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EXCEL winner talks communication.

EXCEL Winner Talks Communication

Whether a public company, or a private one, this CEO feels communication at all levels is vital to its health.

Ronald W. Watkins, president and chief executive officer of the Nebraska Public Power District, is recipient of IABC's Excellence in Communication Award, the highest given to a nonmember.

Watkins came to Columbus, Neb. from San Diego, Calif., where he was president of University Energy Company. Prior to that he served for 20 years in various upper level management positions with San Diego Gas and Electric.

The EXCEL award is bestowed on business leaders, frequently CEOs, who have developed and used communication techniques to help their organizations achieve their goals in an exemplary manner.

GG: Do you feel that being a CEO of a public company challenges your communication and management skills any differently than if you were heading a private company?

RW: I don't really think so. Certainly if you take companies of comparable size, whether they are a private company or a public company, many of the issues and certainly the publics that you need to communicate with are all the same, whether it's employees, whether it's customers, whether it's a financial community, or the media. I would say that in a private company you probably have more opportunity to not communicate well because in a public company you operate in a fishbowl. For example, our board meetings are open to the public. However, I would also say that I think the well-run private companies, at least from a communication standpoint, behave as though they were a public company. They are open and honest.

GG: Did you have any formal communication training or have you developed any particular strategies you have applied in formulating your own style of communicating?

RW: I would say most of my skills come fairly naturally. At school I was president of the class a couple of times. Also, when I was in high school, I moved around quite a bit and had to make friends. That came fairly easily. I did have some formal training. I took speech in college, I attended numerous communication seminars and training sessions throughout my career, and participated in the Toastmasters program quite early in my career. I think the formal training certainly has helped to build on basic communication skills and probably has emphasized the importance of communication.

GG: What is your educational background?

RW: I have a degree from West Virginia University in mechanical engineering; I also have taken numerous graduate-level business courses at Stanford University and San Diego State (Calif.).

GG: How does your management style affect the way people in your company communicate?

RW: I've only been here in Nebraska for about 10 months and I'm still attempting to make a lot of changes. I'm starting to see some impact, I think. I have really encouraged more horizontal communication within the company and less of a hierarchical type of communication. And I've also attempted to encourage a much more open communication style within the company--if somebody has an issue, they can address it at any level. As I go out and meet with employee groups, I really encourage two-way conversation--not just me talking to them but also them talking to me.

GG: What are some of the toughest issues you've had to communicate?

RW: Probably the same types of things that you would experience in a lot of companies. When you have to communicate personnel issues, if you transfer or terminate someone--those are tough issues, as are budget cuts. I like to understand the individuals well enough to find where their strengths are. If they are in a position where they are not doing the job, I like to find out where they can be effective. I look for people's strengths rather than just looking at their weaknesses. That has been fairly successful in addressing personnel issues and resolving them very pleasantly in the long run.

GG: How much time do you spend communicating with other agencies; particularly governmental or environmental activist groups?

RW: With the utility business being as regulated as we are, I would say probably 25 percent of my time is devoted to governmental activities of one type or another. With environmental groups it's a very up-and-down type of situation and depends on what the major issues are at the time. There may be times when I spend 10-15 percent of my time with environmental activist groups. There may be other times when it's close to zero.

GG: Are there any major problems or issues that you see on the horizon that you will have to resolve?

RW: Yes, we have an issue in Nebraska right now, actually more than one issue. We are trying to relicense some hydroelectric and irrigation projects that we have on the Platte River, a very environmentally sensitive area. There are a lot of interests on the Platte between the irrigators, power generators, recreation, hunting and fishing interests, and of course, endangered species. And there are very serious environmental concerns. In the relicensing process we are attempting to balance all those issues. Another major issue exists in Nebraska, that of nuclear waste. Nebraska has been selected as a host state for a five-state compact for disposal of low-level radioactive waste. With this being an election year, that makes it a very hot topic in the state of Nebraska. And since we do operate a nuclear power plant, we are very much involved in this.

GG: Have there been any particular problems that you had to deal with that required your communication skills above and beyond your management skills?

RW: Over the years there has been one major issue that I've been heavily involved with. We built a major nuclear plant in California along with a sister company, Southern California Edison--a plant called San Onofre. I was heavily involved in the licensing process at that plant. We also attempted to build another major nuclear plant in California called the Sun Desert plant located out in the desert on the Colorado River. I was very heavily involved in board activities and doing a lot of speaking in communities around the state, both on the nuclear issue and on the transmission issue. I also did a lot of testifying before legislative committees and regulatory committees. That was a major communication effort. Now, of course, here in Nebraska we do have an extremely fine nuclear operation we're very proud of and we get out and tell people that frequently.

GG: Do you have any advice for other communicators that will help their CEOs and their businesses become more successful?

