Libby Calnon is a proud member of a trend that has communicators and marketers getting more opportunities to become executives. Why is that trend important, and what advice does she have for other communicators looking to climb the ladder?
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What are the twists and turns along the journey from communicator to GM? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host once again, and I’m joined on this episode by Libby Calnon, General Manager of Hood River Electric and Internet Co-op. Libby, thanks for joining me.
Libby Calnon: Hi, you’re welcome. Thanks for the invitation.
Andy Johns: Full disclosure, Libby is a board member for Pioneer Utility Resources, so I just wanted to get that out of the way first. But Libby has a session she’s doing with a couple of folks later today here at the NIC Conference in Portland, where she’s going to be talking about — the name of the session is “Crossing the Bridge from NIC Chair to Utility GM.” And we were talking before we hit the record button, and the couple of podcasts that we’ve done before over the years about the journey from communicator to general manager have been some of the most popular we’ve ever done. So when I saw this topic on there and I knew Libby would be a good guest, I wanted to be sure to get you on to talk about it. So why do you think it is that (1) they’ve asked to do a session on this, and (2) why — just to get our listeners ahead a little bit — why do you think it’s such a popular topic?
Libby Calnon: You know, when I was selected to be the general manager at Hood River and I was preparing to leave my old utility, I had multiple people reach out to me and say, “How did you do it? What did you do?” And so I think there’s just interest from among the communicators within the utility world of having the opportunity to lead. They tend to be people who are very connected within the industry and knowledgeable about a broad range of issues, but they don’t tend to be the ones who boards necessarily look at and think, “Oh, that’s my next leader.” It’s traditionally been, you know, your finance manager, your engineering manager or operations manager. And so it’s fun to be a part of this new group that’s getting an opportunity to come in and lead.
Andy Johns: So Libby, how do you think an organization is run differently, or what kind of perspective does a communicator bring into the GM office? How is that different than one with either — and I’m not asking you to, you know, no shots across the bow and the engineering GMs or the finance GMs out there — but how do you think an organization is different, or what do you think communicators bring in terms of perspective to that corner office, or to the GM’s office when coming up on that track?
Libby Calnon: Sure, I think communicators tend to be connectors and tend to want a variety of perspectives involved in decision making. I know in my organization the manager that came before me who did an absolutely fantastic job and left our co-op with low rates, affordable service, happy employees and happy members, which is what you want, right?
Andy Johns: That pretty much hits all the spots.
Libby Calnon: Yeah, he was an engineer who saw the world very differently than I do. And they didn’t have management team meetings. You know, they didn’t have staff meetings. There was a little bit more individual decision making and individual task accomplishment. And so that’s been a bit of a shift for my team to get used to. Well, you know, sure, this is probably where we’re going to go, but before we make that decision, we’re going to check in across the organization as appropriate for whatever it is you’re focusing on and make sure that everybody agrees with that. So I think there’s a little bit more teamwork and collaboration under a communications focused manager. And I think there’s also a focus on the impacts of membership in a little bit of a different way. For every decision that we make, I’m always thinking about how is this going to look for our members, and how are they going to react to it? And what is the benefit that it’s going to bring them if we make this change? And sometimes I think, you know, if you’re an engineer or operational focused manager, you’re probably more focused on the reliability metrics. If you’re a finance focused manager, you’re probably a little bit more focused on the bottom line. And so, you know, we all focus on all of those pieces, but the one that you sort of default to might be a little different and that might structure your decision making differently.
Andy Johns: It’s dangerous to extrapolate based on just a few examples we have here on your panel, but it is something I’ve heard both on the telecommunications side and the electric side that at least more communicators are getting some consideration. Why do you think that is? I guess let’s assume it is at least some kind of a trend. Why do you think it is that now communicators are getting that second look or third look as a general manager that they may not have gotten a few years ago?
