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Women in Power: A Chat with CPS Energy’s Customer-centric Ladies-in-chief

You know you’re in the deep, juicy middle of a good conversation when you just can’t stop the laughter, and my talk with Paula Gold-Williams and Felecia Etheridge from CPS Energy brimmed with good humor—about their time in the industry, about their work with mentoring other women (and dudes, too) and about how funny life really is when you sit down and try to work out, backward, just how you got here.

For a quick and dirty background before we go backward: Gold-Williams took the interim helm of CPS Energy in late 2015, became the permanent president and CEO in mid-2016 and continues in that position today. Etheridge oversees all kinds of exciting customer stuff as their chief customer experience officer.

Each woman had a different trajectory to get to this end result—them working together in harmony.

In fact, as someone on the outside, it’s rare that I see such camaraderie in coworkers. They more than just make the best out of being thrown together; they thrive. They enjoy each other’s company. And, perhaps most importantly, they make each other laugh.

And, yes, I got all of that from an hour on the phone with them. It was that obvious. Of course, it could have been when Gold-Williams joked that she hypnotized Etheridge and that “every day I get her to work with me is a great day.”

Hey, no one said I can’t pick up on the obvious.

 

How did you get to this laughing place?

In all honestly, Etheridge pretty much started in the utilities biz and never bothered to leave; she loved it so much. Every summer in high school she worked at the local power and water cooperative to earn a little extra cash. She investigated subdivisions. She checked easements. She took payments. She was a minor jack-of-all-trades (as many cooperative employees have to be).

With that experience in her back pocket, she interviewed with Texas Power & Light right out of college and got the job. She’s changed utilities and changed viewpoints within the industry, but within the industry she’s remained.

Gold-Williams, on the other hand, is new. As she characterized it, she “fell” into the business later in life after work as an accountant, where cable (as in TV) was one of her largest clients. And she watched as that industry flipped from analog to digital, never realizing that the lessons learned there she’d be applying herself to the utility industry much later.

So, how did a cable-tv-focused accountant become the president of the largest muni in the U.S.? According to her, it’s because she “says ‘yes’ a lot,” especially to the challenges. And rising to those challenges—in fact seeing those challenges as opportunities, is exactly what brought her to CPS Energy and the position she holds now.

That tenacity—and the common knowledge of that tenacity—led to a phone call about whether she’d like to work with a utility. Apparently, the CEO wanted to bring in some outside viewpoints, some new thinking, and some insights from other industries.

Gold-Williams knew nothing about the utilities industry at the time. And the job in question was, well, a step back, a step down. Still, it was a challenge. And, like every other challenge she’s faced in her career, she just couldn’t help but rise to it.

In fact, rising to a challenge seems to be a common thread for both Gold-Williams and Etheridge—and, honestly, a common thread among successful women at all levels of this industry.

Gold-Williams knew she was an outsider, knew she had to prove herself and prove her value. And she excelled at doing that. If one thing didn’t work, she’d try something else. She’d try again. She kept at it.

And, even if Etheridge didn’t follow the same mid-career industry change to get to her spot next to Gold-Williams today, she recognized that gumption in her own career, chiming in that, really, she was successful because, like Gold-Williams, she often gladly did “something no one else wanted to do, something undefined.”

They both love the pressure of a good challenge but feel stifled by too much definition. No one tells them exactly what to do. Instead, these women go out and find it, find their own ways, make their own definitions.

In fact, they both admitted a certain love of chaos—and of being the person who finds order in that chaos.

 

But what happens after you tame the chaos?

There’s more chaos. In fact, there’s always more chaos. It’s just how most of life goes, really, and it’s definitely a reality for this industry as it gets smarter, faces more severe weather impacts, gains more brand visibility and becomes more focused on customer needs.

So, perhaps that grand love of chaos keeps things interesting for the two. In fact, Etheridge pretty much admitted that the challenge is part of the allure, especially the customer part for her. There’s a consumer transition from viewing power and energy as “magic” and “pixie dust,” of the tech sort, to really starting to become informed and empowered. She views it as a chess game, of sorts. You must understand how each move you make will ripple through future planning, through future moves.

