Puget Sound Energy’s People-First Approach

Marla Mellies explains why helping employees achieve their career aspirations directly benefits Puget Sound Energy and its customers

Marla Mellies is implementing a succession planning initiative for Puget Sound Energy that works for employees, the company, and its customers.

For anyone at a major organization, few obstacles can be more frustrating than a sense that their career aspirations go unacknowledged and lost in the vast workings of the business. But at Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which employs more than three thousand people to provide energy to roughly 1.1 million electric and 800,000 gas customers in Washington state, Marla Mellies is ensuring that doesn’t happen. Her succession planning initiative hinges on a close reading of workers’ competencies and desires.

The senior vice president and chief administrative officer says it’s a win-win-win because the employee, the company, and its customers all benefit.

“Our customers depend on us for essential and critical services,” Mellies explains. “It’s part of every leader’s role to make sure we have the human capability to make that happen. We have to have skills and knowledge that make us not only viable, but also able to compete. A solid succession plan plays a large part in that.”

When Mellies joined PSE in 2005, a succession plan for C-suite level executives was already in place. Now, the current initiative in its third iteration extends that effort to all hard-to-fill or critical positions where a particular skill set is required, as well as all leadership positions.

“We started by coming to better understand the business’ short-term and long-term needs, and from there we looked at the skills and competencies required to meet those needs,” she says. “Those then became workforce requirements. From there, we developed strategies to recruit and develop talent.”

Although PSE hires externally at times to bring in fresh ideas and energy, a majority of positions are filled internally. At PSE, it doesn’t go unnoticed that once people begin working for the company, they tend not to leave. Mellies can readily point to people who have been with PSE for more than thirty years, and whose parents enjoyed extensive tenures there as well.

It was important to discover the skills and competencies the business needed and would continue to need in their workforce. To do that, Mellies made it a requirement that every nonunion employee have a development plan.

All of those employees now build a career profile online that details their goals, as well as their experience. Based on those profiles, employees have one-on-one development conversations with business leaders. The profiles and development plans are updated annually and help Mellies and her team fill the succession slates.

People are identified and assigned to a certain level of readiness—ready now, ready in 1–2 years, or ready in 3–5 years. But just because someone has their sights set on a certain position doesn’t mean it makes sense to put them there.

“The purpose of the conversation we have with employees is to determine their career interests,” Mellies says. “Some say they are interested in leadership, while others want to learn higher-level subject matter in their field. Then, we have a truthful conversation about that. Do they have what it takes? If not, how do they get there? You want to help people fulfill their career goals, but you can’t abandon realism.”

Employees’ desires are balanced with an assessment of their competencies. Mellies says many people are hesitant about making lateral moves, but she helps them understand that breadth of experience is a major consideration in moving someone up.

“People were worried they would be in a department for years just waiting for that next level of leadership to open up,” she says. “They thought they were the most qualified for the position but then watched a leader from another area, or someone from outside PSE, brought in to fill it. They didn’t have the breadth of experience they needed. We try and get people used to the idea that it’s not about patiently waiting, but rather increasing your market value internally and externally by broadening your experience.”

At first glance, it might seem strategically unwise to help employees develop their skill set in a way that makes them more attractive to other employers, but Mellies says that a more skilled workforce benefits the industry overall, and in turn, the company itself.

“You’re trying to develop a talent pool, and if you do a great job, then some of that talent may leave,” she says. “That’s okay because it adds to the talent market overall. I’ve never faulted people who left for something we couldn’t provide.”

Mellies says that in the fast-changing energy industry, customers have a myriad of options. It is critical to have a solid succession plan in place that eliminates gaps in important positions—gaps that could have a negative impact on customers.

“People can choose to put a solar panel on their roof now,” she says. “Technology is becoming more advanced all the time. Communities that don’t want us to serve their territory can create their own utility. Competition is real. We want to be our customer’s energy partner of choice.”

Photo: Puget Sound Energy