Culture: Your Utility’s Secret Sauce as the Market Evolves



Communicators tend to believe that effective communications can solve many, if not most, business challenges. Ineffective communications, on the other hand, are at the root of all sorts of business problems.

Utility leaders can’t talk their way through the energy transition. They can’t convince customers that their power is on when they know it is out. Even those blessed with the gift of gab generally can’t spin their way out of problems, especially ones they had a hand in creating.

But effective communications with employees and other stakeholders can provide the fertile soil from which creative, authentic, and mutually beneficial solutions can emerge.

Ineffective communications, on the other hand, are the proverbial salt that is poured on crops, blighting them and burning the soil from which they grow.

As utilities go through their transition, success requires that employees bring their whole selves to work. Their creativity, insight, and experience doing the work will go a long way in determining success or failure.

I was reminded of these communications truisms recently after I finished writing articles for two clients: the Florida Municipal Electric Association (FMEA) and the American Public Power Association (APPA). 


JEA’s Journey Home — and into the Future

JEA, the northeastern Florida community-owned utility, is three years into a remarkable transformation. Communications — both verbal and non-verbal — have been at the core of its turnaround.

In 2018, JEA’s then-CEO and board of directors tried to privatize the utility, seeking big paydays for themselves while saddling the Jacksonville utility’s customers with tons of debt and even more risk.

Communications tip of the month: As the energy transition continues to unfold, organizational alignment is more critical than ever. Culture can be the secret sauce for success. Those who work in employee communications have a critical role to play by shaping organizational culture, reinforcing it, or altering it.

Privatizing JEA stunned the community and angered employees. Employees could have checked out, taken the money, and run. Instead, they dug in, rallying around each other and the organization’s longtime mission to serve. 

In interviews with five JEA employees — three executives and two non-executives — I learned a lot about how employees felt about JEA before, during, and after the privatization proposal crashed in 2020. 


JEA Managing Director & CEO Jay Stowe Credit: JEA

Current CEO Jay Stowe  recognized the role open and honest communications played in reestablishing trust with employees, customers, and the community.

On his first day as CEO, Stowe answered questions from employees on a 90-minute livestream videocast.  

“We had never done that before, but it was important to speak with as many employees as possible at once, and as early as possible,” Stowe said. The video was archived so employees could access it   afterward if they couldn’t attend the livestream event.

More frequent and candid communications were critical to restoring employee confidence in the utility’s leadership. And Stowe has continued that with a weekly update he sends each Friday. He purposely does not run his draft emails by the communications department, which helps keep it fresh and authentic.

Raye Marshall, JEA Chief Operating Officer Credit: JEA


Every month or two, the leadership team holds an unscripted webcast where all employees are invited and no topic is off-limits. By watching how their leaders respond to questions, employees as well as mid-level managers have a chance to see and hear directly from top officials about their issues of concern.

The people I interviewed at JEA agreed that employees are now more aligned with their leaders. It may sound like a stretch, but by making themselves available and communicating regularly with employees, JEA’s leadership team has gone a long way to restore trust.


There’s a whole lot more to the JEA recovery story, and I hope you will check out my article on it in the Winter 2023 issue of FMEA’s Relay Magazine.

Late-breaking News: The JEA recovery story got a huge boost last month after a federal judge ruled against former CEO Aaron Zahn’s attempt to privatize the municipal utility. Click here for full news media coverage, courtesy of the Florida Municipal Electric Association.


Culture: The Secret Sauce of Organizational Success

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a widely held view among management consultants. Translation: any strategic initiative that does not find a way to align with and leverage an organization’s culture will be killed by it. 

The American Public Power Association (APPA) asked me to research and write a piece on the role culture plays in customer service excellence at three top-ranked community-owned utilities: the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC), Clark Public Utilities and EPB of Chattanooga. 

In the words of J.Ed. Marston, EPB’s vice president of strategic communications, “Culture is all about hiring, training, and supporting employees in delivering the best possible experience for our customers.” 


J.Ed. Marston, EPB VP of Strategic Communications Credit: EPB

“Cultural fit is critical, and we are very intentional about it,” he continued. “We want to hire people who want to perform meaningful work, and we organize our culture around it. We live here, we work here, and improving the community is what drives us.”

J.Ed. and the others I interviewed were generous in sharing exactly how their communications reinforced their desired culture. 



Linda Ferrone, OUC Chief Customer & Marketing Officer Credit: OUC


For example, Linda Ferrone, OUC’s chief customer and marketing officer, said culture is one of three pillars of the utility’s business strategy, alongside employees and the community. “Everyone who works here has the customer in mind, because we’re ultimately in the customer business.”

Cameron Daline, Clark Public Utilities’ manager of customer experience, said the Vancouver, Washington public power utility holds mandatory training workshops twice a year for all employees that explore and reinforce the utility’s culture of customer service. 

“We use that to show that our culture of service is part of everyone’s job,” he said, adding that a large part of his job is to show how the work of every single employee connects to customers.

“Customer satisfaction, as measured by J.D. Power, is a byproduct of your culture,” Daline said. “It’s an external manifestation of internal processes.”

You can read the Public Power Magazine story here.


Culture: The Role of Communicators

Because organizational culture is the powerful sum of formal and informal traditions, beliefs, rules, procedures, and practices that determine what work is done, and how it is done, everyone plays a role in shaping organizational culture, reinforcing it, or altering it. It’s not only the job of communicators, HR, or the Change Management group. 

But communicators do play an especially important role in conveying the behavior desired by the leadership team. By their choice of what to put in (and what to keep out) of employee communications, and organizing (and, if necessary, staffing) periodic all-hands meetings, those in employee communications play an indispensable role as keepers of the culture.

Right now, many organizations are trying to implement changes in their culture, to remain competitive as the energy transition unfolds. Clear, consistent, frequent, and transparent communications between the leadership team and employees, and also between employees and leaders, is a critical ingredient for organizational alignment.  


Photo Credits: iStock unless otherwise noted



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