Gold-Williams labeled Etheridge’s chaos theory the “disruptive element of change” and added that it’s really moved on out to the very edges of the utilities world, now encompassing and embracing people who “live that change and love it,” like the two of them.

And finding people who live change and love change is a rare thing in this world—and perhaps the true unicorn in this very traditional industry. But, that type of person (embodied by both Gold-Williams and Etheridge) now runs this business.

Truth be told, that kind of person has been in this business for years—bringing up new ideas, building up new concepts (often shot down) and, fundamentally, back-talking the establishment status quo for years.

We’re just listening now like we didn’t before.

 

Who listens to a woman anyway?

While neither Gold-Williams nor Etheridge encountered serious issues as a woman in a male-dominated industry—or they were just so focused on tackling the challenges that those issues didn’t register, which could be given their driven personalities—both have great stories about the smaller assumptions and subtle ways being a woman in this industry is obviously different.

Etheridge tells the story of coming to her first day of customer service work in 1983 when other women who worked there fit in a single category: home service advisors. (These were women tasked with teaching people how to cook with electric appliances who were used to gas.) She showed up to the first day of work and was promptly cheered … and then asked what she was cooking for them today.

Gold-Williams got what she labeled a “little lady pep talk” from a male colleague that involved a story about how he was once made to wait while a woman put on lipstick and that she should never do the same.

But, in the end, except for the odd story to make you giggle, both Etheridge and Gold-Williams would say they were treated quite well in this male-dominated industry. Of course, it helped that they had mentors. And all of their mentors were, in fact, men.

For Etheridge, she got good mentoring tidbits on leadership, on being authentic, on giving people credit where credit is due. Her favorite was a chief legal officer who told her to know her numbers and reminded her that what brought down Al Capone in the end were little tax numbers not all in a row.

Gold-Williams, in fact, gave this industry credit for bringing her mentors, something she didn’t experience in the other arenas she worked in. The advice and direction she received were in similar categories to Etheridge’s experience, items Gold-Williams called “good home-cooking business knowledge,” which is a phrase I’m now going to liberally steal for future writing projects.

Despite not seeing a lot of negatives in their personal career growth, both ladies acknowledged that this business could benefit from having a more equal balance of women, from getting more of the “female perspective” into every conversation every day.

This led to a discussion about how to get there, how to accelerate that growth. And one of those problems is, well, a need to be comfortable in the chaos, to see challenges as opportunities—to see the work world not as a mountain but as a maze. There is a way through, and there is a path available. You just have to keep making turns, keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Gold-Williams noted that if we could all figure out the formula to get women into this industry en masse, that new thinking and new attitude would be a powerful “secret weapon” to help utilities make the leap ahead.

To those women who are making inroads, the ladies helming the largest muni in the U.S. have this good home-cooking business advice: Rise up. Think fast. Speak out.  Get comfortable with chaos. And with risk. And with failure. Remember that chaos is an opportunity in disguise (and so is failure). And take a cue from our industry: embrace disruption.

 

Who loves this job?

Both do. That’s obvious in how they talk about their day, in how they talk to each other, in how they talk about their coworkers and their customers alike. While neither would say the utilities business is an easy one—especially after all that talk of loving a challenge and all—Etheridge and Gold-Williams both see real positives in their work (or they’d go find another challenge they liked better and tackle that).

High on their combined positives list: the people (both inside and outside the company). Etheridge called utilities “just a business of people, in the end,” and Gold-Williams agreed, adding “electrons and molecules love everyone.” And they enable everyone, too, whether you’re starting a business, baking a cake or sending out a message to coworkers. Holding on to and embracing that social and personal enablement of individuals is one real boon for both ladies at CPS Energy.

And, in an industry that would be labeled dull by almost anyone from the outside, both Gold-Williams and Etheridge agree on one top thing about working here: It’s exciting.

It’s complex. It’s chaos. It’s a struggle that most customers never, ever see or acknowledge. And that’s what keeps it all interesting. Maybe utilities work sounds boring to others, but it’s never boring to these ladies-in-chief.

 

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