Kathy Lerette is the Senior Vice President of Business Transformation at Alectra Utilities. Alectra was formed by the recent merger of Enersource, Horizon Utilities and PowerStream and the acquisition of Hydro One Brampton. With a career spanning over three decades in the electrical utility industry, Kathy has seen and worked on it all, including the construction, operations, and engineering side. She’s managed teams across the utility, steadily working her way up through a steadily changing work place. When we asked Kathy to talk about the beginnings of her immensely successful career path, it wasn’t necessarily about school, or even the first day. Instead, Kathy talked about a conversation she had with her mother, who had seen an ad in the paper for a Draftsman at a company called Stoney Creek Hydro. While at the time she had some experience with freelance architectural drafting, she recalled, with a laugh, how she thought the position sounded dreadfully boring. And Kathy’s mom, being the voice of practical adult reason, pointed out that there would be a great pension behind a job like this. And although that may not necessarily have been Kathy’s first priority at the time, with a little teasing and encouragement, Kathy applied, was hired, and hasn’t left since. From the very beginning, Kathy’s position offered her opportunities to learn new things and challenge herself across the spread of her career.
At the time, Stoney Creek Hydro was a rapidly growing utility, and had offered to provide additional training for interested employees. Kathy jumped at the opportunity, dividing her time between work during the day and attending college classes at night, to work on an Engineering Technology Diploma. This was her life for 12-15 years, divided between school and work. Success is in part recognizing and pursuing opportunity, but also dedication and the right motivation – Kathy set her eyes on a supervisor position, and knew she had to put the time in to reach it.
Throughout this period, Stoney Creek Hydro was going through its own changes. Along with the municipal amalgamation of Hamilton, the utilities merged and melded, opening new opportunities to Kathy, where she eventually made her way to an Engineering Manager. She was then promoted to Director of Construction & Maintenance – where she was not only the first non-engineer to hold the position, but the very first woman. With her skill and expertise, and through many more job changes as a result of additional mergers and organizational changes, she made her way up to the VP of Utility Operations at Horizon Utilities, which included Supply Chain Management, Engineering, and Construction & Maintenance divisions. Upon the latest merger, and creation of Alectra, she is now the Senior Vice President of Business Transformation, where she is currently accountable to ensure the successful delivery of merger integration plans, achievement of the business case synergy savings, and the continuous improvement of operational processes and practices .
Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC):
On top of managing her successful career, Kathy is also the Vice Chair of Electricity Human Resources Canada. Recently, the Electricity Distributors Association (EDA) held their Women Connect conference for 2017. During this conference, Kathy discussed the new Leadership Accord on Gender Diversity in the Canadian Electricity Industry, established by the EHRC. According to the EHRC, the commitment is described as “a public commitment by employers, educators, unions, and governments to promote the values of diversity and inclusion within their organizations”. One of the things Kathy likes about the Accord’s approach is its preference for the “carrot” over the “stick” – in other words, instead of looking to “punish” organizations with limited gender diversity, the focus is on measuring each organization’s progress against itself, encouraging ownership and innovative solutions for different industries.
The accord spawned from a project conducted by the EHRC that created an online mentoring program to match women in the industry with young and junior women looking to advance their careers in the electricity sector. From there, EHRC CEO Michelle Branigan and the team behind the mentorship program created the accord, which was rolled out on March 18, 2017, and officially endorsed by Maryam Mosef, the Minister of Status of Women. The Accord encourages each company to find solutions that best fit their models and needs.
Joining the Accord:
The accord is still new, but Kathy and the EHRC team are excited for its potential. She’s encouraging industry players to take the first step and sign the Accord:
Once an organization’s baseline is measured, it gives them a powerful tool to track internal progress. Signing onto the accord is a commitment, but isn’t looking to punish or shame companies who may fall short of their targets. Instead, companies will be benchmarked against other accord signees; industry leaders will receive a rating (bronze, silver, or gold level for example) depending on their performance. This allows companies to take advantage of great positive press to attract new talent by highlighting their support for gender diversity.
There are already more than 20 members, including Alectra, Algonquin College, and Ontario Power Generation. As one of the first signees, we asked Kathy what were some ways that Horizon (now known as Alectra) encouraged and supported diversity in their organization. Kathy talked about diversity at all levels; for example, Alectra’sBoard of directors includes 30% women, and Alectra’s Senior Leadership Team is comprised of 40% women.
Diversity at the senior levels is not new to Kathy, as the former Horizon Utilities executive management team comprised of over 50% women. Their efforts haven’t been limited to just senior staff. Horizon was one of the few utilities that had female tradespeople; Horizon actively sought female line maintainers straight from school. Their current percentages remain small, but Horizon’s approach of actively pursuing women to offer them the opportunity is a great way to signal to the coming generation that there are advantages to entering spaces that may have traditionally been considered male-only areas.
Horizon and now Alectra continues to leverage their female leaders in their organization and encouraged them to speak at conferences, attend career fairs, and participate in otherwise male-dominated spaces to raise their profile. The utility encouraged active participation in different communities, to inspire and recruit women into new spaces.
On a personal level, Kathy, as an executive sponsor for an engineering intern program at the former Horizon, actively pushed back to encourage women applicants. There is a clear connection and business benefit to encouraging diversity at all levels – with more women in leadership roles, diversity tends to extend and grow into other realms as well.
When asked about what advice she has for women looking to join the industry, Kathy echoed the sentiments of successful leaders everywhere – focus on doing the work you need to do, getting the job done, and ignore people who may be unsupportive or doubtful. Be confident in your ability, and people will trust and believe in what you can do. Pursue opportunities that may be outside of your comfort zone; participation means experience, exposure, and a clear message to your team and superiors that you’re willing to take on challenging opportunities.
Kathy also attributes her success in part to the genuine relationships she’s built with people, which helps foster trust and buy-in from her colleagues. She recognizes the diversity of each of the teams she’s worked with, and spends time understanding the dynamic; fitting into the environment and team that you’re working with is important.
And in some situations, success and inspiration for women and girls starts at home. Kathy, as a woman in a senior position, sends a special kind of message that reverberates through her networks, and to girls at events like “Take Your Kid to Work” days. There is a growing space and need for women in power, and we can change the way we tell these stories. Parents can encourage their daughters to pursue STEM fields, as technology, diversity, and evolving workplaces have opened countless doors to women throughout the industry. As for Kathy herself, with an impressive and successful career that’s spawned over almost four decades, it’s telling that the starting point she recalls most clearly is a seemingly small and innocuous story, about a simple conversation between a mom and a daughter, teasing and encouraging each other over a newspaper ad. Kathy’s mother was a trailblazer who taught Kathy confidence, instilled in her the attitude that Kathy could do anything she put her mind to.
By Jennifer Ng, WiRE Volunteer