Sonny Garg, Former Chief Innovation Officer, Exelon

"Given the changes in the power industry and in technology at large, IT departments are finding themselves having to reimagine their role in the company."

June 2015

You’ve served Exelon in senior management roles in finance, HR, operations. How has that broad experience prepared you for your current position in IT?

Given the changes in the power industry and in technology at large, IT departments are finding themselves having to reimagine their role in the company. In each of my previous roles, I was brought in during an inflection point where in order to be successful going forward, the department or division had to think and do things differently from before. Leading through those situations taught me the importance of three things:

  1. People need to experience you as a values-based leader, not just hear you talk about it, in order to trust you enough to change.
  2. There is enormous social capital within an organization and you need to identify, celebrate and leverage it.
  3. By fostering the first two, you’ll have a flood of new opportunities emerging from employees, and combined with developing robust relationships with the relevant external innovation ecosystem, you will move faster than you thought possible.
Your title is Chief Information & Innovation Officer – how do these roles converge?

Whether innovation is explicitly included in a CIO’s title or not, given the rapid pace of technological change, all CIO’s should be focused on innovation. Traditional IT departments, particularly in large corporations, were once insulated from the consumer IT world, but that has changed and they are being upended by things like ‘bring your own device,’ social media, big data, the Internet, etc. A CIO not only needs to be able to ‘run the railroad,’ but also proactively adapt to the railroad being replaced by the car, the airplane, the rocket ship and who knows what else.

How does Exelon foster a culture of innovation?

We run nuclear power plants and large transmission and distribution systems, and you don’t want a whole bunch of people running around ‘innovating’ when it comes to safely and reliably running those facilities. There is real need and value to tight processes and procedures. At the same time, we need to find a way to innovate, so we are focused on four elements in nurturing a culture of innovation. First, we have created teams, like the Emerging Technologies team under me, that we’ve given permission to operate outside the ‘system’ to identify and pilot new technologies in ways that don’t disrupt day-to-day operations. Second, we are emphasizing to leadership and employees that we need to be open to and supportive of new ideas, and that the risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of action. Third, we are recognizing and celebrating those who take risk and try something new, even if it fails. Finally, people know how their leaders spend their time and they will replicate that approach; if our leaders are not carving out time and openly demonstrating a commitment to innovation, their folks won’t either.

“There is enormous social capital within an organization and you need to identify, celebrate and leverage it.”

How have new technologies transformed the workplace at Exelon?

Smart Grid is transforming our industry. It gives us the ability to remotely connect service, providing an improvement to customer service by scheduling and executing customer turn-ons without the need to send a field technician. The meters actively report when power is lost and restored, rather than requiring customers to call and let us know their power is out. New data analysis tools offer new insight into how the power grid is operating. Predictive models are being built based upon Smart Meter data to cover all sorts of operating scenarios, including extreme weather. At the same time, Smart Grid empowers customers, allowing them to monitor their usage in real time via a variety of means, including the Web, an in-home display or even a smart phone. The access to usage information allows customers to make informed decisions on their energy usage, get specific energy efficiency tips and sign up to receive alerts when their usage is high and there is the potential for high bills. We are only scratching the surface of how the customer experience will be transformed as the Smart Grid is deployed.

What transformational initiatives do you have underway?

Given the scope and scale of what I consider transformational, i.e., Smart Grid, I’m reluctant to use the word ‘transformational’ too much. That said, we have three initiatives that I think have the potential to significantly impact our company. First, we are partnering with software providers to build ‘big data’ engines and applications that will allow us to analyze the masses of data being produced and to be more responsive to our customers. Second, we are piloting the use of 3D printing. We are in the very early stages, but 3D printing will disrupt the whole idea of the supply chain. Lastly, we have begun piloting robotics and tools like Google Glass in the field to not only improve efficiency but also improve safety for our employees.

How is Exelon IT helping employees through the challenges of change?

When I was in graduate school, I remember being taught that “organizations resist change.’ However, I have come to believe that that isn’t true. I think organizations resist change when people haven’t been actively engaged in designing the change and the benefits of the change haven’t been translated into a narrative that explains why it is good for people. In IT, we are making many changes to the technology environment for Exelon employees, including a modern desktop, bring your own device (BYOD), mobile applications and increased security. If we had just rolled these out without explaining to people why we were doing it, we would have met with a lot of resistance because these changes are disruptive. However, we packaged these changes into a program called, “IT’s For You,” and we clearly explained the benefits to employees. The reaction has been terrific and, if anything, people want us to do it faster.

How do you motivate people into action? What motivates you?

There are probably two things that motivate me most. First, I love ambiguity and complexity. Throw me into an environment with a lot of uncertainty and ask me to help define and execute a vision and strategy, and I am in heaven. I think this is because it fundamentally requires the team to answer the question of “why” — why do we do what we do – and not focus immediately on the how and what. Second, I find great meaning in creating a high-performing environment where people feel valued and want to come to work. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and innovation expert, wrote an article a few years ago called, How Will You Measure Your Life, and in it he wrote that, “management is a noble profession’ because how people feel when they come to work and how they feel when they go home to their families is in large part determined by how they are treated that day.” I believe that fully and believe it is one of the great responsibilities leaders carry. As to what motivates people, I can’t say because everyone is different. However, I do believe that if you create an environment where people feel valued, you won’t have to worry about motivating them.

“…organizations resist change when people haven’t been actively engaged in designing the change…”

What has been your greatest leadership challenge to date?

Back in 2008 and 2009 when the economy was in a freefall, Exelon, like most other companies, was forced to take some dramatic actions. At the time, I was in Finance and was tapped by the president of Exelon and our CFO to lead an initiative to cut costs. As part of the cost reductions, we eliminated about 500 positions within Exelon, and that was very painful. Most of the folks who were losing their jobs weren’t poor performers; instead, we simply couldn’t afford those jobs anymore. I learned a number of important lessons during that period. First, you have to be brutally honest with people. You aren’t doing yourself or your employees any good by sugarcoating or avoiding the truth. Treat people like the adults they are – they expect you to. Second, treat people with respect and dignity, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because people will remember what values you exhibited in tough times. While we eliminated 500 positions, we kept more than 20,000 other ones and you can be sure those 20,000 were watching and remembering how we treated those who left. As the old saying goes, you can’t talk your way out of something you’ve behaved your way into.

Fast Facts

Chicago, IL
Number of employees:
Exelon: 35,000. Within IT: 1,300
Number of years in current role:
2 years
Previous experiences:
Within Exelon: President of Exelon Power, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Vice President, Finance,

Previously: White House Fellow, served as the Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley Research associate at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children
First job:
Paperboy for the Toledo Blade
Leader you admire the most:
No single leader ... I admire leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who didn’t have positional power, but moved people to action through reverential power.

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