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A Culture of Development

Longhorns. Aggies. The Alamo. A bowl of Texas red (obviously without beans). To say Texas has some history and tradition might be considered a significant

Longhorns. Aggies. The Alamo. A bowl of Texas red (obviously without beans). To say Texas has some history and tradition might be considered a significant understatement. For Dallas, Texas, U.S.-based Oncor — steeped in more than 100 years of service — history and tradition are commonplace.

Why then would Oncor take an off-the-beaten-path approach to employee development? The challenges are common. But commonality does not necessitate traditional answers. Talent management and employee development are essential in a rapidly evolving high-tech energy industry. Team chemistry, culture, recognition, retention and a healthy dose of feedback are core elements in the programs anchoring Oncor's future.

Change Drivers

The drivers for change and the need for enhanced employee development have been identified numerous times over several years. Common contributors are a maturing workforce, succession planning and less-defined career paths for those wanting to advance. Texas provided additional incentives because, with the energy boom not slowing down, the competition for new talent and the ability to incent, retain and compensate required real attention and commitment. From commitment and passion, an idea was born.

For most utilities, employee development programs are housed within a human resources (HR) organization. But having any one silo control these programs contributed to the present state. Intuitively, whatever Oncor would decide to do needed HR support and appropriately identified boundaries, but the true partnership had to include the functional organizations like transmission, distribution and customer operations. HR sponsored but functionally championed, co-led and owned was different, very different.

What started with a passionate few evolved into a fully engaged seven on the first steering committee, and from there it grew. The rules of engagement — related to rotational-position strategies, steering committees and curriculum — were developed, tweaked and tweaked again. The process was transformational, reshaping the entire framework for talent management at Oncor. Selection to the program centered on proven performance, potential for growth and commitment to the utility's core values. All three had to be present in program participants. The compensation structure was tied to participants' ability to grow and develop, not just their ability to perform in their new role. Thus, Oncor's Leadership Development Program (LDP) for rotational managers blossomed and began a culture of development.

Leadership Development

Many initially thought LDP was another program du jour. As each of the seven steering committee members began educating colleagues in elevators and break rooms, interest began to swell. Interviews were another focal point for education. Candidates were subject to an entirely new kind of interview. The stereotypical utility questions about safety and technical knowledge were never asked. Instead, questions focused on self-knowledge and self-awareness.

The LDP reputation grew quickly as success stories spread across the organization. As word got out, questions bubbled up: What do you do in those meetings? What are all those projects about? Why do you read all those books? Applications to program openings grew exponentially.

As LDP gained ground, managers of rotating LDP participants noticed a sharp uptick in performance and maturity of thinking. Managers have skin in the game, too, because they were told, “If LDP participants fail, you've failed.”

Even more importantly, and much more evident, was the ultimate convincing factor: the success program participants began to have in promoting out of the program into new and bigger roles within the organization. No program participants were given preferential treatment in competing for new roles; in fact, participants often went head to head (and still do) with each other, and they've consistently excelled in new jobs. Their success was the real measuring stick to the unbelievers.

Career Nexus

If you ask a dozen representatives from the industry to talk about the points in their career where they learned the most or, better yet, that helped define their career, you would get a myriad of responses. The challenge is to find the intersection of all the stories, the critical lessons learned and the got-to-have experiences, and try to synthesize that into a core curriculum. Combine these with varied learning environments, different “instructors” (code for every strong leader who could be coerced into teaching) and hands-on applications. This begins to describe the program characteristics Oncor sought.

  • Targeted growth was multidimensional and needed to include exposure to all the utility organizations, leadership skills, strategic thinking, problem solving, soft skills, perspective and, most importantly, a new kind of self-awareness and self-knowledge. Joel Austin, Oncor's CIO and one of the development program sponsors, says, “It's like getting a master's degree in Oncor.” Other critical elements were identified:
  • Book reviews
  • 360-degree reviews
  • Myers-Briggs communication skills training
  • External speakers
  • Interaction with senior leadership and board members
  • Regional tours
  • Functional overviews
  • Interaction with legislators and regulators
  • Special projects outside areas of expertise.

These were some of the defining experiences, but they required a connector from meeting to meeting and deliverable to deliverable. Feedback and accountability grew to be the connector. Critical feedback comes in many forms, but the difference this time — it was public. Classmates knew each other's strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and fears. Growth during the program was expected, but the unifying impact of group feedback sessions was not. As the weeks grew into months, peers began holding each other accountable. Now, participants are as likely to get candid feedback on performance from a peer as they are from the steering committee or their own supervisor.

Content exposure and theory are important building blocks in any curriculum, but they take real root when they meet practical application or, in Oncor's programs, project assignments. Participants are assigned projects, usually outside their areas of expertise, requiring them to work in a team environment. Real projects with real deliverables challenge participants' ability to balance their development work with their day jobs, creating an experience similar to that of higher-level leaders with competing priorities. The projects culminate in presentations by each team before members of Oncor's senior leadership team, past program graduates and representatives of the areas impacted by the projects. The rule for projects is they needed to address authentic challenges for the enterprise. However, all projects are not created equal.


