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What Color Are Your Stripes?

Last week I was talking with my buddy Vito when we got to swapping tales. Vito mentioned that when he was new to PG&E, he made a boneheaded and potentially

Last week I was talking with my buddy Vito when we got to swapping tales. Vito mentioned that when he was new to PG&E, he made a boneheaded and potentially career-damaging move. Vito was told he couldn't travel to a certain IEEE power engineering conference, and he was more than a little miffed. The company he came from hadn't made him justify trips. After stewing over this disappointing situation for a few weeks, Vito, in a fit of pique, shared his displeasure with the department head. Word got back to his boss, and Vito got a quick lesson in Utility Etiquette 101: Don't go over the boss's head.

In Vito's defense, he was a political neophyte, having previously worked for engineering and consulting companies where politics were minimal. The rule of law at these companies was “keep up your billable hours.” All other issues had been reduced to mere corollaries. In Vito's former companies, a faux pas like this would merit only a gentle correction followed by, “We've decided to make an exception and let you go this time.”

I've decided to take a peek into today's utility and determine whether all the downsizings and restructurings have impacted our culture. You might work at a utility that responds to key issues using the latest in cultural “mind think” now espoused by our university professors and management consultants. Or conversely, your utility might have weathered the storm with its culture essentially intact. Let's look at key issues every utility faces to see where your utility fits.

Career Advancement

In the new utility culture, you find no need to promote yourself. Your hard work speaks for itself. Your peers encourage and support you and you reciprocate, knowing that your career coaches are fair and impartial.

In the status quo culture, you bypass hard work, deciding instead to trash-talk your peers so that you will look good in comparison. The boss is too busy promoting himself to know what is going on, so there is little likelihood of negative consequences.

Equitable Pay

In the new utility culture, you are leading one of the few fast-track projects in the company. The project goes well, although it did take you investing a year of 60-hour work weeks. You are compensated with a 10% raise and a $10,000 bonus.

In the status quo culture, having just successfully energized that critical 345-kV XLPE cable feeding the city, you receive a 3.6% raise while your peers — who avoided your project like the plague — receive a 3.4% raise. This largess amounts to $1.80 an hour for each extra hour worked.


In the new utility culture, you have been investigating an integrated software package that ties design, supply chain and construction together. Your strategy is embraced because your enlightened comrades realize it will reduce drudge work, soon to be replaced by more invigorating and challenging work.

In the status quo culture, you look for ways to demonstrate that this software will never work based on “the way we do things here.” Your first commandment is to keep your boss happy, and if staffing levels are reduced because of more efficient processes, he might find his fiefdom in jeopardy.

Customer Experience

In the new utility culture, you launch an initiative to improve the customer experience. Your “executive advocates” support the development of a cross-functional dream team. As positive results roll in, you find yourself highlighted in the company newsletter shaking hands with a crooning customer.

In the status quo culture, you share your nifty idea with your boss. He immediately takes your idea to the boardroom, ultimately spawning cross-functional teams and focus groups, neither of which include you. After three years, the initiative is dropped and you are blamed for initiating the fiasco.

Meet The Future

In the new utility culture, Generation Z is now firmly in control as technological advances sweep through the company, changing every aspect of what you do. Every day is an adventure and you look forward to Mondays.

In the status quo culture, Generation Z seems to have adjusted to the existing culture, and they even seem to like what the baby boomers liked: benefits, a secure job, 40-hour workweeks and a life.

So, does the old culture still thrive in your utility, or is it a new day? Send me an e-mail at and share your thoughts. I might even run your comments in the magazine — anonymously, of course, just in case there are any Theory X managers still out there.

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