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How Tanuja Dehne is driving the culture at NRG Energy to guarantee supply meets demand

A rainbow crests the mountains behind NRG’s Borrego utility-scale solar power plant, located near San Diego, CA.

Tanuja Dehne knows her boss took a chance on her in 2011. That’s when David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, made her a senior vice president of HR and charged her with transforming the department’s day-to-day approach into a strategic asset that helps guide the power producer, which boasts 100 generation locations, 8,500 employees, and $10.6 billion in revenue. The choice was risky, because although Dehne has been with NRG since 2004, she didn’t rise through the HR ranks—she’s an attorney. The move showed the board how much Crane believed in Dehne, and she set out to validate his decision. “I may not be a traditional HR specialist, but I know this company well. I know who we are, where we are going, and who we want to be,” says Dehne, who now serves as senior vice president and chief of staff.

NRG aims to change the world with its wholesale power generation fleet and build a worldwide alternative-energy business through distributed solar products and electric vehicles. Dehne’s big job is to develop a culture of innovation at NRG and inspire a network of employees with bold ideas. With the wholesale power provider and energy retailer set to reach into alternative energy and consumer products, 2011 was the right time to remake HR at NRG. “We wanted to take it from tactical to strategic,” Dehne says. “We realized we had a huge platform to launch us into the future. We are there. And we had to ensure we have the right people with the right passion to take us where we want to be.”

Tanuja Dehne  Senior VP & Chief of Staff NRG Energy  Leadership Insight: “You’ve got to lead by example and not just talk the talk. Every leader must be willing to learn.”
Tanuja Dehne
Senior VP & Chief of Staff, NRG Energy
Leadership Insight: “You’ve got to lead by example and not just talk the talk. Every leader must be willing to learn.”

Dehne has spent the last two years giving the department a dramatic makeover that started when NRG’s HR leaders locked the door of their meeting room and hunkered down to rewrite the department’s vision statement. When the door opened, the team had a new customer-centric, solutions-oriented approach designed to mirror NRG’s overall goals and a commitment to implement those ideals through the rest of the organization.

From there, Dehne empowered employees across the entire business, starting with executives and managers who HR encouraged to set goals aligned with those of the CEO. Her team created an annual “playbook” that outlines NRG’s vision. “We demonstrate what we’re going to accomplish each year and put points on the board to show how what we’re doing contributes to what the organization is doing,” she says, noting that the exercise helps her NRG colleagues think “futuristically” and discover how they fit in at NRG. “People must really understand what their goals are, why they matter, and how they make a difference in the company.”

As NRG repositions itself, Dehne knows she has an opportunity to lead by example. HR is becoming customer focused because NRG is customer focused—and she hopes other departments grasp that vision. “Many company functions traditionally have their heads down because they work so hard, but we’re showing that many business functions like HR or legal or IT can be customer focused and really understand the business in a new way,” she says. When HR employees understand the business, they help their business partners by providing resources and solutions that impact NRG’s bottom line.

NRG is changing, and Dehne believes her atypical legal background has helped the HR department evolve with it. “Lawyers are trained on the basics of customer service, and we are rolling these into our department,” she says. Little improvements go a long way—she’s stressing things like returning phone calls the day they are received, replying to e-mails within a few hours, and following up on promises to research issues. The common courtesies that are sometimes lacking help employees in other departments know that HR advocates for the business.

Part of the change at NRG involves integrating two large companies with different cultures, which makes it important for HR to communicate company culture and the value of innovation at all levels. Not all NRG employees are working on alternative-energy solutions, but they all have a chance to innovate. For HR, it might mean coming up with a new way to deploy policies or creating flexible benefits packages. Dehne’s team is designing new compensation plans, improving personal-development strategies, and using internal technology to increase communication.

The Quad—an internal portal for social media, performance management, succession planning, and career profiles—allows the HR team to embed this culture of innovation across the entire enterprise. But the Quad isn’t just any old intranet—NRG is maximizing its potential, using it to crowdsource the naming of new products and services and to host essay contests and video blogs. The company also gives away tickets to events and offers opportunities to volunteer in the global community. “It’s more than a fun way to get our creativity flowing, because through it we see the convergence of our philanthropy and our business development,” Dehne says. “It evangelizes where we are going as a company with our employees.” The company even used the Quad to solicit ideas on how to improve the business. Hundreds of responses led to a reality-show style competition, with the winning group receiving a financial bonus.

It’s been more than two years since NRG’s CEO challenged Dehne to help remake the company, and she’s stepped up to deliver in a big way. The strategic impact her HR team has had on the company led the Delaware Valley to give Dehne and her colleagues the 2013 HR Department of the Year award.