What You’ll Learn

Scott Peters, General Manager and CEO of Columbia REA, discusses his journey from communicator to general manager.

Guest Speaker

Scott Peters

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What are the twists and turns that communicators face on their way to the general manager’s office? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host, and I’m joined on this episode by Scott Peters, who is the general manager and CEO of Columbia REA. Thanks for joining me.

Scott Peters: You’re very welcome, Andy.

Andy Johns: We are recording this episode as well from the NIC Conference in Portland, NWPPA, the epicenter of utility communications for this week. And so again, like we normally say, any background noise is really just ambiance, more so than any of that.

Scott Peters: Because communicators don’t like to talk, and don’t have loud voices.

Andy Johns: It’s a little bit of a rowdy group. You know, I’ve learned that. This is my first NIC, and I have learned that in the couple of days. It’s a little bit rowdy.

Scott Peters: Yeah, it’s a good group, though. I’ve been involved with this group for lots of years.

Andy Johns: Yeah, it sure seems to be. A lot of fun, a lot of camaraderie. And everybody’s just happy to see other people after being cooped up for a little while. Full disclosure, Scott is also on the board for Pioneer Utility Resources. I just want to get that out of the way. But Scott, like I said when I was talking to Libby on the previous episode, some of the most popular episodes we’ve ever recorded in the 200+ that we’ve done on here have been the ones where we talked to a couple of communicators who have have transitioned and moved up the chain to be general manager or CEO. And so when I saw your topic today, “Crossing the Bridge from NIC Chair to Utility GM,” I wanted to be sure to get both you and Libby on to talk because you have made that journey.

Scott Peters: Yes, and a great journey it has been. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m loving it every day still.

Andy Johns: Well, let’s go back to kind of a big picture first and talk about, generally speaking, it’s my perception that traditionally the general manager role is filled by somebody who comes up, usually engineering or accounting and finance. But we’re seeing a little more lately where it’s a communicator that gets the opportunity to step into that role. Do you feel like that’s an accurate perception?

Scott Peters: I think that’s absolutely an accurate perception. But I think why it’s changed is the world is changing, and people are realizing the value of communications and soft skills and building relationships. And, you know, I’ve got some fantastic folks that work for me that are accountants and engineers and things like that. They’re not always the best at relationships, and that’s a stumbling block. Whereas if I can build a relationship and I can talk to you and I can communicate and pull people together, I can get past the technical stuff. That’s easy to fix.

Andy Johns: Got it. And that leads into my next question is, do you think you can tell the difference in an organization, or how are they different, an organization that’s led by a communicator versus an organization — and I don’t mean to start any fights with accounting or engineering anybody else. But what do you think are some of the differences of an organization led by a communicator?

Scott Peters: I think that an organization led by a communicator has more teamwork, more camaraderie. People feel a part of the organization. They don’t think they are silos because I’ve been in organizations that were led by folks that had their P.E. or whatever else. And the communicators naturally try to break down those barriers and bring people together. And they value everybody’s opinion. And an accountant doesn’t always do that.

Andy Johns: I can understand that. What do you think? And let’s get into it. Your journey in particular, you know, what are some things that. Well, I guess to start is being the general manager or being CEO, is this something that you had your eye on for a long time? Something that only kind of once the opportunity presented itself, you went after? Or tell me about that journey?

Scott Peters: So we talked about it in the breakout session, but I got a business degree, marketing economics. Immediately started off the world in management. I mean, my very first job out of college was as a manager. I enjoyed that. And from the day I got out of college, it was progressively responsible. And when I came to Columbia REA interviewing for the communications manager position and the CEO says, “What questions do you have?” I said, “You know, my next position after this, I want to be as a CEO, general manager. Will you help me do that?” You know, and we had a frank conversation in the interview about what his plans were and what he could offer. And obviously you can never promise anybody the job. But he was very supportive of me.

Andy Johns: What do you think is something that you have seen other communicators do? Libby kind of told her story, and you know, you guys had a session there. But what are some things you’ve seen other communicators do to kind of get the attention and kind of whatever it is that being labeled as as upper management material?

