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The Talent Bubble

As Baby Boomers near retirement age, utilities face the challenge of preparing the next generation of leaders.
Fortnightly Magazine - February 2004
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Leadership development is one of the primary tools that utilities are using to prepare for the coming talent shortages. PUD No. 1 of Chelan County serves as an example. "Our general manager, Charles Hoskin, has said that we will either pay now or pay later," Abbott says. "So we are investing in our leaders now in a number of ways."

One way is the utility's two-track leadership development program. A 200-hour program for employees in the PUD's bargaining units (foremen, mechanics, linemen, etc.) focuses on expanding technical and leadership skills. The second track is for salaried employees. In this track, a series of classes, mentoring, and cross-training experiences helps develop leaders with a wide breadth of skills.

SRP provides another example. The utility has begun the third year of its program to develop leaders across its engineering and construction division. "I think of it as pools of leadership talent with a variety of experiences," Haake says. "Rather than resident knowledge being with one person, we are building pools of knowledge."

The SRP program includes six modules focusing on critical competencies for the organization. Each module takes an entire year to complete and includes a half-day instructor-led course, taught by managers in the organization; a mentoring program to provide feedback and support; e-learning classes; and a final presentation to managers focusing on the topic of the module undertaken.

To identify candidates for the program, SRP conducts talent assessments throughout the organization. The next step is to create development plans for each, including rotational assignments, participation in task forces, and other experiences.

"Most effective leaders in an organization have had a variety of experiences and have been exposed to a variety of different leadership styles," Haake says. "Our overall strategy is to build a pool of resources that has the flexibility we need to be successful in a changing market."

Haake adds that the exercise of leadership planning allows a company to examine its organizational structure and determine whether alternative structures might be more effective or efficient. "If 50 people retire, you don't always need to replace those 50 specific jobs," she says. "You can look at the business and the design of the work to find opportunities to improve." Other organizations are finding similar benefits to workforce planning efforts.

"We are modernizing some of our positions," says Rick Johnson, supervisor of employee training and development services at Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial, Calif. "We have a new power manager, for example, who is reorganizing his department to make it more customer-service oriented. He is bringing in new technology and creating some new positions in economics and development."

Imperial Irrigation District has created a 16-week leadership academy for potential and new supervisors. The academy focuses on leadership theory, problem solving and team-building, and the company also provides highly flexible opportunities for additional training and education.

Recruitment, of course, is another important tool for workforce planning. Utilities have long been involved in campus outreach and similar efforts, but these activities are becoming more sophisticated as utilities compete for scarce skilled candidates. Utilities are becoming