Decisions at the top are frequently subjective and rarely black and white. There’s the policy, and then there’s the bigger picture of how it works in real life. People who lack leadership skills don’t understand this, and it’s extremely difficult to explain the balance. When I talk with fellow leaders about their work, I don’t judge. I try to put myself in their shoes and seek to understand the conflicts that drive their decisions. For the difficult choices I must make, I try to find a fellow non-judgmental CEO I can confide in to work through the pros and cons.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barry Moline.
With 25+ years as a CEO, Barry has learned a lot about management and leadership. He leads the California Municipal Utilities Association, where he and his team work with publicly owned water agencies and electric utilities to keep the water flowing and the lights on for 40 million Californians. Barry is constantly on the lookout for new ideas, and recently wrote a book divulging the secrets that help teams get along better and quickly collaborate. In his spare time he plays hockey, which keeps him fit, youthful, and sometimes, a little pushy.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The world is serendipitous, so when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Out of college I was a high school teacher for two years, really enjoyed it, and thought I’d be a teacher for my entire career. Toward the end of the second year I became a pawn in a teacher union/school district negotiating battle, and all the non-tenured teachers in the district were given job-loss notices in the spring. Because I didn’t know if I’d have a job in the fall, I quickly applied to graduate school. That changed the trajectory of my career toward the energy and water arenas, where I’ve loved working for four decades. Serendipity.
In another odd turn a few years later after settling down a bit, my wife and I decided we wanted to live overseas before having children. We looked for a variety of opportunities in Europe and elsewhere. The “elsewhere” option was offered to us first — joining the U.S. Peace Corps in Guatemala, which was not really our first option, but we chose to go. Both our families were not happy, because they wanted us to continue our suburban lifestyle and start a family. Ignoring them, we “got off the career treadmill,” sold our condo, furniture, car, left our rising-star jobs, and dove into a vastly different culture. When we returned from two years overseas, the person I interviewed with for a great job happened to be a returned Peace Corps volunteer. He highly recommended me because we had similar experiences in common, and he made the case to the hiring team that I would, like him, be relentless, take on any challenge, and solve any problem. Serendipity.
There’s probably not a day that goes by where I don’t refer to some challenge we experienced in the Peace Corps. But both experiences — being let go as a teacher and joining the Peace Corps a few years later — taught me grit, that ability to forge on, figure it out, and make it happen. They sound like clichés, but you have to do it to learn it.
A lot of leaders learn grit from by soldiering on through setbacks. I’m thankful for those experiences, and I didn’t really start my lifetime career path until I was 34 years old. I remember my five-year college reunion where my frat brothers were talking about their new homes and growing IRAs, and I didn’t have squat. Today, things have turned around, and I frequently tell young adults who are concerned about their career trajectory that they be patient, focus on their higher education as well as trying several job options before deciding on a path. It’s the only way to figure out what you really want to do in life.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
At the beginning of my first CEO job I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. In my career trajectory I went from department head in a Washington, D.C., company to the leader of an organization at the state level. People just assumed I could do the job, and the board that chose me had nothing more than faith. From my perspective, it was like I was flying in heavy fog in a plane where I barely knew the controls. I decided to learn what everyone did at the company and paid close attention to the areas that I knew the least.
I learned two valuable lessons: 1) Keep asking questions, keep learning and be prepared, and 2) Get to know people. I didn’t know it at the time, but making the effort to learn about the personal lives of the people in my work orbit, and likewise sharing stories about myself, was the key to developing trust and building motivation.
I was so lost at first that I’ve become inspired to write a book about simple leadership keys for new, emerging and experienced leaders to use to understand the practical elements of leadership. I’m working on that now, as my COVID project (lots of weekend time on my hands!). I wish I had that book before I started as the CEO.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Understand your core mission. You’re there to do a great job for your customers, so set a high standard and constantly be thinking about how best to serve your clientele. In this quest, not everyone will always agree with you. It’s important for leaders to have thick skin, to stay above the fray, and not to worry about being liked. There can be a lot of oddball personalities in the world of work, and it’s sometimes easy to become entangled in the minutiae of unimportant side issues. Have a core focus on who you serve, let everyone know it, and be relentless in pursuit of service to them.
Keep learning and growing. Look for opportunities to take in new information, new philosophies, new leadership and management skills, and ask lots of questions. As you chart the direction for your organization, set big goals, and accomplish as much as you can. I subscribe to a book summary service that provides great synopses of ideas that get my mind flowing. I do a lot of reading, but I don’t read 50 work-related books a year. Using a service like Blinkist I can quickly get the gist of a ton of books and adapt what I learn to work and life.
