How A Daring CEO Embraces Change

How A Daring CEO Embraces Change


We humans do not easily embrace change. We are creatures of habit. We know change presents opportunity, but it also creates anxiety and fear.

CEOs and their boards grapple a lot with how to grow profits and survive in a world of unprecedented change. Digitized technologies and disruptive business models create a heap of opportunity and challenge. Technological obsolescence puts jobs at risk.

For corporate losers, disruption can wipe out past investments and trash balance sheets. For winners, disruptive change can produce overnight wealth. Here is how one CEO took on the challenge of overcoming the fear of change throughout his company.

Tom Farrell is CEO of Virginia-based Dominion Energy, a $67 billion energy service company, that operates in 18 states. He knows firsthand about changing business models. For decades, Dominion’s utility businesses have enjoyed exclusive rights to serve their customers. Because they provide an essential public service, they are protected from competition. This gives investors the confidence to make the 10 to 30-year investments needed to build the company’s large capital projects.

But this is changing. To advance innovation, utility regulators have granted limited competition to renewable energy companies. Now they can now offer their services to utility customers.

Climate change realities also are undermining the status quo. To reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions, Dominion has closed coal and inefficient gas-fueled generating plants. These have been replaced with solar and wind power and more efficient technologies. How’s this going? Since 2005, carbon emissions from Dominion’s power plants have dropped 52 percent.

This is substantive progress. Still, Farrell wanted to speed up the pace of change. He wanted to see change coming from the bottom up, not just the top down. He wanted people throughout the company to embrace change. This meant changing the corporate culture, a job not for the faint at heart. Instead of creating a department of innovation, he wanted everyone in the company to become innovators.

Farrell began by reassessing the company values, the bedrock of corporate culture. He is serious about the importance of values and begins almost every public speech by introducing Dominion’s four key values: Safety, Ethics, Excellence, and “One Dominion,” their term for teamwork.

He decided to add “Change” as a new corporate value. But to underscore the urgency of this value, Farrell knew it needed a verb. He experimented with “drive” change, “embrace” change, “lead” change, “direct” change, and others. But he kept coming back to “embrace change”.

Sure, “embrace” is defined as “accepting or supporting a belief, theory, or change willingly and enthusiastically” – and it also implies affection, an emotion that deflates fear. Choosing “Embrace Change” as a value, could turn change-resisters into change-makers.

Over the past few years, Dominion has created and adopted many new Embrace Change practices. As you consider the changes you want to make in your life or in your business, try one or more of these practices:

1) Learn from Courageous and Trusted Change Mentors: Farrell appointed a respected company veteran, Dave Christian, to become Dominion’s first Chief Innovation Officer. Dave had led every business at the company. By day he wore his hard hat. At night he played guitar in a band. Since he retired, Mark Webb is embracing change as the current Chief Innovation Officer. His daily mission is to “spark innovation” at every level. He talks about “ideation approaches,” “How to lead a challenge,” and about “Spigot” and “Sprint”. They created a “Spark Tank” to use competition as an accelerator of creativity and excitement. Employees throughout the company pitch their innovation ideas to executives for funding.

2) Become Part of Learning and Creating Communities: Three years ago, employees representing Dominion’s geographic, managerial and technical diversity came together in Richmond to learn about disruption in other industries. Futurists Vivek and Tarun Wadhwa had them apply this learning to imagine new products and processes in cross-organizational teams. Many innovations are now standard practice: 3D-printed devices so linesmen can measure wire width more safely and accurately, and using recycled denim fabric to keep gas meters from freezing in the winter… the list goes on. So do interstate conversations created from meetings like this.

3) Set Bold Stretch Goals: In 2019, the company set a new target: to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. They also expect to reduce methane emissions from their gas operations by about 50 percent in 2030. These are voluntary, not government mandates. In air quality terms, that is equal to planting over 103 million new trees. These goals focus corporate-wide attention and action.

4) Don’t Just Talk About Change…Invest in It: Dominion is building the largest offshore wind system in the nation. This will give customers more access to renewable energy and demonstrate the viability of new technology. They are also investing and creating new businesses to turn manure into natural gas. This initiative supports farmers who get to eliminate the expense of removing animal waste and also earn income by selling their “renewable natural gas” back to the utility.

5) Engage Your Communities Through Service: Change-makers at the company are creating a program to replace diesel school buses in their communities with emission-free electric buses. Not only does this reduce maintenance costs, but the children in these buses will enjoy cleaner air, less noise and also a safer ride when they wear their new seat belts. The power of Dominion’s service culture is also evident in its hiring practices. One of every five new hires at the company is a veteran or veteran spouse

6. Create Physical Space That Embodies the Change Values: Dominion’s new headquarters building in downtown Richmond is a showcase for state-of-the-art environmental lighting, heating and design technologies. A green roof is accessible from the cafeteria and even offers a one-mile walking/ racing track. The cafeteria offers healthy food and inviting recycling options. Bold space choices, such as many more communal meeting rooms and fewer individual office spaces, promote the embrace change values of collaboration and connection. Employees are visibly proud of this building and the values it represents.

7. Practice R&R: Sure, R&R, Rest and Relaxation, is important to sustaining and maintaining an embrace change culture and practices. But it is equally important to practice R&R as in “Recognize and Reward” the efforts to embrace change. This can be done in formal or informal internal groups or corporate-wide. And it can be done individually. Develop a practice to record your individual progress. Reward yourself for what you have learned from both failures and successes.

Yes, these Embrace Change practices are working. Now, make them work for you!



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