Gas and energy industry executive Helen Wesley was working in Calgary, Canada at the onset of the pandemic — 2,773 wintry northwest miles from Tampa. Seeking a step up in her career from a CFO role, in addition to a new family adventure, Wesley targeted North America energy conglomerate Emera Inc.
She had gotten to know the Emera CEO from an acquisition she worked on when she was with Calgary-based utility firm Enmax. “I sort of chased the CEO and eventually I asked him: how can I work with you?” Wesley recalls. “We did Zoom interviews in Lululemons and shorts. In retrospect, it was all kind of strange and wonderful at the same time.”
Turns out Emera was in need of a president-in-waiting for a unit it operates in Tampa, TECO Peoples Gas. Wesley, saying moving to Florida was the “icing on the cake,” got the job. She was named COO in October 2020, in charge of engineering and operations, marketing and sales and business development. She was promoted to president in December 2021, a role she remains in today. Peoples Gas has some 470,000 customers, with coverage spread to most parts of Florida, including Pasco through Collier counties. The division has 750 employees.
Wesley recently detailed her chase-your-own-opportunity ethos, during a Conversation with a CEO event hosted by the USF Muma College of Business. Held at USF’s downtown Tampa Center For Advanced Medical Learning And Simulation (CALMS) campus, Wesley shared multiple other interesting leadership kernels from her career at the Jan. 25 event. Interim Dean GJ deVreede led the Q&A session.
A 30-year energy executive, Wesley, while talking about the difficult transformational challenges in the sector, says she “loves her job” for all the “possibilities and great people.” (About 20 people in the audience of 100 or so held anti-TECO Peoples Gas signs as Wesley spoke, focusing on what the signs called the firm’s reliance on fossil fuels. No one verbally interrupted the Q&A and Wesley, at the end, offered to talk to the group about their concerns.)
Highlights of Wesley’s leadership wisdom nuggets include:
Slow down: In one of her first upper-management roles, vice president of finance for Petro-Canada, she came into a rapidly-expanding unit with energy assets in a dozen countries, from England to Germany, she says. “They had tons and tons of growth,” she says, “but not a whole lot of structure.”
Wesley says her style is to come into a role “and ask questions.” She did that in that role, and in short order had a list of 40 things she thought the unit had to do to improve efficiencies. Wesley’s boss at the time, who became a mentor, cautioned her: “‘The wheels haven’t fallen off yet,’” she says he told her. His suggestion? Go home, sleep on it and whittle it down to a manageable three must-dos.
“I thought to myself, ‘you’re crazy,’” Wesley says. “There are 40 things here, not three.”
She ended up noting sleeping that night, thinking how to get it down to three. Really one. And it became a guiding leadership principle: nothing happens until you build a winning team. The number one thing is the people,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what was on the list, if you didn’t have the team to do the things that are on the list.”
Think it through: While in some respects that sounds elementary, at the time it was an epiphany for Wesley. That’s carried through to how she builds teams today, prioritizing diversity of thought. Diversity is really important and I don’t mean from a sexual persuasion or skin color or from a gender perspective. I mean diversity in all facets — of the way people think, the way they process information, the way they handle conflict.”
Same game: Wesley also values consistency when building teams, saying she prefers a steady, average performer who is consistent over one who can be a top performer one day and hit the bottom the next. She also emphasizes the value of having regular one-on-ones with leaders and teammates. “Consistency is important to me,”she says. “If you create a consistent forum for conversation, that’s when the magic happens.”
Humble pie: On what she looks for individually when hiring future leaders, Wesley concentrates on problem solvers who balance the “sweet spot” between confidence and cockiness. “I would take someone with raw smarts who is curious and a learner over someone with technical skills over people skills any day,” she says.
Waste not: Wesley says a “mistake is really waste if you don’t learn from it.”
A go-to example for her was how she handled an employee that went around the chain of command and had a lone-wolf disposition. This employee, a rising leader in the organization, was tasked with preparing a report for senior executives. The employee was supposed to give it to Wesley first, to go over it. Wesley asked her for it multiple times, she says, “and I never got it, never got it.”
The employee, Wesley recalls, barreled into the conference room and delivered the presentation. It was a hit. While Wesley says she was glad it worked out, she was concerned about the process. And she let the employee know it. “She was on cloud nine,” Wesley says, “and I brought her back down to the basement.”
The employee, crushed, sent Wesley a testy and raw email at 2 a.m., pushing back a bit. The lesson for Wesley? You can hold people accountable while also being discreet and emphatic. Some things, Wesley says, “can be put in the fridge” for later. “I mixed up a lot of my things,” in the talk with her,” she says, “and my timing was off.”
Balancing act: The ever-present conundrum of work-life balance, Wesley believes, at the start, is semantics. “I think balance is the wrong word. Equilibrium is a word I use. The image I have is a spoke or a wheel” and from there she makes decisions on where her time is most needed. “You have to set priorities,” she says. “Too much change happens all the time to think you will have the concept of balance.”
She adds that while it sounds “grim” having balance, or equilibrium, includes knowing “I’m going to disappoint people. It’s just a question of being really thoughtful about who you want to least disappoint.”
Want more: Wesley’s advice to leaders seeking to move up is similar to what she looks for in young employees: always remain hungry and curious. Also, she says, “there’s no substitute for hard work and preparation. I’m not relaxed if I don’t know my content.” Wesley says a good skill to learn in the corporate climb is the ability to decipher heavy volumes of information. “I can’t read everything that comes in front of me, so you have to learn how to scan and figure out what’s most important.”
One more key point? Everything must be earned. Says Wesley: “There’s no easy ride.”
Mentors matter: To grow in a career, Wesley also says people should “unabashadley” seek out mentors. “Chase talent. Figure out who you want advice from, and go ask them,” she says. Look for 15-minute, bite-sized conversations. She tries to do that today as well, when mentoring others. “I always enjoy having conversations with people who want to learn.”