Through my career, I have learned that leadership sometimes means being in the background as more of a facilitator than the one out in front. My oversight of corporate stakeholder engagement, for example, has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career and continues to make me excited to come to work every day.
My favorite stakeholder meeting was the very first one when I arrived at American Electric Power Co. Inc. (AEP). Our executives had never participated in a stakeholder meeting, so sitting across from environmental groups, talking about the inner workings of the company was wholly uncomfortable for them.
Looking back that first encounter was a bit of a sparring match; the nongovernmental organizations would challenge us and we would defend. Back and forth it went. At one point, we called a “time out” and reminded our folks that we were there to listen as much as to engage in dialogue. A few days later I brought the AEP team back together to ask them what they heard and what they wanted to do about it. At first, they got defensive, but before long one of our vice presidents stopped the discussion and told the group that they were seeing this all wrong.
He said he saw this as an opportunity to clarify misperceptions and to be more transparent about who we are and what we stand for as a company. I didn’t have to do a thing; they got there all on their own. To this day, stakeholder engagement is integral to how we conduct business and informs our business decision-making. It doesn’t mean we agree with everything, but there is always a willingness and interest to hear other perspectives. To me, the lesson is that leaders are stronger and more adaptable when they have more information and that’s what engagement gives them.
Although much of my focus has been on external stakeholders, I have been increasingly involved with employee engagement inside our company as well. I’ve led two employee teams and organized dozens of employee focus groups, all of which gave me sharper insight into what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. They opened my eyes to my own misperceptions about my colleagues’ work experience.
Employees directly impact a company’s business outcomes; if they are engaged, have clear direction and are supported, the results can be higher productivity and profitability. Sometimes, all employees want is for someone to listen to them. Other times, they want more information so they can make the best decisions. By facilitating these interactions, I have seen silos crumble as people and teams realize how much more they can accomplish together.
I’m not solely responsible nor can I take credit for engagement at AEP. What I am proud of, though, is working for a company that values engagement and creates an environment that encourages it. Whether I’m in the background or leading it, I love bringing people together. It’s never easy, but it’s always rewarding, and I have see it change relationships, open new doors of opportunity and build credibility. What company’s bottom line wouldn’t benefit from that?
Sandy Nessing is on the organizing committee for NAEM’s Women’s EHS & Sustainability Leadership Roundtable, taking place April 14-16 in San Antonio. To network and learn from leaders like her, please visit http://womensleadership.naem.org/index.php.