The Risks and Advantages of Socially Responsible Change: from a conversation with Mary Powell, Green Mountain Power

The executive offices of Green Mountain Power used to occupy 3,000 square feet on the top floors of a three story, glass building.  Now the current CEO, Mary Powell, has a stand up desk facing the front door occupying about 15 square feet.

It is a wonderfully stark image of a profound internal transformation.  In 1998, Green Mountain Power was a traditional, publicly traded utility facing bankruptcy. Now it is a financially sound, environmentally breakthrough utility providing 25% of Vermont’s energy.

The question that hung in the air as we talked to Mary Powell, the dynamo that drove this transformation, was, “Is this a classic case of a strategic realignment in the face of crisis – or are there lessons to be drawn from a traditional company reaching down to its core values and adhering to socially responsible principles in order to drive success?”  The transformation of Green Mountain Power shows how driving change through socially responsible (SR) principles can be both harder and easier than a traditional business turnaround.

When Mary came on board in 1998, under then-CEO Chris Dutton, she entered a company that had, “an arrogant reputation.  It was a big, stuffy area utility.”  She felt, “If we want to be saved, if we want customers to pay more money, we have to transform ourselves into a company worth saving.” Dutton agreed.  Mary and the senior team drove a change process that trimmed the fat in the organization reducing officers from 14 to 6 (now 4), employees from 340 to 200, square footage from 89,000 to 25,000, and the Executive area by 90% to 300 square feet.

Mary and the senior team clarified Green Mountain Power’s core values:  GMP would be the low cost, low carbon, incredibly reliable energy provider for Vermont.  “The neat thing about our values is that they align a lot with the State’s values.  We were looking at what key stakeholders want.  Vermonters want green and free.  Once you get that fly wheel spinning, it is amazing where it can take you.  We are becoming a renewable energy company.”

As with any change process that upends a company this dramatically, the changes engendered fear and pushback.   In the case of GMP, and other companies where SR principles drive change, Mary faced an additional layer of suspicion and politics.  Renewable energy was, and is, political.  There were factions opposed to renewable energy because of its perceived high cost, and/or because they didn’t believe in climate change.  On one side were the true green, anti-nuclear folks; on the other, the hard core Vermont Yankee supporters who wanted GMP to use nuclear power forever.

Fortunately, when Mary was made CEO, Dutton characterized her well; “fearless as she embraces change and new thinking.”  Mary said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the presence of fear and the willingness to walk through it.  At times it was terrifying on a personal level.”

Mary contends that because driving change with SR strategies draws on deeply embedded values, it is powered, supported, and ultimately successful because individuals want and believe in this re-orientation.   “There were really smart, funny, committed, caring people.  Some who had strong environmental values, but they were over here in a pocket.”

Thus, Green Mountain Power, in committing to “low carbon”, aligned itself with a broad customer base that went beyond the naysayers and was able to leverage this market differentiation.  “Our vision was just about our customers and our vision for our customers.  The comment that ‘this is just a marketing ploy’ is not true.  It is really about our values.  We really want to see an energy future that is clean and green and renewable.  Have you seen another utility try to do a windfarm?  Tough decisions, but important ones, if a company is values-based and focused on the values of the majority of customers they serve.”

Taking a traditional, publicly held utility green faced some political landmines.  At the same time, it drove the current success (the wind project will greatly increase the size of the company) by tapping into a powerful customer value for clean, green, and renewable.   Driving a company to the next level with socially responsible strategies can be more risky and, at the same time, facilitate and ensure a profound transformation.

greenmountainpower.com

Ellen Meyer Shorb

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