Carol Wallace is a Director at Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and a sponsor of the Customer Interface and Billing, Payment, Credit and Collections sub-programs within the utility’s Get to Zero customer experience transformation program. She spoke with Lili Gao, WICE member and a consultant with PA Consulting Group to share her experiences and advice with women in the industry.
Please explain your role/ your work / educational background.
I’ve had a unique career progression as I started off as an optician. When the large retail optical stores started up, the relationship changed from a doctor-patient relationship to that of a retailer and customer. I didn’t enjoy that and moved to the Contact Center for Washington Natural Gas, where I found myself gravitating towards back office work. After Washington Natural Gas merged with Puget Power, I took on a role as an analyst in the Gas Measurement department. I was promoted to Supervisor of Gas Measurement and instrumentation in Georgetown [a neighborhood in the south of Seattle], which oversaw installation of mechanical and electronic measuring instruments on the distribution system and large customer meters. My next role was as Manager of Gas System Operations, which included Operations Dispatch (including our gas first response staff), the Gas Control Center responsible for monitoring the system, Gas Measurement, Instrumentation, and Quality Control. In this role, I was also Chair of the American Gas Association (AGA) Gas Control Committee, only the second woman to hold the position. I then progressed to Director of Gas Operations.
After a few years in that role, my manager suggested a developmental move, and I became the Director of Operations Performance. This role included Gas and Electric GIS, Real Estate and Operational Training. Aside from the last item, I knew very little about the other areas. It was interesting and scary being in a role where you are not the expert. You need to learn from your employees and trust them as the experts. Following that, I took on my current full time role in Get to Zero, as a sponsor of the Customer Interface and Billing, Payment, Credit and Collections sub-programs within the Get to Zero program. This is a large scale customer and business transformation program, and I am learning many new things about large scale project management, information technology, customer experience, etc.
Tell us about an interesting project that you’re working on.
Get to Zero as a program is completely transforming the PSE customer experience. We’ve taken a very customer-led approach to design a program that’s very interesting. For example, for the website, we have two sets of designers working independently to come up with two designs and then customers will test the products. In the end, we could go with one, the other, or a combination. I think customers should be allowed options regardless if they want to self-serve via the web or phone, or to be able to speak to a well-trained customer care representative who has a consistent view of customer interactions on any channel, guided scripts for consistency and easy access to information. Customers should have that choice. This is also a quantum leap for our employees. When I was in the call center, someone would call asking why a truck was parked in front of their home. We had no access to information in real time, and it could take hours to track down the response. Once our Integrated Work Management and Customer Interfaces are connected, employees will be able to have access to this information. The program will provide better tools for employees and also transparency so that they know what else is happening. This is our Customer 360 concept where all certified employees can see all of PSE’s interactions with a customer. We have to take our employees and customers along, because in the end we can build the greatest tool, but if it’s not intuitive and easy to use, they won’t use it.
What motivates you?
Providing a good experience for customers and employees motivates me. When I was Director of Gas Operations, I had over 400 employees. It was hard to know everyone since they were spread out all over the service territory, but I took the effort to attend local safety and staff meetings to know everyone face to face. I used to write personalized Christmas cards for all my employees. Because I had known some of them for 20 years, knew their families and children, I would have to start writing cards in July! I no longer send Christmas cards, even to family! In all, I am trying to make people feel cared about and that I understand their experience. I want to know the challenges that my employees face and support them through it.
Tell us about a time when you overcame adversity in the workplace.
Being a woman in operations can be challenging! When I first became a supervisor, I was probably about 30 and managing a lot of senior journeymen, many with tenure of 30-40 years. I came from an office background and had to learn everything they did. I wanted to show them that I didn’t want to be dictatorial, knew they were the experts, and my role was to help them solve problems. Specifically, there was a time when we were switching to a new type of instrument and a very senior journeyman had programmed the corrector incorrectly. When that’s not done right, the customer gets the wrong bill. Instead of reprimanding him, I sat him down and walked him through the math for calculating gas flow and why correctors had to be programmed a certain way. He finally understood and really appreciated how I explained the solution, and we moved on from the problem.
How did you move into this role from the office?
I had a mentor who had faith that I could do it. When I was working in measurement, I had to educate myself and learn how things worked in the field. Knowing that, it was just having the confidence to try it out.
I really believe in mentoring, having had both male and female mentors and currently mentor three people formally. We have a grassroots mentorship program, Women in Leadership (WIL) here at PSE. Originally the WIL program was focused on Operations, however as interest grew, it has expanded to all who are interested in improving their leadership skills. We have started networking, mentoring and training programs, and also bring in women speakers outside of our organization who work in interesting non-traditional roles.
I haven’t experienced overt sexism in my career, but have found that as women, we have to navigate more against perceptions such as that we’re more emotional, etc. Some women try to be one of the guys, but I think that’s denying our strengths of empathy, intuition and perceptiveness.
What piece of advice do you have for women who want to excel in the energy industry?
Take opportunities, volunteer, and work on different projects. Don’t stagnate. Take initiative and you never know where you’ll end up. I attended a Women in Energy event many years ago where we were asked to state our aspirations, and I said I wanted to be Director of Gas Operations. I didn’t really think I could do it, but I kept on trying new things and learning, and I got there. I still try new things, volunteer and am raising my hand all the time. To the best of your ability, try something new. When you do something that makes you uncomfortable, you are learning, expanding your experiences and will see real growth.
Respect other people and their time regardless of who they are and where they are working. I often say “if you worked for me, you wouldn’t work for me” as in show up and be present. People should have a positive mindset about their work. Even if you don’t love all aspects of the job, find a good reason to be there, something that can really motivate you. You can be happy and successful wherever you are.
I really believe that everyone is capable of doing great things and managers should find ways to help their employees get there. Most people are not really motivated by money. They value being a good citizen in the community. People need opportunities to learn and that means making mistakes. It’s a manager’s job to help them learn from mistakes and not have those mistakes prevent them from reaching their goals.
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