This month marks an important milestone for me – 10 years as Duke Energy’s CEO. The past decade was filled with highs and lows. I’ve worked with the best people in the industry, experienced great successes and tackled some of the toughest issues of our time. And, like all leaders, I’ve also faced setbacks and detours.
As I look back, several defining moments taught me valuable leadership lessons.
Own your mistakes, learn from them, and do better.
Seven months into my tenure, a pipe broke under a coal ash pond in North Carolina – releasing 39,000 tons of ash into a nearby river. We each choose how we respond to adversity, and for us, this event became a catalyst to change our business and refocus on event-free operations. I’m proud that today we’re an industry leader in safety and operational excellence.
Put the customer at the center of your decisions.
When I stepped into the role, the term “ratepayer” was often used to describe our customers. It reflected a transactional relationship that ended at the meter. But by the mid-2010s, customer expectations were evolving – they expected the same types of individualized experiences other companies were beginning to deliver. So, we evolved too. We put the customer at the center of everything we do. This meant spending a lot of time learning what matters most to them and then using this knowledge to develop services and solutions to meet these needs and deliver value for our customers. This shift in culture led to higher customer satisfaction, deeper relationships and stronger engagement.
Make the hard decisions.
In 2014, we announced a joint venture to build a 550-mile interstate natural gas pipeline that would help meet customers’ growing energy needs, drive economic development in the region and create thousands of jobs. But despite six years of work and strong support in our communities, legal challenges continued to delay the project and nearly doubled the cost. So, in 2020, we, in collaboration with our partners, canceled it. It was a difficult decision that meant finding other ways to solve for this energy need, but we avoided what psychologists call “escalation of commitment” – continuing to spend time and money on a failing course of action.
Get the right people to the table.
For years, we prided ourselves on our engineering strengths. That’s why, several years ago, when we needed to upgrade our infrastructure and expand capacity to a fast-growing region in western North Carolina, we devised an elegant engineering plan that would deliver near-perfect power. But our customers weren’t nearly as enamored with the plan as we were. They wanted more of a say in their energy future. With their input, we created a new plan that included a collaborative effort to drive significantly higher community participation in energy efficiency and demand-side management programs, with less near-term construction of generation. Today, early stakeholder engagement is a critical piece of our planning process. Together with our engineering prowess, this leads to the best outcomes for those we serve.
Don’t be afraid of disruption – define your path and move your teams to achieve big things.
This decade has been one of strategic transformation for the company. We began by transforming our business portfolio. We exited nonregulated businesses with volatile earnings and cash flow and focused on the significant growth opportunities in our core regulated seven-state footprint. This also positioned us well to execute our clean energy strategy. In 2019, we set an aggressive goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 while maintaining the reliability and affordability our customers depend on. This goal will influence the decisions we make for the next 30 years. It points to the importance of defining your path, aligning your organization on it, and checking and adjusting along the way to manage external pressures.
Face the unexpected with agility, and then check and adjust.
Like every other company, Duke Energy was profoundly impacted by COVID-19. As an essential service, we had to manage through the challenges while keeping the power flowing 24/7. Our priorities were clear – take care of our customers and protect the health and safety of our employees. Foreseeing the financial hardships ahead, we suspended disconnections for customers unable to pay their bills, waived late-payment fees, and provided financial assistance to our customers and communities. We also found new ways to operate. We put dozens of protocols and procedures in place to keep front-line employees safe. When we couldn’t find supplies of hand sanitizer for our power plant workers, we made our own. When we couldn’t get protective gear delivered, we sent our trucks to pick up supplies from warehouses and docks all over the U.S. And through this experience, we discovered a new level of agility that will benefit us in the years ahead.
And perhaps the last lesson runs through all these moments. I could not have navigated these times without the right team around me. I learned early on to surround myself with courageous people who have different skills, experience and perspectives – teammates who are transparent about issues, are willing to offer an opinion and come to the table with potential solutions but are also open to other points of view. This may be the most important lesson of all.
I’m no longer the same leader I was when I stepped into the role on July 1, 2013, and Duke Energy is no longer the same company. During this period of transformation, each success and setback led to lessons that made us better. This is why we’re ready to take on the opportunities in front of us as we pursue the nation’s largest clean energy transition – and for that, I’m grateful.