Talking with... Jocelyn McConnachie, Non-Executive Director at Abri Group

The utilities sector is tackling a slew of tough challenges. Many sector players are working to transform, to ensure that utility providers maintain the security of safe supply in a rapidly-changing world. However the challenges remain significant.

Few people are as well-placed to understand these issues as Jocelyn McConnachie. Jocelyn is a board level advisor, coach and strategic transformation leader. She’s worked with utilities industry giants like E.ON and National Grid leading their Customer Experience strategic transformations, plus she's served as the Deputy Chair of the Customer Engagement Group for the UK’s largest energy distributor, Western Power Distribution. She’s held Executive Board roles with CalMac Ferries (Scottish Government owned), Royal Armouries and in the private sector, and is a Non-Executive Director with Abri Group and the NHS Western Isles, Scotland. In addition, she’s a coach for Executives, Board and Non-Executives, with a focus on serving those from underrepresented backgrounds who are building their careers. And, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Jocelyn has first-hand experience of the importance of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) in enabling organizations to realise their goals.

So, for the latest episode of ‘Talking with…’, Deltra Director Richard Archer spoke to Jocelyn to get under the hood of how to drive true ED&I advocacy at board level. Jocelyn shares her insights not just on ED&I, but also on what Boards can do to drive successful sustainable and strategic change and the transformational power of engaging with customers and colleagues.

You can listen to the episode below, or read on to explore the key points from the conversation.

A game of 3D chess

For Jocelyn, working in the utilities sector means being part of an exciting industry that is essential to daily life. Though the sector is far from a homogenous group – with a diverse mix of organisations performing multiple different functions – utilities colleagues will always be helping to provide services that people simply can’t do without.

But with this patent job value comes complexity. As essential and worthwhile as working within the utilities sector may be, it's also challenging and exciting. The industry is undergoing a seismic shift. Perhaps most topical at present is consumer engagement and experiences, the cost of energy and how we achieve the UK's net zero targets. In addition, massive changes such as decarbonisation, decentralisation, and digitalisation are demanded of, and shaping the future of the energy sector.

As someone with long-standing experience in the industry, Jocelyn observes that the core questions it faces remain largely the same. For example, challenges around supply, safety, sustainability, and cost and so on are perennial. The answers to these questions, however, are changing at pace.

So, these factors combined mean that trying to deliver transformation in the utilities sector is, as Jocelyn puts it, ‘like playing a game of 3D chess’.

The need for a revitalising recruitment drive

Jocelyn advocates for diversity as one of the key solutions to the utility sector’s transformation challenge. The skills and capabilities the sector requires will need to be drawn from a diverse range of potential employees. At present, however, the industry's diversity statistics are a concern. For example, only 27% of board seats and 15% of executive roles in the energy sector are held by women (POWERful Women, 2022 PfW State of the Nation report). Beyond a gender perspective, just 5% of those employed within the utility industry are BAME in background (Energy & Utility Skills).

Compounding this diversity dearth is a pending skills loss. The next decade is forecast to see a considerable number of people retiring from the sector, with some 300,000 roles needing to be filled by 2030 (Utility Week, 30 Aug 2022, ‘A call to action on diversity’). A substantial influx of both skills and diversity is needed to fill this void.

Yet Jocelyn sees cause for hope. Young people of today are increasingly ambitious about achieving net zero, and want to be part of making the difference. With this alignment of values between mind-sets and utility sector goals, the next generation will hopefully feel a powerful pull into the sector. For those entering the industry, including those from diverse backgrounds, the opportunity to make a difference is substantial.

Jocelyn recounts her own personal experience of facing prejudice early in her career in another sector – and how it helped galvanise her understanding of how being ‘other’ makes you feel, and the importance of making a difference for all colleagues. Fortunately, players in the utility industry today are forward-thinking: we need people who are ambitious, curious, and innovative with ‘outside in’ perspectives. Jocelyn believes that those who come from a diverse background and are keen to drive change stand in good stead to make their mark.

Doing diversity by numbers

While it’s one thing to talk of the opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds within the utilities sector, it’s quite another to get people from diverse backgrounds through the door and retain them in organizations. Even once through the door, are those people being heard?

A concern for Jocelyn is that some organisations are currently measuring diversity by numbers. Achieving a certain percentage of employees who are women, BAME, LGBTQ+, or colleagues from other diverse backgrounds is not necessarily the same as inclusion or belonging. Are they truly welcomed? Are their colleagues enabled to ensure they are part of the team? Are they encouraged to speak up and are their voices heard and acted on? Jocelyn quotes authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy "Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard”.

Jocelyn notes that there is good work by some leading sector players in building diverse teams, however she believes we are yet to see sector-wide comprehensive capability in engaging and retaining diverse talent at all levels and in all organizational divisions. Some organisations are not fully addressing the different climates and cultures between and within the various departments, and how these differences limit or enable diversity across the organization.

