Now, as I can incorporate recent events from the Utility Supply Management Association (USMA) conference, I’d like to start a discussion with the question, do you want to be a thought leader?
More than 500 professionals from the utility supply chain industry gathered at USMA in Savannah, Georgia, to share best practices with each other. This was the first time I had attended this conference, so you can imagine my surprise when the first slide recognized Dewight Ballard. Dewight was one of my early procurement mentors in the 1980s and 1990s at Mississippi Power Company. He helped lay the foundation that is the success now known as USMA.
Key points that those early thought leaders (like Dewight) identified was that procurement professionals needed an open forum where they could share best practices and partner with the vendor community. One of the most important components was that they were leaders who worked for companies willing to commit the time and effort to developing USMA.
Another one of the more highlighted data points was that the 40-member board (all voting members) is split 50-50, with 20 utility and 20 vendor representatives. There was a common point made regarding guest speakers, that they provide multiple points of view on items directly affecting the utility power delivery industry. I found both of these items worth noting as best practices for thought leaders.
What motivates one to become a thought leader?
We had multiple sessions led by thought leaders with very diverse backgrounds, with differing work and family life experiences. But a couple key elements stood out. For example, each had experiences where their back was against the wall. They realized that taking the time to make a strategic plan has the potential to eliminate, or at least minimize, the challenges they would face when things go bump in the middle of the night. But in taking the initiative to plan, they also realized they developed strong team-building skills. Two presentations in particular stand out.
USMA’s 2015 keynote speaker was Herman Cain, a radio personality and past CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. He stepped on the national stage in 2012 when he ran for president. Herman shared insights into what inspired him throughout his life and then his step into politics. During my conversation with him, he expanded on the vision that drove his father to work three jobs: so his sons could go to college.
Herman was the first in his family to go to college, and he directly attributed that to the sacrifices his father made working those jobs. That example instilled a strong sense of the value of individual responsibility. He is very passionate on inspiring leaders to unite our country rather than to encourage division, regardless of race or politics. Herman Cain’s passion was passed on from the fact that his father was a thought leader.
Another lively discussion took place after former Duke’s CEO Jim Rogers’ presentation on the utility of tomorrow. He took a brief look at the history of how electricity transformed America and the world, starting in the early 1900s. During the discussion, Jim encouraged electric utility leaders to lead change by embracing the modernization of the electric utility grid, including the use of renewables. Major changes included during his presentation was the smart management of a portfolio of energy generation sources, transforming from an analog to digital grid, and improving communication connections with consumers.
Tools for becoming a thought leader
We all have ideals. Deep down inside we would like to bless the world with our insight. But we hold back, sometimes for valid reasons. But I also suspect it may be that we feel we need more training, self-confidence or that bolt of lightning to convince us that our idea should be heard. I find it interesting that when you hear presenters talking about how they got started, it came down to core convictions and a belief in their ideas, with the realization many people wouldn’t understand those ideas. In the end, that didn’t stop them from sharing!
If you have a desire to be a thought leader, I encourage you to start by drawing and writing your thoughts on paper, then follow up by sharing. You will find being a thought leader will put your brain power to work and it will be like opening a window to let in fresh air. At some point, you will begin to focus your thoughts and ideas into a pattern. You may even become overwhelmed with the broad range of possibilities.
As you develop your thought leadership skills, you will also need to develop your ability to communicate your ideas to individuals and groups, small and large. You will also find the better you become in communicating, others will want to share their thoughts and ideas with you. Use this time to find common ground, developing stakeholders in your ideas, but also becoming a value-add stakeholder in supporting them.
Early in my utility career, there was a successful implementation of a major project that I thought would be the experience of a lifetime. Thank goodness that hasn’t been true. Had I believed that, I would have missed out on being a key stakeholder in some of the best teams and projects over the past several decades. I am still humbled by the relationships that have been developed over the years that are a direct result of embracing change. But I should also hasten to share, it isn’t a cakewalk and it’s not for the faint of heart.
To become a thought leader requires a starting point and consistency. But the rewards are greater than the challenges. And like anything worth doing, it requires commitment and effort.