RW: One thing that I think communicators can tell their CEOs and management is that if they have major plans or major goals or major issues that they are discussing in a company, if they think they can handle those issues all by themselves, then communication is not important. But if they think they need the help of all their employees, of their customers, of the media and their other publics, then they had better pay a lot of attention to communication. And I think if the people responsible for communication in a corporation can get that message across to their CEOs and their management, they will make communication much more effective.

GG: What do you consider your single greatest communication success?

RW: One of the most interesting and, as I look back on it, most successful experiences I've had in the communication area was in negotiating a major energy transaction with Mexico. It was unique in that we had a lot of barriers to overcome. We had a language barrier, we had a culture barrier. It had never been done before, there was a lot of distrust, a lot of misunderstanding, and we had to find a common ground for communication.

GG: What was that?

RW: Well, it really boiled down to the very simple fact that most of the people involved were engineers, and we found out after about two years of just developing a basic relationship that we did a lot of things in the utility business in Mexico and the US exactly the same. Some things we did differently, but we found that we had a lot more in common than we ever realized when we started the process. And it's kind of amazing. For example, I don't speak Spanish, I know a little bit of Spanish, but I can pick up a technical report written by the people in Mexico and read through it and understand enough of it that I understand what they are discussing, just because many of the technical terms are the same whether it's in English or Spanish.

We negotiated for about three years with this contract. It came down to the final day when we were going to sign the thing, and we still didn't have a couple of items resolved. Everything we did had an English version and a Spanish version. And we found out that there is no perfect translation.

We also had not decided that if we got into a contract dispute, how we were going to resolve it--whether we were going to resolve it in a Mexican court or a US court. So, on the last day we finally compromised. We said the English version of the contract will prevail if there is a dispute, but if there is a dispute we will take it to a Mexican court and resolve it.

GG: Do you have any special methods of measuring the effectiveness of your (or your company's) communication efforts?

RW: We do some things to measure our successes. We do customer as well as employee satisfaction surveys, and I'm talking about both here in Nebraska and in San Diego. So we have used a fair amount of survey work to get feedback. Communication is a very important element. I don't feel you can scientifically or effectively separate all the variables that contribute to success and identify how much each variable contributes.

GG: What pipelines do you have for listening to employees?

RW: I have some formal procedures and some rather informal procedures that may be unique. I have the normal and formal, up through the chain of command. I meet regularly with not just the top-level people who report directly to me, but also with all the division managers who are one level below that. I meet with them on a regular basis. It is a two-way street. Not only do I communicate issues with them, but I listen to their ideas and their feedback. Another formal method is the talk-to-the-top method where any employee can come directly to me with an issue or an idea. We do get a response back to those issues that are raised. I very carefully encourage two-way communication in that I just don't go out and talk to them, but I encourage and almost insist that they also talk to me. Another informal thing that I do, I will pick employees within the company who may be two or three or four levels down in the chain of command and establish a relationship. I let people know that I have established that relationship with that individual because I recognize that some people, no matter how open I try to be, may be uncomfortable coming and discussing an issue with me directly. But if they know there is somebody else who they can go talk to that will then be a pipeline to me, they may feel comfortable talking to that other individual who is two or three levels down. I know a lot of people did that with me when I was at that level. I do feel it's important to get feedback, both positive and negative from that group of employees.

GG: How do you evaluate the communication skills of your fellow CEOs? Are there any that you've modeled your communication style after?

RW: A lot of my exposure to CEOs has been in the utility business. I've been in this business for over 25 years now, and because we were not competitive and because the CEOs tended to come from a technical background, I would say the CEOs in general, with utilities, were not very effective communicators. I think that is rapidly changing, and I've seen it change over the last five years or so. We are recognizing that competition is a major factor. And I think many CEOs are now starting to recognize the need for more effective communication. Some of them, I think, are doing a good job. And as far as a role model is concerned, there were CEOs that I regarded as a sort of mentor. Certainly a previous CEO at San Diego Electric Company, a fellow named Bob Morris, was a mentor of mine. I admire his candidness and his communication skills. I would say I have probably learned more about communication, though, by not observing any one CEO and modeling myself after him, but rather from observing what is effective and what isn't effective.

GG: What do you think is the most serious problem affecting management today that you think communication could help solve?

RW: I think that we, not only the utility industry, but industry in the US in general, are now into a global market that is affecting all of us. The competition is much more diverse. And I think in many industries our goals and our plans and our strategies are changing rather rapidly, and they are changing very significantly from what they have been in the past. And the only way that these plans and goals and strategies are going to be effective is through an effective communication program. As I said earlier, executives can sit around the executive offices and make all sorts of very good plans and very good strategies and set very good goals, but if they don't get out and communicate those and get the support from all their employees, from their customers, from their publics, they might as well just put those plans and strategies on the shelf.

Gloria Gordon is editor of Communication World.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Nebraska Public Power District CEO Ronald W. Watkins; International Association of Business Communicators' Excellence in Communication Award
Author:Gordon, Gloria
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:interview
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Words:2355
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