Listening to employee stories

The experiences of frontline employees are invaluable sources of insight when it comes to ED&I. Driving ED&I requires company executives to seek out and learn from the experiences of their diverse employees, who may bring the value of an external view, or ‘outside eyes’.

Jocelyn encourages seniors to find out why colleagues stay and what they value about their role. Ask about the workplace ingredients that have made them successful and how they achieve in their role. And what are the pain-points that make their role difficult and find out if these are shared. Jocelyn also encourages upwards mentoring: for seniors looking to find out what it’s like to be a colleague from a diverse background, what better way than to go on the journey with them? She believes this can give executives the opportunity to gain a greater appreciation of what it is to be ‘other’ within the organisation.

Beyond ED&I

Jocelyn points out that listening and engaging is not only key to driving ED&I, but also an essential part of broader transformation initiatives. Particularly, business leaders striving for customer transformation can benefit from immersing themselves in the experiences of frontline colleagues.

For example, Jocelyn advises listening to employees handling customer calls. The challenges that a utilities CEO may experience from stakeholders and customers is often mirrored by the experiences of frontline colleagues serving customers. Jocelyn’s experience is that, if you bring business leaders and frontline colleagues together, they will quickly find commonality that helps unite the organisation.

In listening to and engaging with colleagues, utility organisations can learn to flex the hierarchical, vertical, silo-centric process-driven mind-set that is still evidenced in parts of the industry. Jocelyn observes, when Boards need to work on cross silo strategies such as digital, customer, ED&I or innovation, it’s key that leaders prioritize working horizontally rather than vertically down into their respective teams.

So, building relations between frontline team members and seniors, connecting colleagues from diverse backgrounds, and intentionally working horizontally on strategic goals can help the Board to build the needed connections that unlocks capability and enables change. In listening to each other’s voices and building horizontal co-working, we can drive and deliver cross-company goals.

The importance of alignment

Jocelyn believes that those organizations that are skilled in horizontally working across the organization are better placed to realise company-wide transformation. However a key dependency is goal alignment.

Board members know what they want to do. They’re highly capable. But a challenge is the traditional vertical way of working and communicating.

As Jocelyn elaborates, each Board member typically brings their own areas of expertise to the Board table. They may then go away and work agreed actions back into their own vertical teams with limited, task-based cross company engagement. Each vertical has its own distinct measures and deliverables. For example, IT may be tasked with making savings, whilst Operations want to improve customer scores. At some point, the non-alignment of those targets can cause service failure and limit the ability of the organisation to successfully change. The need, then, is for Board members to stand back and together confirm that targets and goals are aligned.

In Jocelyn’s words: “Successful transformation may start at the top, but ways of working and metrics need to be aligned top-down, bottom-up, and across the organization. A single spine of targets, in line with strategic goals, which aligns everyone is key.”

Sustaining successful transformation

As a final tip for galvanising customer transformation, Jocelyn highlights again the power of listening and engagement. This time, however, she calls for board-to-customer listening sessions, so that Board members can understand the impact that their organizations have on customers, compare these to the company's and their own values, and then be emotionally committed to leading and taking action.

In an anecdote, Jocelyn refers to a peer-to-peer day she set up between a B2B company Board and a B2C company Board who was a customer. Rather than just have a cross-table meeting, she did something different, she invited consumers in and encouraged all the Board members to ask the consumers two simple questions about their experiences (good or bad):

· “What happened?”

· “How did it make you feel?”

The effect of bringing consumers in the room and incorporating their stories into the heart of the meeting between the two Boards was powerful. For executives, the opportunity to understand both practically and emotionally the impacts their company has on consumers reinforces the importance of customer-centric transformation and enables a sustained emotional commitment to change.

Taking the next steps

When the board, business leaders, frontline employees, and customers are aligned, and everyone understands the reason behind the transformation (the ‘why’), significant success is achievable.

To drive that change home, Jocelyn emphasises the need for visible leadership and clarity of what the organisation is trying to achieve. The utilities sector is under pressure, and change winds blow through quickly. If the change is a key piece that sits at the heart of your strategy, it must be nurtured and protected. It must be measured and made visible. Its successes must be celebrated.

And for Jocelyn, these successes are achievable with the right mind-set. Change is undoubtedly key for the utilities sector. By nurturing a new generation of colleagues, by encouraging an environment of engagement and alignment of values, targets and actions, and by embedding a culture of ED&I, Jocelyn believes that organisations will be best placed to deliver.

This podcast is dedicated to Richard Archer’s father, Albert Archer, whose experiences of what it was like to be a customer is a wonderful and moving illustration of the differences between diversity, inclusion and belonging, and the powerful impact of change.

We’re also grateful to all the customers, colleagues and seniors who take the time to share their experiences and whose stories are (anonymously) included in the podcast, so that we can all learn and improve.

Our network of specialists is ever-growing, and we have more inspirational leaders lined up to share their insights with us. To be the first to listen to our expert podcast interviews, please subscribe. You can find us on SpotifyAnchor and Google.

4th January

Podcasts From the Experts Industry Insight