Libby Calnon: I think our industry is changing, and, you know, certainly since I’ve started as [general] manager three years ago, we’ve got a new wildfire rules and legislation in Oregon. We’ve got this broadband funding available and huge opportunities and things are changing just at an incredibly rapid pace, and it’s requiring some new perspectives and some new approaches. And in one sense, I think that the legislative piece is getting a little bit more, having a little bit more of a focus, especially in Oregon, where we have all kinds of new rules. And so being able to navigate through all of that and respond to a much quicker rate of change is requiring some new thinking. I’ve had a conversation with one of my directors about what their decision making process was. And part of their evaluation process in my selection was about like, we have a lot going on and new perspectives are needed. So I think that’s part of it. There might also just be more of us putting our names in the hat because, you know, traditionally, we didn’t really necessarily view ourselves as the ideal candidate for the top spot. But I’m trying to get the word out there that if you love working in a utility and you know a lot about it, which you probably do if you’re a communicator and you’ve been explaining all of the different facets of a utility’s operations to your memberships, you know more than you think. So I’m trying to get the word out. I know Scott and Lena are too, that you should push forward, and you should go for those opportunities that you want for yourself.
Andy Johns: My perception is, and what you just said I think we’re on the same page, but that’s kind of — I don’t know if it’s a trend, but it seems like it happens a little bit more now that the communicators moved over to that office than maybe it used to in the past. Do you think that’s kind of an emerging trend at all?
Libby Calnon: I think so. I’m on a panel this afternoon with Lena and Scott, and they both made the same transition that I made. So we definitely have examples of it in the industry. And those of us who’ve made the switch are trying to do it well so that there’s plenty of opportunity for the next folks to come along and do it. Like, don’t screw this up.
Andy Johns: That’s right. You want this to be good examples going forward. And I’m recording with Scott this afternoon, so we’ll be releasing that episode later on as well. Let’s get as personal as you want to with this. Is being the general manager something that you had had your eye on for a while, something that you had wanted to do and get to that spot and something that you worked towards? Or is it something that really only the couple of years right before the opportunity came up that it was something you considered?
Libby Calnon: I would say there was probably a decade where I was thinking about it, but it really was the last few years before I moved where I really started working on it. I don’t know if you know this, but my dad was a utility electrical engineer and general manager, and he spent 43 years in public power.
Andy Johns: Cool. I did not know that.
Libby Calnon: So as a kid, I grew up running the halls of co-ops and PUDs from Colorado to Wyoming to Oregon. And because he was an engineer, engineering manager, I was typically in the engineering and operations areas. And he would say, “Well, you should grow up and be an engineer, and you can work in a utility.” And I don’t have an engineering brain.
Andy Johns: I’m with you there. I understand.
Libby Calnon: Yeah. And so, you know, I went to college and got a degree in technical communications and psychology and went off into the world and found some other things to do. And I didn’t really understand the utility world was a good place for me with my specific skill set. And I worked at a hot fudge factory, that was fantastic. I worked for the United Way.
Andy Johns: Both sound like good opportunities.
Libby Calnon: Yeah, I worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District, and I had an opportunity there to be part of the Emergency Operations Center during the floods of 1996 in Portland, which is a historic flood event that we had here. And being a part of that opportunity made me realize how much I really loved that essential service emergency response kind of there for your community piece. After I left the Corps of Engineers, I went off and started my own marketing business. I was doing some computer work for people, and how did I wind up in a utility? Well, my cat jumped on the table and knocked the Sunday newspaper off. And the newspaper landed on the floor and flipped it open. And there was advertising there for a communications specialist at Columbia River PUD, and I thought “Well, my dad worked at Emerald PUD, I know about PUDs. I know what they do.” And I applied and got the job.
Andy Johns: This sounds like a divine providence there. Thanks to the cat.
