities are made up of incredibly talented individuals with perspectives, thoughts and passions that are too seldom put into play. We settle for what is comfortable instead of demanding what is achievable.

So rather than downsizing our staffs to the point of exhaustion, then executing those who stick their heads up, why don't we celebrate diversity?

Let's bring to the front our passionate people who will bring a breath of fresh air to invigorate our companies and bring additional value to our customers and our stockholders.

*Stepford is a mythical town where helpmates are programmed to be perfectly compliant.

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