Scott Peters: You know, I think unfortunately in our industry, there are bad things that happen, whether they’re big outages, whether they’re accidents where somebody gets hurt. And any time there’s a tragedy, the communicator needs to shine. They’re the folks that spend the time developing the plans and helping do those things. And so when the stress is on, the heat is up, whatever you want to say, that’s when the communicator rolls out The plan. Stays calm. Helps make sure everything stays on track. And the CEOs notice that and board members notice that or PUD commissioners notice that. And I think that’s where they really understand the value of somebody in that position.

Andy Johns: Are there resources or programs, certifications, degrees, anything like that along the way that you would suggest to folks or that worked out for you?

Scott Peters: You know, if you’re a cooperative person, the NRECA MIP program, I think, is a fantastic program. I really that helped round out and kind of flesh out the knowledge that I’d been developing over many, many years in the industry. I think that any time that you can serve on a committee or be involved in any other industry group that allows you to build relationships outside of your specialty, that you can then call this guy or this girl and say, “Hey, I got a question about this. How are you guys handling this?” And again, it doesn’t have to be a comm problem. It’s a communication to, and you learn then from them.

Andy Johns: Absolutely. And that leads perfectly into my next question. When you have a group like this and I heard people talk about before this conference, the NIC family and NIC. When you get here, you really kind of see people really do look forward to this, really look forward to seeing each other, supporting each other. What are some things that fellow communicators can do to help folks who are on their journey, you know, climbing the ladder or anything like that? Or are there things that our peers, or peers here at the the conference, can do to help each other?

Scott Peters: I think it’s like with any other position you’re in. You encourage. You answer questions. You freely share your best ideas. You know, I think I originally got it from probably Anne Harvey at Touchstone Energy, admire and acquire, and I’m always happy to share anything that’s worked. I’m also happy to tell you, “Hey, listen, I stubbed my toe on that, and you don’t want to make that same mistake.”

Andy Johns: So helping build each other up and that sort of thing makes sense. So as you mentioned it earlier, folks that come up from the engineering side or have come up from the accounting side have those skills there and kind of built in, just like you’ve got the soft skills like you mentioned. What have you done to kind of bolster those areas? Is that delegation? Is that something you’ve had to take a crash course in along the way? How have you filled those gaps?

Scott Peters: Oh, that’s definitely a crash course along the way to learn the basics, and then learning to trust the people that have the expertize. And when the question gets so — so a communicator has a knowledge base that’s a mile wide and two inches deep. Most CEOs are that way also. We’ve got a really broad knowledge base, but you don’t have a deep understanding of anything except the area you came up through. So you’ve got to understand when somebody says, “Hey, why is that recloser open? What’s going on there?” Or “Why do I see a flicker in my power?” You’ve got to be able to explain those things. You’ve got to be able to talk about capital credits. So in NWPPA leadership series helps with that because they touch on all sorts of areas of public power. And again, MIP does a great job of rounding that out. But yeah, you’ve got to trust the people that you’ve hired to do those jobs.

Andy Johns: Got it. Last question for you here. What advice do you have for folks, whether they are just starting off in the industry, you know, brand new a year or two ago or whether they’ve been at it 15-20 years and trying to, I keep using the phrase climb the ladder. But somebody who’s got their eye on moving up into upper management. What advice do you normally give those folks, or would you share today?

Scott Peters: I would say, get involved. Ask what you can do to help. So if you’re a communicator, offer to edit the PowerPoint presentation for the engineer before they’re going down to the local Rotary Club. Talk to them about the slide deck shouldn’t be full of words. Help them with visuals. And as you’re doing that, you’re going to learn a little bit about what they’re doing.

Andy Johns: I think I’ve seen that slide deck before actually.

Scott Peters: You have. Get involved in, you know, we talked about the NIC Committee. Help organize and plan. That gives you a chance to test out your leadership skills, your organizational skills, all sorts of things. And then ask. You got to go to your boss and say, “I want to do training. I want to learn more.” And don’t assume that anybody is going to give you what you want. You’ve got to advocate for yourself. You’ve got to make sure people understand that you have an interest and desire and think that you can do more, will do more, and then prove that you’re going to do it.

Andy Johns: Excellent, those are those are all important steps along the way, and I appreciate you sharing those insights with us.

Scott Peters: You’re very welcome. Happy to do it, Andy.

Andy Johns: Here’s Scott Peters, the CEO of Columbia REA. I am Andy Johns, your host. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Intro: You’ve been listening to StoryConnect: The Podcast, a production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company.