By Jerri Imgarten, Manager of Marketing & Communications for The Victory Electric Cooperative Association, Inc.
Rick Petty, CEO of Logan County Electric Cooperative, didn’t take the traditional path to a communications career, but rather his background as senior web developer and manager of information systems gave him the desire to learn how to better support the digital communication efforts of the cooperative. This desire led him to a unique dual IT and communication role and to earn his CCC certification in 2013. Just a year later in 2014, he accepted the CEO position at his rural west central Ohio cooperative. As CEO of Logan County, Petty leads 20 employees and manages the 4,608-meter cooperative in Bellefontaine, Ohio. He credits his past success and communications background with giving him an edge in the CEO selection process.
What is your educational background?
My educational background is one of education, with a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Bowling Green State University (BGSU), along with master’s coursework in education from BGSU, Huntington University, and a certificate from California State University in Online Learning/Instructional Design. In addition, I have completed the NRECA Management Intern Program (MIP), the Credentialed Cooperative Director (CCD), as well as the Certified Cooperative Communicator (CCC) programs, and will be enrolled in the Sobey School of Business (Halifax, Nova Scotia) Certificate program in Cooperative Management this fall. The focus of my master’s level research will be the development of graduate level executive education certificate programs for electric distribution cooperative CEOs and communication professionals.
What made you decide to earn your CCC? When did you earn it? What previous roles were you in at your co-op prior to being named CEO?
Deregulation efforts within the utility industry in the late 1990s resulted in cooperatives across the nation offering diversified services. For Logan County Electric Cooperative, establishing a successful dial-up internet business soon expanded into offering professional business web development services at the height of the dot com ‘bubble.’ My career at LCEC began as a senior web developer, then manager of information systems, and was soon involved in supporting the manager of communications with an eNewsletter, website and multimedia projects.
With the 2004 NRECA Marketing and Communication Excellence Conference occurring in nearby Columbus, Ohio, my registration as a manager of information systems for a communications conference raised many eyebrows among the communications professionals in attendance. My response to those asking why I was attending raised more than eyebrows as I shared with them my desire to learn how to better support the digital communication efforts of our manager of communications. It was during this conference that I first become aware of the CCC program, and signed up when offered to have my CCC application fee waived.
Although I was not able to complete the CCC process at that time, re-applying was a priority when I assumed my new responsibilities as the VP of Communications at LCEC in 2009. Establishing a base of credibility among my peers within the cooperative communicator community was a significant motivation in my pursuit of the CCC program. After studying alongside nine other CCC candidates in an online learning CCC pilot project, it was a privilege to receive my certification in November 2013.
How has your background in communications shaped or influenced your leadership at Logan County Electric Cooperative?
Without my background in communications, I would not have been selected as the CEO in 2014. Upon receiving the phone call from my board chairman offering me the position, he shared that it was because of my successful efforts on behalf of LCEC in communications that the board selected me as the successful candidate to lead the co-op. In addition, my service on both the Council of Rural Electric Communicators (CREC), and the CCC Boards … along with the opportunity to facilitate workshops at NRECA conferences (CEO Close-Up; CONNECT; TechAdvantage; etc.), served to enhance my credibility as a professional communicator at LCEC. Being able to communicate effectively among a variety of ‘publics,’ member-owners, employees and board members is a core requirement for an effective CEO in this ‘Next-Gen’ cooperative era. The background provided through the process of studying for the CCC exam was a significant benefit for fulfilling my current communication responsibilities as CEO.
From a CEO’s perspective, how does a communicator provide value to your management team?
There are two significant contributions which professional communicators provide within an electric distribution cooperative team: (1) Ensuring that complex concepts such as energy generation and distribution, efficiency, rates, safety, renewables, reliability, capital credits, legislative issues, and cooperative purpose/values are communicated clearly utilizing multiple mediums and events among a variety of groups/publics; and (2) developing/executing strategic communication plans based upon the strategic objectives developed by the board of directors and entrusted to the CEO for implementation.
The “ALWAYS ON” project, developed by CREC, defines in specific terms the difference between the responsibilities of a communications specialist and the role of a strategic communications professional. A communications specialist provides considerable value to the overall cooperative team, but it is the ability to think, plan and execute strategically in accord with the directives established by the board of directors/trustees that provides value (and a seat) on the management team.
After I was provided the opportunity to serve as CEO, one of the first priorities I had for the person who assumed my communications responsibilities was for them to become a Certified Cooperative Communicator. And within two years of being employed at LCEC, Michael Wilson successfully received his certification. In addition, Michael and I are currently collaborating in the development of another LCEC communications specialist, who will begin preparing for the CCC exam in 2019. One of our newest employees, Kelsey Longshore, will utilize an online learning platform (LEARN.coop) in the preparation process toward her successful completion of the CCC designation in 2020. Always having a communication professional in the development process, establishing them first as a communications specialist, and empowering them toward becoming a strategic communications management team member is an essential component of a cooperative’s succession plan.
