"We tend to underestimate the importance of being able to articulate a message in a way people can rally around. People want to feel like they’re adding value to a cause and being able to articulate that mission for the team is important."

Fast Facts

Location Chicago, IL
Number of employees 6,000
Career history Joined ComEd – 1998 EVP, Customer Operations, Regulatory & External Affairs – 2007 Appointed COO & President – 2009 President and CEO – 2012
First job Management trainee at a department store
Most admired leader Activists like Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela

 

Questions & Answers

What elements of your childhood influenced the leader you are today?

My childhood was pretty normal. My grandparents were immigrants, and my dad believed that you could take control of things and make a difference in your own life. When I was younger, it was a tough framework to live in because the assumption was if something went wrong, you were either not smart enough to have seen it coming, or you were too lazy to do something about it. But as I grew older, it became more empowering. My mom was the biggest people person I’ve ever met in my life. That combination of my father believing we could make a difference and my mom being really engaged with people are two things I’ve taken forward.

What is your earliest memory of taking on a big leadership opportunity at ComEd?

I was working in the law department at ComEd, and one Friday afternoon I got a call from the executive vice president’s office to help his team on a project. At that time he was the second-highest-ranking person in the company.

They were trying to put together a presentation for [then-CEO] John Rowe at his executive committee meeting on Monday morning. I worked through the weekend and got the team together Monday morning at 6:00 a.m. When I walked into the room, the executive vice president said, “We’ve decided you should present.” Friday afternoon I knew nothing about this—and now I’m presenting to the new CEO of the company whom I’ve never met? I said, “All right. I’ll give it my best shot.” The interesting part was that John Rowe was a regulatory lawyer. He started asking me questions about things that only regulatory lawyers would understand. He was clearly testing me—and I guess I passed, because he’s been a great mentor to me ever since.

Do you enjoy leading under pressure?

I love it. One of the things I look for in hiring people is equilibrium—that they can deal both with ups and downs. ComEd goes to Springfield regularly and looks to pass legislation. Legislation policy probably influences our company more acutely than many companies. When we’re successful, I tell my folks, “Take your wins like your losses. You want to feel good about it and celebrate, but don’t gloat.” Similarly, when things are rough, equilibrium matters a lot. There’s a certain amount of stress that’s positive—that gets your adrenaline going. But if you get panicky, your judgment starts to fail. It’s important to stay balanced under pressure.

What elements of your theater training have you brought to your CEO role at ComEd?

First is communication skills. We tend to underestimate the importance of being able to articulate a message in a way people can rally around. People want to feel like they’re adding value to a cause and being able to articulate that mission for the team is important. Second, drama is all about human behavior. Reading a lot of plays and literature gives you a sense of how people are going to behave in certain situations. Finally, actors in the theater bond because everybody knows what the mission is, and the mission—the play—is immediate, real-time. There is that sense of bringing people together in the truest sense of a team. These lessons from theater have been beneficial to me at ComEd.

As the chair for Chicago United, you are very invested in diversity initiatives, and you helped create the ComEd Powerful Voices program to showcase all the different kinds of people who work for ComEd. Can you share some thoughts on that?

It’s one thing to think about diversity in your organization as a matter of hiring, retention, and promotion. That’s a bit of a numbers game, and it’s relatively clear how you do that. What’s hard is the inclusion piece of it—bringing diverse voices into the organization. Do those voices really get heard and influence the organization?

One Powerful Voices story that stuck with me featured one of our engineers. He was probably late 30s, Caucasian, Midwestern. I found out his grandparents had been refugees from communist Poland after World War II. They fled and lived in refugee camps for years before they came to the United States. I would never have realized he had that story unless he had a forum for telling it.

You’re ComEd’s first female president and CEO. How can we help bridge the gender gap in the STEM fields?

About 24 percent of STEM jobs in the US are now held by women. In some fields it’s even less. We need to start encouraging girls earlier to get interested in STEM. We have to show them there’s a path for them, and we have to make that exposure experiential.

To that end, ComEd runs a program called the Icebox Derby. We take recycled refrigerators from our energy efficiency program, and bring in 30 high-school girls who work with a common engineer to turn the refrigerators into electric cars. The first week they’ll work on the chassis, the second week on the battery, and so forth. By the end, they’ve built a working electric vehicle. Then we go to the east parking lot of the Field Museum to race them. The girls get so excited. It makes them want to go back to the classroom and do the tedious study necessary to take their STEM learning to the next level.

When you are dealing with a crisis situation, where do you find the strength to keep going?

I drink a lot of tea and coffee. I have a high level of energy naturally, but when you’re doing something that feels important to you, it’s a gift to be able to perform.

Foundationally, the electric system is very important to the economy. A cleaner electric system is important to the planet, and a less expensive electric system is important to people’s ability to manage household budgets. All of that is fundamental to how people live, so that’s motivating. It’s also motivating to have the ability to influence people’s lives, careers, and development. When you see people around you get excited and get drawn into the mission, you feel what you’re doing matters. That keeps you going.

Do you purposely seek out other leaders to surround yourself with?

People often ask, “What’s your view on mentorship?” I think about that in a more nuanced way: you have to think about how you connect with people. There are some people you work with who understand the organization very well. Particularly if they’ve been in the role you’re in, or a role you aspire to. Those people’s knowledge, experience, and advice can be really helpful. Then there are other people you have lunch with a couple times a year, and they bring you a different view of the world. They’re not technically your mentor, as they meet you infrequently, but they give you something different: a perspective that’s unique.

What do you look for when adding people to your team?

I tend to think about people in terms of where they fall on a particular continuum. Is somebody more of a planner, or more into execution? Is this a linear, deep thinker, or more of a systems thinker? It doesn’t matter if you’re a planner or an executor unless I have a particular job in mind. Then I might say, “This person’s more execution-oriented. I’m not going to put them in a planning job.”

Also, what does someone’s value system look like? I want employees with a strong sense of values and character. People who want to be respectful to others, who care about how we treat our customers. That character element is very important to me.

Interviewed by Alexandra Moresco and Kola Ogunshote.