Projects have deliverables, deadlines and impact. Impact is measurable and results are tangible. A truer statement could not exist when Debbie Dennis, Oncor's vice president of corporate affairs, and two of the development teams took on the project challenge of coordinating Oncor's involvement in the Dallas American Heart Association's Heart Walk. Oncor's Chairman and CEO Bob Shapard was the Dallas walk chairman, so the project outcome was visible (to the whole world). Stretch goals were developed related to participation, fundraising and the post-walk celebration. Talent met passion at the start line, and they exceeded all American Heart Association records related to team size from one company (1,252 walkers), as well as setting records for any U.S. city's Heart Walk donations and sponsorships (totaling more than US$900,000.) The after-party for the Oncor team even included a flash mob!


Bigger is usually better in Texas — whether it is big hair, big cars or big development — but, no one quite anticipated how the efforts would take off. Higher-level managers and even directors in Oncor began saying, “I never got this kind of education. I wish there was something like this for me.” A different driver, the broadening of siloed leaders, began to emerge and, after some percolation, a new program within the framework was born. Enter Vantage Point — a program for mid-level managers and up who have been primarily in one organization and need broadening to continue to grow. As new drivers emerged, new programs, built with the established bones, were brought forward: Horizons (feeder pool for first-line supervisors), APEX (professionally degreed employees with leadership potential) and Customer Operations Academy (developing community-facing managers) were all requested programs, by both employees and key leaders. Programs evolve as the business needs do. If it is development, it must continue to morph and change to meet the needs of the quickly evolving business.

So, how in the world could this fit into already tight budgets? Participants travel all over the system. Travel costs are borne by each employee's organization. Steering committee members (predominantly director level and higher in the organization) kick in from their budgets for programmatic expenses like meals, receptions, books, materials and various events. Excluding travel expenses, the cost of each program ranges from $12,000 to $20,000 per year. It is spread throughout Oncor relatively evenly.

There has been quite the journey of credibility with these programs. Each program was believed to need branding. Within the brand, culture and a commitment to the core competencies of Oncor are woven throughout the fabric of a program's curriculum and how it gets done. Participants in any of the programs are told repeatedly and given reinforcing feedback — sometimes right between the eyes — to understand they can indeed fail if they do not participate fully. Program participation comes with a hefty responsibility and an even heavier level of accountability. “To whom much is given, much is expected” has become a mantra for all of them. Interestingly enough, there is a phenomenal hunger for challenge and opportunity. Participants do not disappoint. Consistently, they perform at ever-increasing levels.

A Life of Its Own

Graduates of the programs have become huge advocates of development. Using tools provided, most have begun to pay forward their newly learned skills and abilities, thus creating a culture of learning that is serving Oncor very well. Additionally, the silos are breaking down and people are moving across the organization differently and often. Development has truly taken on a life of its own.

Texas history is full of important battles, declarations and transformative events. Some journeys were a few weeks long and others endured for years. For those committed to these epic events, the destination was truly worth the journey. Flash ahead to a utility with new levels of employee accountability, accelerated growth, strong bench talent, executable succession plans and perspective that leads to strategic, not just tactical, thinking.

Oncor's Shapard offers a simple perspective: “Adding development of people as a core competency provides a distinct advantage.” If Texas has a history of benefitting from advantages, Oncor believes it has a future in it.

Debbi Elmer ([email protected]) is the senior vice president of human resources for Oncor Electric Delivery, accountable for all human resource strategy and execution within the organization. As a member of the senior leadership team, she plays a key role in implementing the growth strategy in Oncor through her organization's work and support of the business strategies and talent management.

T. Michael Quinn ([email protected]) is vice president and CTO for Oncor Electric Delivery. He has been charged with setting the utility's course in identifying technologies and deployment strategies to meet the growing and changing needs of the market. Quinn joined Oncor 's predecessor company more than 20 years ago after graduating Clemson University with a BSEE degree. Over the last 15 years, he has held numerous management and leadership positions within generation, system protection, asset management, transmission operations and business development. Quinn is a professional engineer.

Leadership Development Program* Q3, 2008 26 313 73.1%
New Engineer Development Q3, 2008 78 N/A 44.9%
Vantage Point Q4, 2010 31 114 29.0%
Horizons Q2, 2012 17 84 29.4%
Apex Q2, 2012 16 98 18.8%
Customer Operations Academy Q2, 2012 5 84 Not applicable**

* Some participants have promoted more than once

** Participants promote to get in to this program

Managing the Bench

In the last decade, the electrical industry was filled with doing more with less and driving lean processes to increase efficiencies across the board. All of these challenges have driven the industry to be better. However, when looking at management succession planning and the large number of baby boomers about to retire, bench strength is not nearly deep enough — not as deep as it might have been a decade ago. The industry's ability to accelerate and broaden in-house management talent and potential is imperative.

The new development culture at Oncor has helped the utility progress to the point where it cannot only deal with succession but also with the fast-forward advance of technology and change formerly known as the utility business.

Keith Hull, vice president, distribution operations, Oncor Electric Delivery

Company mentioned:

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