Why Exelon needed to focus on talent to win at business

Three Mile Island
Three Mile Island (macwagen/Flickr)

How does a utility integrate multiple businesses and tens of thousands of employees while changing the way it evaluates and develops them?

For Exelon, it helps if the business needs to change, too.

Jenn Boyd, Exelon’s vice president of talent management, led a panel discussion last month  at the CLO Breakfast Club in Washington, D.C., sharing how Exelon’s competitors are not limited to energy or utilities and as such gains inspiration from places including Silicon Valley and General Electric.

Boyd works with the senior team in identifying and implementing talent strategies across Exelon’s businesses. Some of this work is top-down, but not all of it; Boyd explained that there is no corporate learning and development department and that each business has its own set of industry-specific technical training.

She described her role as being the “center of expertise” in a decentralized setup while partnering with HR within each business unit.

Why Exelon needed to change

Exelon is a Fortune 100 power company with 34,000 employees that run utilities, generates energy in the form of nuclear, solar, wind and gas, and also trades in energy. But that business is under attack, as Boyd shared. Several years ago, the company’s balance sheet was strong, but leaders felt it wasn’t “shaping” the marketplace.

Exelon had missed out on the fracking boom and the resulting low natural gas prices, and continues to face what Boyd called “interlopers” from other industries, including Tesla.

Exelon’s businesses were also siloed off from each other -- “When you sit in a utility, you have no reason to know what’s going on” elsewhere, Boyd said. Some of this was for good reasons. The net result, though, was that the company needed better ways to learn and share information, and better ways to assess and develop its workforce.

So, in this case, there was no conflict between HR and the business. “The impetus was the business,” Boyd said.

“Talent is our competitive advantage," she added. "We want the best nuclear reactor operators -- in fact, we have them.”

What Exelon’s talent shift looks like

The big question facing Exelon was, as Boyd put it, “How do you take a team, from across the different companies that we have, solve for an enterprise-wide problem [by] leveraging outside-in thinking?”

Exelon’s starting point was far from this finish line. For instance, it used to grade its employees on a strict letter-grade scale, with Boyd indicating the company went so far as to verbally label people by their grade.

At the same time, the company couldn’t sacrifice its rigorous operational capabilities, processes and assessments --  “we pride ourselves on operational excellence,” Boyd said. But it did need to help move the culture toward one that considered problems from new angles, that offered more coaching, more learning.

In other words, Boyd said, more than saying “You are a letter B.”

What is a learning culture for Exelon? Looking beyond operating well today and instead looking “around the edges.” Thinking of the customer. A new belief in tolerating (some kinds of) failure and embracing the importance of learning, whether as an organization or as individuals who can be developed into future leaders.

Exelon isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. For instance, it’s looked to General Electric for a model of how a company can move away from a culture of rankings while still properly evaluating performance.

On a strategic level, Exelon sent executives out to non-energy companies, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, to see what they were doing, what challenges they were facing. For instance, what is Kaiser Permanente doing with regulations, culture and other challenges, and what can be learned from that health care firm and applied to Exelon?

“Learning is a thread in all of” what Exelon is doing, whether on the front lines operationally, with customers or at the executive level, Boyd said.

 

James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and original content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneursHR executives and various other industries. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.