Accept nothing less than excellence. Someone has to hold the torch for doing the right thing, for setting standards and holding everyone to account. Be that person. It’s not about dinging people when they make a mistake, but rather, helping people achieve the best they can be. Sometimes people get frustrated with me when I ask for a bit more to make a work product better. I try really, really hard to understand the difference between micromanaging and seeking excellence, and I work hard at it — talking about whether the thing we’re working on is fully baked or if there’s something we’re leaving out that would easily make it better. Recently I’ve seen this attitude exemplified in the documentary “The Last Dance,” about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls championship teams of the 1990s. Jordan was tough on his teammates, complaining sometimes that they were lazy and had a poor work ethic. I wouldn’t recommend that technique as the best motivator in the world of work. However, Jordan was a tough leader; whatever he asked of others he also did himself. He understood his weaknesses, spent hours practicing and improving, listened to coaching, and relied on and elevated his teammates. He demanded excellence, got it from others, and brought six championships to the Bulls.
In my current job I came in as a turnaround leader. The organization was rudderless, and I had run a successful trade association for 21 years. Coming in as a complete unknown was a challenge, top to bottom, and there was a lack of trust. I figured it would take three years. The first year there’d be a few significant changes, the second year we’d be getting accustomed to a new way and culture, and by the end of the third year, we’d be doing new things that we never imagined we could do. And that’s pretty much how it’s been. Our organization wasn’t that effective, and now we are thought leaders in the energy and water industries. There are always new and interesting challenges, and we now eagerly take them on instead of dreading the constant change. It has all happened because our staff and members focused on relationships — getting to know each other, working together, trusting each other, and accomplishing joint goals we could not do alone. We have a team of extremely impressive professionals — everyone talented on their own. Now with a track record of success, everyone has realized it’s better to strategize together, pool our resources and split the work, and share in the victory.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- The buck stops with the CEO. I’d obviously heard the phrase, but when poop happens, the leader needs to show up, take charge, and stay on the job until the problem is solved. One of my responsibilities for many years was to organize the restoration of Florida’s electric grid after a hurricane hit. There were not many people backing me up, and millions of people across the state depended on me to stay focused on organizing and implementing major parts of the electric grid restoration as quickly as possible. The weight of that responsibility never left me. Now when I think about who I fight for every day, it’s millions of people who need the lights on and drink clean water.
- It’s vitally important it is to connect with your staff and colleagues. If you build relationships, people will work more easily with you. This is a universal truth that not many people understand. It’s such a vital skill that I wrote a book about it called Connect! How to Quickly Collaborate for Success in Business and Life.
- Leaders must be careful about their friendships at work. I once had to terminate someone who I had become friendly with outside of work. The decision was correct — he was a valued but high-priced consultant and we needed to cut the budget because of the 2008 recession. Terminating his contract wasn’t easy, and our relationship fell apart. I was extremely disappointed, and learned the lesson to stay professionally close with people, but keep personal distance outside of work. It’s a very fine line to walk, but recognize these are people about whom you must make life-changing decisions, and you need to maintain objectivity. Interestingly, since leaving my last job, I’ve formed deep, trusting friendships with a few people I used to supervise, which is very satisfying.
- Decisions at the top are frequently subjective and rarely black and white. There’s the policy, and then there’s the bigger picture of how it works in real life. People who lack leadership skills don’t understand this, and it’s extremely difficult to explain the balance. When I talk with fellow leaders about their work, I don’t judge. I try to put myself in their shoes and seek to understand the conflicts that drive their decisions. For the difficult choices I must make, I try to find a fellow non-judgmental CEO I can confide in to work through the pros and cons.
- Constantly be watching other industries for ideas that might work for your organization. Innovation is not about creating something new that does not exist, although that’s not bad when it happens. Rather, it’s about advancing an existing idea or product, a next phase, or an application used in an unexpected way. Is there something a coffee barista does that might improve customer service in our organization? What interesting advertising messages are the best companies doing that we can adapt for our marketing? Is there something about a computer app we can change to broaden its appeal to our audience, or make us more efficient? When you watch others, you get to benefit from free research, for which they’ve spent millions. Continually learn from everywhere, including adversaries, and you’ll find yourself becoming a great innovator.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Of course, you should take regular breaks from work to unwind and turn your mind toward hobbies, like hiking, reading, running, travel, cooking, golf, or whatever allows your mind to both wander or focus on something else completely. I’m in my 60s and still play hockey. It is not possible to think about work while playing hockey. It’s a great release. But while that’s all good advice and vital to clear your head, I think “getting away” is just one way to stay mentally fresh.
