As a former accountant, Paula Gold-Williams wasn’t exactly the obvious pick to run San Antonio-based CPS Energy, but she’s bringing a fresh perspective to the new age of utility companies.
How did you become involved in the energy sector? How would you recommend women break into the industry?
I am an accountant leading a 159-year-old energy company — not the usual suspect to lead a utility company. Since becoming the president and CEO, I have used my diverse career experiences to shift the focus of CPS Energy from poles, lines, and pipes to people.
With over 30 years of leadership experience ranging from telecommunications to food services, I have always been open to learning new things.
While it’s a sweeping generality, men will look at a job description and, even if they don’t have the experience needed, they are confident enough to take a chance. Women, on the other hand, who are a very close match, tend to feel less ready for the job — so my advice for women to break into the utility industry is to just go for it!
However, it is a hard journey. You need to have a support system because life is complicated, and this industry takes a lot of time and effort.
Whether you’re emerging in your career or you’re already in the CEO role, whether you’re a man or a woman, this industry is tough because, at the end of the day, there are customers at the center of everything we do and it’s 24/7/365.
What was the most formative piece of career advice you received?
Be present in the moment for opportunity and just say yes! Don’t say, “I don’t know if this is the right time,” or, “I don’t know whether this is good for me,” or, “Can you give me a job description?”
Early in my career, I volunteered for the projects other people didn’t want. I am a lifelong learner and I felt that taking projects and roles that other people didn’t want would provide me with the opportunity to learn even more. I never asked for a job description – I took the chance to create my own job to some degree.
I encourage employees to be in control of their own engagement and success, and to just say “yes” to opportunities that might seem difficult or undesirable. These projects often provide the most opportunity for growth and development.
What skills do you utilize every day, technical or otherwise?
A great leader knows they’re a work in progress, and at the same time they encourage emerging leaders to be better. A true servant leader knows when to set the example and when to stand in the back and watch their team work.
The hard assets don’t matter as much as the people — they are what truly make up the organization. Don’t create single profiles for success. What I look for now instead of pedigree is emotional intelligence; a person who can aggregate years of experience for the benefit of our organization, and someone whose self-worth is focused on helping customers and being a team player.
Our organizational effectiveness is designed around our “People First” philosophy. It is the embodiment of focus on our customers, our employees, and our community.
You’re not going to lead in this industry just through engineering solutions. Along the way, we are going to lead with a customer focus, thinking deeply about the community we serve while keeping our employees and the public safe.
How do you think an organization can benefit from more diversity of thought and talent?
As the only African American female energy utility CEO in the country, I am a strong proponent that inclusive leadership is crucial to the energy industry’s future. At CPS Energy, we showcase that inclusivity through the diversity of our senior chief leadership, which is made up of over 60 percent women and of which half are racially diverse. This culture, cultivated to empower all levels of the workforce, proves that inclusive leadership is as crucial to the energy industry’s future as a diverse portfolio.
Further, as an accountant, I’m a very unusual leader for a 159-year-old energy company. It used to be that the more experience you had, the better the opportunities, but we’ve become better listeners and more appreciative of people’s diverse backgrounds. We need different thinking and experiences to enhance our deep, rich history.
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