How can CCCs reading this profile build a stronger relationship with their co-op manager/CEO?
Embrace servant-leadership, think strategically, listen up and speak up.
From personal observations gleaned from serving on both the CREC and CCC boards, as well as interacting with hundreds of co-op communicators from across the U.S. during the past seven years, and from conversations with CEOs and board members during the past three years … I believe the following statements are both true:
- Cooperative boards and CEOs are growing in their understanding that effective communications mitigate risk regarding member unrest, and is increasingly needed for enhancing awareness of the value provided by cooperatives within their communities. Boards and CEOs understand having trust and loyalty among the cooperative’s members makes it easier and less expensive to operate the cooperative, and on-going loyalty and trust are the result of people feeling a personal connection to their cooperative ... and an effective communications program is the primary link in systematically building those relationships.
- Cooperative communication professionals are already growing in their understanding of the critical need for providing the following six “Always On” skillsets within the cooperatives they serve:
- Technician: Hands-on tactical application of communication technology;
- Artist: Creative telling of the story through visual or verbal imagery;
- Listener: Active gathering of information and understanding;
- Advocate: Guiding the co-op’s collective membership, advising individual members, sharing information with the public;
- Manager: Strategically allocating and overseeing established communication resources;
- Innovator: Creative strategizing that considers and suggests new solutions, perhaps utilizing new resources by which to make a new vision become reality.
Having once served as VP of Communications and now serving as CEO, I believe that building a stronger relationship between cooperative CEOs and communicators can be best accomplished by NOT trying to convince CEOs and boards of the ‘Always On’ value which communicators can provide at the management table, but rather to focus on simply providing the true value within a strong ‘Always On’ “servant leadership” framework. 'Servant leadership' is a philosophy in which an individual interacts with others--either in a management or fellow employee capacity--with the aim of achieving granted authority rather than obtaining recognition and power. Servant leaders focus on promoting the well-being of those around them–including their CEOs. Servant leadership involves the individual demonstrating the characteristics of empathy, listening, encouragement, stewardship and commitment to personal growth within others. By exemplifying strategic thinking based upon effective listening, combined with a willingness to ‘speak up’ with solid solutions to strategic challenges, the relationship between CEOs and communicators will strengthen, and a seat at the management table will be granted.
What has been one of your biggest communications challenges as CEO? How did you overcome it?
I am currently in the midst of my biggest communications challenge … a significant equitable adjustment of rates among our rate classes (to minimize cross-subsidization) based upon margin as percent of revenue, in addition to a $757,000/year revenue increase (an average 10 percent increase/ year/ member), all to be effective with the June 2017 billing.
Communication and education initiatives have included multiple magazine articles explaining the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of the rate increase, bill inserts, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, website, SmartHub, open Member Aware Meetings (eight sessions), presentations at all county township trustee meetings (17 evenings), personal invitations to key account breakfast meetings (37 morning breakfasts), Telephone Town Hall Meeting for all 4,606 members on one evening, and a custom-developed table demonstration/display to communicate the concept of demand charges, utilized during the Member Aware Meeting as well as the Annual Meeting.
With having received an ACSI score of 91 two of the past three years, and with this year’s ACSI survey taking place in April (in the midst of the above communication efforts), we will use the new ACSI score as a measurement for the effectiveness of our current communication efforts.
As a co-op CEO, what advice would you give to newer communicators in this industry?
The following is my “top seven” list:
- Master the basics of understanding and effectively communicating the Touchstone Energy values and the cooperative principles, with sincerity and passion, to all potential groups of people you can think of within your cooperative and community. Be prepared to be the “face” of the co-op 24/7.
- Embrace the reality that cooperative communications is an “Always On” responsibility.
- Engage with the CEO core competencies to understand what is required of the CEO, and then strategize ways that you can assist (not take over) with the accomplishment of those CEO tasks.
- Study the strategic plan developed by the board, determine to understand the CEO’s vision to accomplish it, and brainstorm communication plans that will support the CEO’s vision in accomplishing the board’s strategic plan.
- Determine to perform the role of “2nd Violin” with excellence within your cooperative, serving as a compliment and support to the ‘1st Violin’ (exemplifying servant leadership).
- Always champion the “Power of Human Connections” in every aspect of your professional life … with members, employees, board, and fellow managers. Imprint a ‘cooperative conscience’ on everyone, that the co-op is focused upon PEOPLE, not profit … and that everyone must be treated with dignity and respect, at every member touchpoint, every time.
- Master the CCC Body of Knowledge, work with a CCC mentor, and take your CCC exam as soon as possible. It will provide a solid foundation on which to build your communications career.