Bright Insights from Electric Leaders

Posted: January 22, 2020

HOW DO YOU PERSEVERE? “By believing you are capable of carrying whatever comes your way and carrying it with grace and gratitude.” Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir “Wild,” shared her insights with a rapt audience during Northwest Public Power Association’s Women in Public Power conference in November. The conference provides tools and inspiration to help women succeed in what has long been a male dominated industry. We spoke with three women who are leading from the front in their utilities and the communities they serve: Debi Wilson, Libby Calnon and Meera Kohler.

Debi Wilson

Debi WilsonName: Debi Wilson

Title and organization: General Manager, Lane Electric Cooperative

Years in role: 1 year

Favorite quote: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Biggest strengths: Tackling and solving problems

Hidden talent: Quick wit

Q: Who has inspired you in your career and why?

A: Former Lane Electric General Manager Rick Crinklaw and Former Finance and Administration Manager Ron Schwada were my mentors. Ron gave me a lot of freedom to try new things and make changes. Rick encouraged me to consider pursuing a general manager position. He kept the staff informed of the issues the industry was facing and the discussions in the region around how to approach them. It impressed on me the importance of the work we do, and I wanted to be part of it.

Q: What motivates you?

A: Serving our members. Everything we do is to ensure rates are affordable and the service is reliable. This industry faces many challenges to those objectives, and working with others to find solutions brings a lot of personal satisfaction.

Q: Best piece of advice you were ever given?

A: It takes a certain amount of courage to be a general manager. If you take the job, you can’t be afraid of making what you believe to be the right decision because you might lose your job.

Q: What advice would you give women just starting their careers or those wanting to advance in leadership?

A: Stay focused on your goals, and always bring your A game. Find mentors that can share their personal experiences and advice. Read. There are many good books that can help you develop your own leadership style. At the end of the day, we are in the people business, so developing relationships is critical to advancing a career. Being a mentor to women beginning their careers is a good way to refine your leadership skills and help build them in others.

Q: What challenges do women face in the consumer power world?

A: People in our industry don’t expect to see a female general manager. They are accustomed to seeing female staff and directors, so I’m often asked if I’m a director. Now when I introduce myself, I tell people I’m the general manager of Lane Electric. That helps avoid any potential awkwardness.

Libby Calnon

Libby CalnonName: Libby Calnon

Title and organization: General Manager, Hood River Electric Cooperative

Years in role: 1.5 years

Favorite quote: “I have found that most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Biggest strength: My ability to tackle new challenges. I get a kick out of getting thrown a curve ball and knocking it out of the park.

Hidden talent: I like to make delicious food for people I care about. Last year, I made my first three-tiered wedding cake, for my stepdaughter’s wedding.

Q: Who has inspired you in your career and why?

A: I’ve been inspired by many people but most of all by my dad, Bob Wittenberg. He spent over 40 years as a public power engineer and manager. Through watching him, I saw how rewarding it can be to deliver affordable rates, reliable service and excellent customer care. He taught me that work should be fun, and teams should work well together.

Q: What motivates you?

I am motivated by serving others well, by learning new things and by striving for continuous improvement. I appreciate a bit of friendly competition now and then, and I love to laugh. I get a kick out of delivering more than was expected and helping others achieve their goals.

Q: What unique challenges do women face in the consumer power world?

I think a better question is, what are we doing to capture the value that comes from having more women in the consumer power world? Research has shown that organizations with women in leadership positions—and teams with women at the table where decisions are being made—are more successful. That’s the goal, right?

Q: Best piece of advice you were ever given?

When I was starting this position, Elaine Dixon, Northwest Public Power Association director of education and workforce development, advised me to spend the first several months observing and learning and to not make unnecessary changes. In a new position, you’ll have plenty of time to make changes. Building relationships with your team and learning what works well in your organization is what’s important in the beginning.

Q: What advice would you give women just starting their careers or those wanting to advance in leadership?

Be constantly curious and work to learn all aspects of your industry. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. I had things I avoided because I thought they were hard. It turned out most of them weren’t that hard once I decided to put the time in. Trust yourself!

Meera Kohler

Meera KohlerName: Meera Kohler

Title and organization: President and CEO, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative

Years in role: Current role at AVEC, 19.5 years; GM role, 29.5 years

Favorite quote: “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.”

Biggest strength: Numbers. Numbers talk to me, and I can talk back.

Hidden talent: Art—I draw and paint. I’m also pretty good at cutting hair.

Q: Who has inspired you in your career and why?

A: The man who lured me into my first electric utility job: Doug Bechtel. He was a caring, inclusive, fun person. He celebrated my small victories and gave me projects that would have felt daunting had he not made it clear that he absolutely knew that I was up to it and that my work would be valued whether or not I was able to fully accomplish the task. With that faith and motivation, I always succeeded.

Q: What motivates you?

A: The challenge of mastering the task at hand—whether it be an

HR issue, a financial issue or a technical issue. Getting to a win-win is the goal.

Q: What does it take to succeed in a historically male dominated industry?

A: I never felt it was a major issue to be a woman in the industry. Because I am not shy, I never felt rejected or excluded. As a practical matter, I felt empowered to use my gender to poke fun at my male colleagues and never hesitated to go toe-to-toe with one if I thought my perspective was equal to or better than his. The lesson here is, you must demand rightful respect for your opinion, and you must step up to the plate to play in the arena. If you don’t, you will probably get marginalized and will feel excluded.

Q: Best piece of advice you were ever given?

A: “Let it go.” Don’t dwell on something that happened. It’s water under the bridge. Learn from it, and don’t let it happen again. Whether you were right or wrong doesn’t matter. What matters is that the outcome is acceptable.

Q: What advice would you give women just starting their careers or those wanting to advance in leadership?

A: The cardinal rule I would share is, don’t engage in gossip and don’t allow it around you. Nothing is more insidious and destructive. Participating or not calling it out makes you part of the problem, and it will thwart your upward mobility. In my almost 30 years as a GM, the majority of my most troubling issues are HR issues, and 90% of them involve gossip of some sort. It is amazingly destructive to an organization and must be addressed sooner than later.