Libby Calnon: Thanks to the cat. And so, you know, I was there about 10 years really enjoying doing the communications work and learning about all of the different facets of the utility’s operations. And it was a great place to be because we were trying to add some additional service territory through annexation of some small pockets of our community that were still served by the old IOU that was there before we started. So I got to learn about sort of the differences between public power and investor-owned utilities and what the community benefits are, which is one of those things that we all like to talk about. But I also made it a habit to reach out to the other departments and find out, you know, is there something within your realm that I can help you communicate about? And so I ended up editing audit reports for the finance department, and as I would do that, I would teach myself how to read an audit report, right? Not just is the grammar correct, but what are these numbers mean?
Andy Johns: What does it mean.
Libby Calnon: I did the same thing for the engineering department for some of their processes around line extensions and how are those decisions are made. I worked on presentations about our rate setting and went through the processes to understand how rates were set. So just through doing outreach across my organization, I was able to learn a lot about the various aspects of the utility world. At that point, I knew that I didn’t have the credentials that would be needed to move into a GM role. So then I went back to school. I started with a master’s in business program, and when I finished that, I actually had started on an accounting degree. And I’m two tax classes shy of an accounting degree. It’s kind of cool that in a co-op you don’t have a lot of tax accounting, so I don’t miss that. Those are hard classes.
Andy Johns: I bet. I bet.
Libby Calnon: But that was where I was when I got the Hood River job, and I actually switched majors at that point and finished a bachelor’s in human resources because we don’t have an HR person on staff.
Andy Johns: You probably use that more on a daily basis, I’m sure.
Libby Calnon: I do, and especially in a small utility. So having that, both the background of working with the various departments and then just figuring out the gaps in my education to fill in, has been really helpful.
Andy Johns: It sounds like cross-training is a major, major step to that. Do you think a lot of utilities do a good job or are getting better at cross-training folks in different areas?
Libby Calnon: I think that it’s best when it’s part of a utility’s culture, and in some utilities that’s becoming more the norm. You know, my old utility at times the culture would be a little bit more focused on, “This is my job, and I’m the one that’s the expert about it, and I know how to do it. And somebody else has their job.” And the more that we can work together and share and bring in different perspectives, the better we’re all going to do and the more support we’re going to have. You know how terribly important that is in small utilities because I have a staff of 22 that that serves, provides electric and internet service for our 3600 members. And that’s not a lot of, you know, bench strength, right? You’ve got to be able to wear a lot of hats so that somebody can take a vacation or go have a baby or something and know that their job will be done well while they’re gone.
Andy Johns: Right. Definitely. What are some things — and you mentioned earlier in the conversation about a lot of it is perception. And whether you’re moving from one utility to another, whether you’re rising up within that same utility, you mentioned the perception just that they don’t think of the communicator necessarily as being GM material or whatever that means. Is there anything that you think you did along the way to kind of like you said — obviously the education, the cross-training — anything else you did strictly on that perception standpoint that kind of get people’s attention and say “This person is different. This person has whatever it takes.”
Libby Calnon: One of the things that I did was when there were opportunities for us to serve on community committees, I would put my name in the hat. And sometimes the answer was yes, and sometimes the answer was that we have somebody else who will be a better fit for that spot. And that’s fine. You’re never going to get the opportunities you don’t ask for, and you just need to get used to hearing no sometimes and yes on occasion, and then capitalize on the times that you hear yes. So I ended up representing our cooperative on the local Economic Development Council, and on I said cooperative, PUD at the time. They’re all co-ops to me now.
Andy Johns: Sure, you’re a utility, yep.
Libby Calnon: Yeah, and the local emergency management group. So we had a group that was very active. We had a fantastic emergency planning committee in the county that I came from, and I ended up on the executive committee of that group. And that was an opportunity to network with local emergency managers, the county commissioners, the public health officials, the school district folks, the sheriff’s office, the police departments.
Andy Johns: Kind of a who’s who in the community.
Libby Calnon: Yeah. And, you know, building those relationships and being able to prove to those folks that I was able to add value to those conversations that we were having, I think helped people see me as more than just the marketing person.