I avoid burning out because I never get tired of helping people. That drives me in everything I do, whether it’s at work, at home, playing sports, or vacationing. I just enjoy helping people.
Early in my career as a junior analyst I remember calling the well-known leader of a national organization. I was surprised I got through, and after our brief introductions, he asked “How can I help you?” I’ve never forgotten it, because when I told him what I was looking for, he truly sought to assist. He was focused. He helped to the extent he could, and I recognized that leadership quality — sincerely being helpful — as key.
I’m not talking about being helpful in a customer service kind of way, to answer someone’s question and move them along. I’m talking about listening carefully to a colleague’s situation, analyzing the problem with them, and seeking to be helpful however possible. That’s the leadership attitude, and for me, it never gets old and I never get burned out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When my wife and I returned from serving in the Peace Corps, I was looking for a job and did the “networking thing.” That is, I sent letters and resumes to dozens of individuals asking to meet — not to apply for a particular job — but to see if they knew of another organization where there might be a match between my skills and their needs. While I spoke to several people, one well-known guy in the energy industry, Scott Sklar, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, asked me to come to his office to meet. He didn’t just interview me, he tried to get to know me and what I really wanted to do. I never had that experience before, where someone was truly interested in helping me. At the end of the conversation he directed me to an individual and organization who would hire me and launch me on my career of 30 years. He paid it forward. Serendipity again.
I’ve done the same for as many people as I can, helping others make connections and find jobs. While I don’t always have the connections people are looking for, what I tell them is two things: 1) Be assertive and make the connections yourself. With email, it’s not difficult to put your note into someone’s inbox, so get your information and resume out there. 2) Bug them regularly. Not in an annoying way, but rather, by being useful. That is, find interesting articles or research in your industry, and email your contacts every 2–3 months. Make the subject line interesting. Then, when a job opportunity opens up, you’ll be top of mind. Persistence is key.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
At our trade association we are innovative, assertive and want to be perceived as thought leaders in energy and water policy. We have a limited budget, so we constantly look for ways to get in front of others at a low cost. Our next venture is starting a podcast. We know there are about one million podcasts out there, but in energy and water, there aren’t that many. We want the leaders we interview to share ideas and move our world toward greater efficiency, more conservation, cleaner power, high reliability, and all while controlling costs for consumers.
On a personal level, I want to pass along ideas to others so they can lead better and faster. I recently wrote a book about how to get along with people, called Connect! How to Quickly Collaborate for Success in Business and Life. After four years of research, I found the secret to developing relationships: Sharing personal stories. There’s a bit more to it, but the bottom line is that when we take the time to get to know each other, and a bit of our backgrounds, we start to like each other, and when we need to work together, we’ll do it better because we’ll want to do it for each other. I really wasn’t planning to write another book so soon, but with COVID, we’ve all had extra time on our hands. My new weekend and evening project is writing a book about leadership. Reflecting on how I ascended to a leadership position, I really could have used a “manual” that would have helped me focus on the vital keys to success. I’m writing that and will share it widely. We are all leaders in some manner, whether we head an organization or are part of a committee with a handful of people. The elements of leadership work in every environment, every situation.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I’d like to be remembered for two core values: First, that I gave others a hand up. I think I’ll always be doing that, far into retirement. And second, that I was persistent, and gave it my all. I am not deterred by lack of encouragement or the ill-will of others. I see obstacles as speed bumps in the road. Sometimes we have to wait a bit because the timing isn’t right for a particular idea, or sometimes the team or people aren’t ready to take on a particular project. But eventually, if you’re seeing trends accurately, others will come around.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
There are two things, one societal and one personal, that everyone can adopt immediately. While I wrote a book on how to get along with others — people at work and generally in our lives already, I’d like us to go a step further and get to know the “Other.” That is, people who are different from us, from other races, income levels, religions, and political parties. When it comes to knowing each other, society is moving in the wrong direction, where we are shrinking into our own tribes and avoiding people different from us. There is growing misunderstanding and that’s why we’re not solving important societal problems. Getting to know people is not difficult, but we have to learn the successful techniques and then do it regularly.
On a personal note, I’d like everyone to do something really simple. As often as possible, say “Thank you, I appreciate that.” Saying thank you is an easy action we can all take on the road to being grateful. And when we are grateful, we become happier. Every time you say thank you it’s like giving someone a birthday gift. They beam — plus, you feel great. In improving attitudes, I’ve found it to be a game changer when it comes to happiness. Saying thank you is good; when you go the extra mile and add “I appreciate that,” it’s icing on the cake. People will feel better about themselves and love you for it.
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