Workplace inclusion key to diversity, black utility leaders say [video]

Workplace inclusion key to diversity, black utility leaders say [video]

February 7th, 2018 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Marie Webb, vice president of human resources at EPB, talks a little about herself during an executive panel for the American Association of Blacks in Energy hosted by the Tennessee Valley Authority Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 at TVA in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. The executives shared professional growth stories and challenges they have faced.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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The Tennessee Valley Authority says its diverse energy production portfolio has kept its power rates in the lowest quartile of utilities and its reliability among the best in the industry.

The same advantages of diversity also are key in the staffing and supplier sources at TVA and other energy companies, top utility leaders said during a Black History forum Tuesday at TVA's power headquarters in Chattanooga.

Black utility executives in Chattanooga — among the top business leaders in the region — said electric, gas and water utilities in Chattanooga are promoting not only diversity in hiring and contracting but also inclusion of diverse people and ideas within their organizations.

"You can have diversity without inclusion, but you can't have inclusion without diversity," said Valoria Armstrong, president of Tennessee-American Water Co., the largest privately owned water company in Tennessee.

Armstrong, who grew up in a single parent family in South Georgia and rose through the human resources ranks at Food Lion and American Water Works to assume her current job two years ago, is the first African American female to head Chattanooga's water utility in its 130-year history.

"I've learned to surround myself with really smart people and to listen and learn from a diversity of people and perspectives," Armstrong told a forum organized by the four-year-old Chattanooga chapter of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE).

Larry Buie, the regional director for Chattanooga Gas Co. and the first black president of Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said businesses with diverse and inclusive leadership tend to perform better by tapping into more talent, suppliers and customers.

"We've come a long way in our industry, but we still have more to do to make sure we are as inclusive as we can be with our employees and with our suppliers," Buie said. "You need to intentional as leaders to build the right environment and the corporate culture will come when you do. Our success is really dependent upon what we do as a team in our company."

Engineers like Buie and maintenance and line workers who populate much of the staff of America's utilities are still largely male and white.

AABE encourages more minority students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies in school and offers scholarships to help more people of color to get the training to enter the utility business.

To be successful, EPB Human Resources Vice President Marie Webb said utilities and other businesses need to provide the right culture, the right environment and the right boss to recruit and retain the best talent.

Businesses need to have clear and well-articulated goals; leaders need to model those objectives, and managers and employees should be rewarded for how well they meet their targeted goals, Webb said.

But to be successful, workers need to find jobs that they like and then help their teams at work to be successful.

"I really learned a sense of optimism from my family and to recognize how blessed I have been," Webb said. "There is a lot cynicism today and one of the keys to success in the workplace, I believe, is to remain optimistic and look for ways to improve the business and your own career."

Chris Hinton, vie president of compensation and benefits at TVA, said the federal utility is making progress in diversifying its staff and supplier base even as TVA has trimmed its staff size and curtailed most of its power plant construction. To champion personal and professional growth and team work among diverse employees at TVA, the utility supports eight employee resources groups that help employees with similar racial, gender, sexual orientation, age, veteran status or innovative thinking to come together and support one another while learning best ways to relate to the TVA organization as a whole.

"Our CEO, Bill Johnson, has set diversity as one of our corporate goals in all that we do so we have had that commitment from the top of our organization for the past five years," Hinton said. "I think we're moving in the right direction, although we still have more to do."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.


Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Larry Buie's name.