Powerful Women: Indy Butany-DeSouza
This week’s Powerful Women series profiles Indy Butany-DeSouza, Vice President Regulatory Affairs & Privacy Officer, at Alectra Utilities Corporation, the second-largest municipally-owned electricity utility in North America.
In her dynamic interview, Indy shares her journey to the energy sector, as well her reflections on various roles she held before Alectra. With her unique experience, she shares her thoughts on the challenges facing the industry, from government intervention in the sector to opportunities for diversity and inclusion. Indy also reflects on what qualities and approaches can help women succeed in any industry – being brave, leading firmly and fairly, managing your self-talk and finding your authentic voice.
How did you originally get involved in energy-related work?
I confess – I didn’t grow up dreaming to be Vice President Regulatory Affairs at a utility company.
I completed an undergraduate degree in biology and psychology at McMaster. I broke the news to my then shocked physician parents that I was not going into medicine, and I did an MBA at McMaster, graduating in 2000. My first role out of business school was at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in management consulting. I lived in Brussels for almost a year and travelled regularly to client sites in Lyons, Brussels and Milan. Based on my skill set, once I came back to Toronto I was put on a very interesting project – the opening of the retail market for electricity; the client was the Ontario Energy Board in 2001. Whether I caught the energy bug or it caught me, I owe so much to that one project.
Since then, I have not looked back. The issues and challenges continue to evolve and, as a result, I believe that people have made tremendous careers in the sector.
What are some of changes you have seen and what waves of change do you anticipate?
The extent of government intervention into the energy space and electricity more particularly is quite amazing. Many Ontarians are upset about higher electricity prices, and with good reason. The government strongly believes that it is within its mandate to manage the price of electricity. It is always a hot button issue with respect to elections. When you are trying to secure votes, creating policies for one of the biggest line items to hit Ontarians’ disposable income is certainly a vote-getter. However, for the sector, what we need most is consistency and clarity in policy.
Another challenge we are facing is technological innovation and change. The sector struggles with the idea of making asset investments today, knowing that those assets are likely going to be stranded as technology changes.
A related challenge is the change in customer behaviour. Frankly, utilities are not going to be commodity companies anymore. We are either going to be data companies or we are going to be customer service companies.
Finally, the energy sector faces a challenge that is being felt in other sectors; we have an aging workforce and need to consider succession planning in order to have future leaders in place. My earlier comment was that I didn’t grow up dreaming that I wanted to be in energy. Well, why not? It is a very innovative sector, full of bright-minded people, and it has huge challenges ahead.
Connected to this issue, as an industry, we don’t always legitimize the experience of people who come from outside the sector. When we talk about unconscious bias, usually we are talking about gender biases and cultural biases – the way people look – but historically, we also have had an unconscious bias against recognizing the value of people’s experiences outside the energy sector. We have a significant percentage of our workforce set to retire over the next 10 years and we absolutely need to recruit from other industries to get different minds with relevant experience and transferable skills.
What are the key challenges and opportunities that you see for women as leaders?
We should be teaching girls at a young age that it is brave to try, regardless of the outcome, and not to fear failure.
By not allowing girls to get comfortable with the concept of taking risks, we invariably affect the ways in which women think of themselves as leaders.
As women, we need to learn to be comfortable with failure or making a mistake – we often think of it as devastating as opposed to an opportunity for learning. It has taken me a very long time to realize that a business failure is not a personal failure. They are not the same thing. We need to remind ourselves to be braver, to be willing to stand out, and that it is okay to fail. That is a very big lesson.
From a leadership perspective more generally, we need to lead in a manner that is firm and fair. We may not be everybody’s best friend, but we do need to earn our teams’ and colleagues’ respect.
We need to manage our negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is probably the single most counter-productive thing that we do to ourselves. It is dangerous because it impacts the way we operate as leaders and sabotages our efforts. It is important to take a proactive approach to the way you talk to yourself and self-correct. If you start thinking in a positive way, that contributes to your success. You become naturally a more inspirational person not only to yourself, but to other people around you.
Finally, women need to find their authentic voice and be able to follow through. You can be authentic in your own heart and yet, because of self-talk, not project that voice externally. Share and feed that authentic voice in everything that you do.
What would you say are the qualities that have gotten you to where you are today?
One factor is recognizing that the world is outcome-oriented and the energy sector perhaps more so than most. At Alectra, we deal largely in a regulated space where our regulator evaluates us based on outcome. Part of being successful today in a senior leadership role is the result of sharing that drive for outcome. However, I think being outcome-oriented – call it type “A,” call it driven – gets you only so far. It matters how you got there. You have to consider how you deliver the results.
Another contributing factor is understanding the language of the position or context and anticipating what that audience needs. What do other people need from you in order for them to deliver? If you can constantly be seen as clairvoyant, that naturally tees you up for that next level. When a higher position opens, the natural question is ‘who is next in line.’ Even if the succession isn’t immediately obvious, you may come to mind as a “go-to person.”
Do you have any thoughts on the role the industry has in ensuring diversity and inclusion?
The executive team at my predecessor utility, Horizon Utilities, was 50% or more female. At Alectra, our Executive Committee is currently comprised of five Caucasian men. At first glance, from a diversity perspective, that might seem negative. When you look deeper, however, that outcome is a function of those individuals being the right people for the job at the time of the merger that created the company.
In the past few decades, when women started work at the utilities, they held roles in customer service and other administrative roles – much less frequently have they been part of the engineering groups or field staff or senior management. However, we are in a wave of change. It has taken one or two generations to get to the point where women are now in senior roles. Increasingly, women are making up a larger proportion of the senior leadership table, and getting the experience they need to be well-positioned to take positions in the C-suite over the next few years. Change is coming; it requires a bit of patience. I see it at Alectra; our women leaders are poised to move to that next level; in fact, our Senior Leadership Team is approximately 50% female today. The question will be in the next round of positions to be filled, when there are retirements in the C-Suite, who has acquired the relevant experiences to take those roles.
Going back to my earlier point, women need to take the proactive steps to get that experience and make themselves the best candidate and hopefully the first choice for the next leadership position that becomes available. Take risks, learn continuously and let yourself be seen as a leader.
In preparing for these leadership roles, it is often helpful to have mentors and sponsors along the way. I believe that you need both. Mentors are useful along the way to model success. However, I put more value on sponsors within an organization, because who else is going to lift you up? You can apply for the next role and you may get it without a sponsor – but someone in a position of influence having you in mind, or ensuring that you are presented with opportunities, championing you – that is critical.
What advice do you have for a woman starting her career in the energy sector?
Demand diversity of thought in your teams, because everyone thinks differently.
Also, be willing to promote others around you. That does not just mean promoting women. It is about promoting that next level of people, for example, facilitating opportunities for people that do not usually have them, including face time with senior leadership.
However, that next level certainly does include women. I have heard people say that women cut other women down, or think that there is not enough space in a boardroom for two women. Unless we are conscious about our efforts in that regard, it is never going to stop. If we are not willing to lift each other up, why should our male counterparts?