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Keeping the Channels of Communication Open is Essential

Open and honest communication needed when leading change.

As published in the Telegraph-Journal on October 19, 2013
Ray Robinson, Saint John Energy
Ray Robinson, President & CEO
Saint John Energy
Photo: Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal

Ray Robinson just celebrated his first year – of a five-year term – as President and Chief Executive Officer of Saint John Energy. With 35 years of electric utility sector experience, the board was very pleased to have Robinson take the helm at Saint John Energy last year. It felt Robinson was the perfect candidate to continue the organization’s mission of providing reliable, low cost energy to the community.

Saint John Energy is a publicly owned municipal utility that purchases wholesale electricity from New Brunswick Power Distribution and Customer Service Corporation and distributes it for retail sale to residences, businesses and industries within the boundaries of the City of Saint John.

A graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, Robinson spent his early years working in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, and led many companies in North America. He moved into the position of President and CEO of Yukon Energy Corporation and, in 2001, President and COO of Bangor Hydro. Before coming to Saint John last year, Robinson was Executive Chair of the Grand Bahamas Power Company.

I began my conversation with Robinson by asking him how he, as the CEO, approaches getting to know and understand a new organization:

A: I typically spend the first several months with a very significant internal focus: find out what’s working well and what isn’t. Getting plans in place where there’s improvement required. Then I start turning around and adding more of an external view. Looking at how the organization fits into the community. I look at the customers and other significant stakeholders.

Q: What is your strategy to get a significant understanding of the internal workings of an organization?

A: I do multiple ‘walk abouts.’ I have a lot of discussions and conversations with people throughout the organization to get a sense of morale, how work gets accomplished and how the work flows – from origination to completion. And, of course, I try to determine what the frustrations are.

Q: What do you typically find through your walk abouts?

A: I typically find that, and this organization is no different, I’m surrounded by a lot of extremely talented, capable and intelligent individuals. A lack of consistent process can introduce a great deal of frustration, inefficiency and artificial barriers within an organization. The walk abouts give me the data I need to dig a little bit deeper and find out the source of the dysfunction or the lack of performance.

[Tweet “I’m surrounded by a lot of extremely talented, capable and intelligent individuals. – Ray Robinson”]

Q: What if you stayed in your office and let people come and report to you instead?

A: I wouldn’t get a comprehensive view of the organization that way.

Q: What’s the best way to address process issues within an organization?

A: When the artificial barriers arise, it has nothing to do with individuals in the organization – it’s most likely a lack of process and lack of a long-term plan. We’re currently putting together a cross-functioning team that will look at processes that are breaking down and determine a better way of putting them in place.

Q: How do you build cross-functional teams?

A: Well, we look across the organization and purposely pick a leader that currently has a good representation in various parts of the organization that would touch some part of the process or decision making as well. I’m looking for someone with credibility and who is relatively unbiased.

Q: What is the criteria for the leader of a cross-functional team?

A: I look for somebody who can say what’s on his or her mind very succinctly. Somebody that has some natural credibility in the organization, irrespective of the role that he or she plays – a person willing and wanting to step up, as opposed to being required to do it. It shows strength of character, integrity, as well.

Q: Would it be fair to say that you’re looking for change to come from within the organization instead of it coming down from the top?

A: Absolutely. It’s a balance. People in the organization will be looking for a certain direction, seeing the broader expectations set and then it’s a matter of making sure that we can all work together towards those goals.

Q: What was your approach to setting what could be a new direction for your organization?

A: We started by pulling together the management team to go through and refresh the company strategy. There’s a lot of different tactics and tools you can use to identify what the issues are. Annually, we also get all the employees together and have a day where we talk about the issues that the company has and some of the significant initiatives we want to address.

Q: Has there been any significant new initiatives at Saint John Energy?

A: The significant change in our financial situation required a strategy refresh. It had gone from relatively stable cash flows to a situation where the financial stability of the organization was very much in jeopardy. That would be the most significant change that required some sort of a refresh to the strategy.

Q: What are the skills that you believe are required in the position of a CEO that is leading through change?

A: Open and honest communication is important. Far too often people are nervous about speaking frankly about what the issues are. And that nervousness can come across as hiding things if the proper trusting environment is not in place.

[Tweet “Open and honest communication is important. – Ray Robinson”]

Q: Can you give me an example of how having open communication and being frank has helped overcome an organizational challenge?

A: An example with Saint John Energy is that we have now successfully transitioned from a defined benefit plan over to a shared risk plan in record time and I attribute that big success to being frank about how big a problem it was as soon as we knew.

Q: That is a great example. How exactly did you tackle transitioning from a defined benefit to a shared risk plan?

A: First, the board was absolutely phenomenal in dealing with the situation. It was relentless in getting all the information it possibly could about the current defined benefit plan.

Second, we set up a working group that was a good cross sectional representation of employees and retirees in the company – we included younger employees early in their career, mid-career people, older people that had lots of seniority and older people that had none. We also had retirees in the mix and union representation. We had a great set of advisers around the table.

Every step of the way we were updating everybody as to exactly where things were, what was going on, what the issues were. And keeping those channels of communication open really helped.

Ultimately, we took a diverse mix of individuals and gave them a challenge to get something in place by June 1 and, my God, they did it. Some of our external advisers said they’d never seen anything be accomplished like this so quickly.

[Tweet “Some…said they’d never seen anything be accomplished like this so quickly. – Ray Robinson”]

Q: In your opinion, a leader’s job is to

A: Provide direction, then step back and support the organization as required.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that you see as a CEO?

A: We’re facing some of the biggest challenges right now – the ability to take a longer term view while our energy industry and sector is rapidly evolving, trying to have more rigour on execution and gaining a greater connection with external stakeholders. Overarching these three challenges are our financial challenges and we’re getting that under control.

Dave Veale is a leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com or via Twitter@Dave_Veale. To read past columns and watch videos go to LeadershipUnleashed.ca.

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