Andy Johns: What do you think — and I was going to get to this one later, but let’s go ahead and ask now. What do you think that we as fellow communicators at a conference like NIC where I’ve been really … This is my first one, and it’s been really cool to see how tight everybody is, and there are a lot of friendships, a lot of really good relationships. What do you think we can do to help each other as communicators through those networks to help build each other up and help each other? If there are folks that want to go that track towards the the general manager’s office, is there anything that other folks can do to kind of help them along?
Libby Calnon: I think you can be supportive of people by giving them opportunities to connect with other folks and giving them opportunities to shine and showcase their abilities. That is one of the things that I absolutely love about the NIC family. I’ve been coming to these conferences for, I don’t know, maybe 15 years. I wasn’t at the first one, but I was at some of the earlier ones. And I love coming because you meet new people every year who bring new perspectives and new, unique strengths to our group. And it’s a supportive community where we don’t feel like that’s competition. It’s adding value to us, to the, I don’t know, the hive mind, I guess.
Andy Johns: Sure, sure.
Libby Calnon: So I think building that network and supporting people who are trying to move forward is an important thing to do. When some of the people who’ve asked me, “Well, what did you do?” Well, I got an MBA. I learned accounting. I also have a cooperative finance certificate that I picked up along the way. You know, figure out where your gaps are and aggressively pursue filling them and get feedback. This group is a great place to get feedback about “what do I do well, and what do I need to improve upon?” And so when you can have really strong relationships with other folks where you can have those candid conversations, and get feedback to help you improve instead of just being told you’re wonderful all the time. I mean, you’re pretty wonderful, but …
Andy Johns: It’s probably good to hear sometimes. That’s really good to hear sometimes.
Libby Calnon: I think that’s really helpful, and we try and provide that here.
Andy Johns: Sure, absolutely. Well, usually I wrap up an episode here by asking folks about the advice that they would give for somebody who’s in their shoes. So let’s say there’s somebody listening who’s at a utility, and it’s something that they have, like you were, kind of have that eye maybe on management being something that they want to get into, whatever level they are in the organization. You’ve given out a lot of helpful tips, a lot of good, good advice. But is there any other advice that you give people when they’re looking at ways — it sounds like a lot of hard work.
Libby Calnon: It was a lot of work. I think if you want to stay at your own utility, look to your leadership and your board and look at what they value. And then compare the strengths that you have to what they’re looking for. And you’ll be able to identify some opportunities where you might put in some work yourself, and you probably are going to identify some things that you already possess that they may or may not be aware of. And just working through that process is really helpful. You know, NWPPA has a leadership skills series, which is a fabulous, foundational series for interacting with other people. That’s a huge part of being in management. NRECA offers a supervisor management leadership development program. If you can get into some of that coursework, you can get some foundational stuff that will help you be successful as you move into management positions. And just generally relating to people. A couple of my staff members are going through one of those series right now and one of my guys came back from a class and he said, “This is going to change how I parent my children.”
Andy Johns: Oh wow.
Libby Calnon: It’s good stuff. So I think being willing to identify what you do well and figure out how to make sure you’re contributing that to your organization and then figure out what you can do better and work on that. It’s my work-based formula for getting to work harder.
Andy Johns: Yeah, right. Well, that sounds like good advice, and I appreciate you sharing that. I know that the folks listening it’s something that we may not get a lot of opportunities to talk about, but I’m sure that folks have appreciated the insight along the way.
Libby Calnon: Yeah. And you know, relationships are so important. They’re important here at the NIC. They’re important in communications, and they’re incredibly important in our industry. So building on those and supporting those, both within your utility and within your peer group, within the industry, and then just within the broader industry as a whole, is a fabulous formula for long term success.
Andy Johns: I’ve been been sending out LinkedIn invitations left and right to all the people I’ve met this week. So that’s how it starts I guess.
Libby Calnon: I’ve been trying to find somebody new at breakfast every day to visit with.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Excellent. She is Libby Calnon, the General Manager at Hood River Electric and Internet Co-op. I am Andy Johns, your host. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.