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Energy Central Power Perspectives: Getting to Know Your Expert Interview Series: Doug Sterbenz, Expert in the Utility Management Community

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Energy Central is filled with more experts in the utility industry than you may be aware, and this network of experts can be one of the greatest tools available to you as a member of our Energy Central community. Those who are identified as experts have been vetted to be leaders in their fields of expertise with many, many years of experience under their belt, and they’ve agreed to be available to answer questions and provide insights to the wider Energy Central community.

The next of these experts we’re profiling to show you the value they bring to Energy Central is Doug Sterbenz, who spent many years as an Executive VP and COO of Westar Energy before retiring and taking his management skills and advice public as a leadership coach and speaker. This experience, as you’ll read, brings to him great insights into the utility sector and how managers should best approach the industry.

So as you continue to read this latest installment in the ‘Getting to Know Your Expert’ Interview series, be sure to drop a note in the comments to say hello to Doug and don’t hesitate to reach out to him with questions as you see him pop up around the Energy Central community:

Matt Chester: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, though it should come as no surprise since you already provide your time to the Energy Central community as one of our trusted experts! As we seek to use this interview series as a means to make clear to the community just how invaluable the presence of our experts is, a great place to start is by asking about what makes you an expert in utilities and in utility management? Where has your career taken you across the sector and how does that inform your unique perspective of the industry?

Doug Sterbenz: We are all formed in our own unique way by two main factors: experiences and people. I was fortunate enough to have amazingly rich learning experiences and to be surrounded by great leaders who were interested in making me better.

My experience took me to all edges and aspects of the utility business. My first job was an engineer in a power plant, but the plant was not owned by the utility. It was owned by a large aluminum smelter. They did things very different than a utility. It was like dog years, where one year is equivalent to seven years of experience in a typical power plant. I moved quickly, too quickly, into supervision and leadership, but those experiences became the cornerstones of my leadership.

I moved through the ranks of leadership, always quicker than I wanted. It was like I was being pulled up and away from where I wanted to be, drawn constantly to something bigger. Eventually I left the utility company for the new arena of power marketing. During this time, I was able to see the utility business from the outside in, which is not that common but was priceless.

At mid-career, I was dawn back to the utility business, and led nearly every aspect of the business, eventually becoming the COO. 

My years in this business has probably seen more change than any other 30-year period of the utility business.

The people I was fortunate to work with were terrific leaders, who lifted me up, put me on their shoulders and showed me the way. They showed me the principles of leadership. Even though the business and the times have changed, those same leadership principles have not changed. Those principles are often forgotten, yet they are timeless and still applicable today.

 

MC: Given that you spent so much time as an executive in the utility industry, what are were the most impactful moments of your career?

DS: As I moved through the ranks of leadership, two things were the most impactful and kept me on track and growing: coaches and formal leadership resources.

Some call them mentors, some call them coaches. I had a real leadership coach. When I first started working with my coach, I was mostly interested in picking up some tips on leadership, but he pestered me with questions about my life, work experiences, memories as a kid, and even my dad. Those questions got me out of my world of data and facts and processes so I could really embrace the need to connect with people on a deeper level to have the impact I wanted to have.

Formal leadership development was the other most impactful experience in my career. I attended a leadership seminar when I was a young first-line supervisor and learned to surround myself with great leadership resources, even if it’s only a little each day. 

MC: You’ve transitioned after retiring as a utility executive to a leadership guru. What do you think is the most important leadership trait for someone working high up in a utility specifically? Are there any unique aspects of utilities that require different qualities than leaders and executives in other industries?

DS: Being present is the most important leadership trait. We often fail to be present because, honestly, we have been juiced to believe something way more interesting lies just over the hill. It’s trendy right now to talk about being “in the moment,” but what does that mean?  Being “in the moment” is concentrating fully and singularly on what is in front of us or on our minds. Being present requires awareness and development.

Many people sign up for leadership. Few show up. Leaders who are present are the ones who win, along with those they lead and those they follow.

I think the qualities of being a utility leader might be a little unique because we are so spread out. We are not just one site. We have corporate offices, generating plants, distribution centers, and customer service centers. These are spread out over hundreds of miles. Couple that with the fact that utility people greatly desire to see their leaders and being present in our utilities matters greatly to them.

 

MC: How would you rate the success of leaders in the utility industry in the years since you’ve retired? Are they going down the right pathway or is there a need for a course correction in utilities?

DS: Strategically, I see utilities going down the right path. Some suffer long detours at times, but generally, we know where we should go. However, the strategy requires execution. Our utility world has so much coming at us, we lose our focus on what is important and we never seem to have enough time to execute.

The only course correction I see is that is needed is in the area of personal development. Before you can contribute to or lead a group, you must be able to lead yourself.  And that means working on yourself and improving yourself, so you can be a contributor and not a distractor.

Individual transformation paves the way to company transformation. When you make a conscious decision to change your personal behaviors, your example will affect others and spread throughout the organization. Personal development, improvement, and evolution must occur before a company can achieve its goals.

Leaders are learners, and they don’t just take time to learn about the nuts and bolts of the business. Leaders learn about themselves and their blind spots and are always getting better through self-development.

MC: What is one thing you need to share with others following your path?

DS: Don’t follow my example in how long it took me to learn the most important leadership lesson.

I now understand firsthand the contrast between needing to get things done and being present. As a hard-driving, efficient senior operating officer for a multi-billion-dollar electric utility, I knew how to accomplish tasks. I could punch through a punch list like nobody else. However, what I learned was leaders have to connect. The best way to connect is to be truly present.

Don’t take as long as I did to learn that.

 

MC: As one of our trusted experts at Energy Central, you’ve used the platform as a means to share your insights fairly actively. What do you think is the value in the Energy Central community and the ability to bring together utility professionals from different areas? What keeps you coming back to Energy Central?

DS: We utility leaders are not always the best at asking for help. We don’t—at least at first—to reach out and seek assistance from others. Energy Central is a way for us to get help without asking.


 

 

I’d like to thank Doug for sharing his knowledge and experience when it comes to the world of utility industry leadership. If you are inspired to learn more after reading Doug's words, be sure to reach out to him via the Energy Central community or leave him a note in the comments below.  

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interesting in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.

Discussions

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Oct 21, 2019 5:59 pm GMT

Doug,

Thanks for sharing your insights and expertise with the community.  I just purchased your Book "Must Be Present to Win" and am looking forward to reading it.  

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