By Ryan Cornelius
Joe Ticheli, South Louisiana Electric Cooperative Association’s (SLECA) general manager, never thought he would be leading a cooperative. After years of working in politics, Ticheli joined co-op nation as the corporate communications director for the Louisiana statewide association. He became a CCC in 1992 and hasn’t looked back. He used the knowledge he gained from the CCC program to catapult his career all the way to the top. Ticheli now manages a 17,000-member cooperative in a five-parish area in Louisiana.
How did you get into the electric cooperative industry?
After college, my first job was actually in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill. I worked for a member of congress for 10 years. After that, I started running political campaigns in Louisiana for U.S. Senate, Congressional, statewide races. Some we won, and some we lost. While I was doing that, I got a phone call from an advertising and public relations firm I had worked with in these campaigns. They told me the Louisiana statewide was looking for a corporate communications director. I was ready to get out of running campaigns. I was just getting too old for that sort of thing and I applied and got the job. I worked there for almost 12 years, before my department was eliminated because of budget cuts.
What made you want to become a Certified Cooperative Communicator?
I wanted to learn as much as I could. The whole process is very detailed and it took a lot of effort and time. You had to prepare for the test and put a portfolio together. I just knew I would learn a whole lot more from simply going through the process. Then I realized, once I got certified and became a CCC, I would learn so much more by networking with other CCCs, not only learning more about communications, but also how that applies to electric cooperatives. At one time, I served the CCC board for a number of years.
What did you do between your time at the Louisiana statewide and SLECA?
I went to work at a public relations firm for several years. I loved the work we did there. We specialized in crisis communications for the petrochemical and electric industries. Even though I liked the work, it wasn’t my cup of tea. I always missed the cooperatives. I got another phone call, out of the blue from SLECA. The assistant manager/member service director was moving on. I became the member service and safety director.
How did the general manager role come about?
Mike Guidry, our former manager, informed the board he was going to retire. Two of us at the cooperative were interested in the position. I never dreamed I would be the CEO or the manager. I was hired as interim manager and in early 2012 became the permanent manager. Life is so strange. You’re thrown curveballs, and roadblocks come up. You experience that in your career as you go through it. There I was, let go at the statewide because of budget reasons, never dreaming three years later I would be working for a cooperative, sometimes sitting on the statewide board. Don’t ever burn bridges because you never know where you will end up.
How does your communications background fit into your role as CEO at SLECA?
Hopefully, I brought in a lot of tools to become CEO. Obviously, a CEO doesn’t know everything about engineering; or everything about operations; or accounting, you can’t be a master in all those fields. That’s why you have a good staff to support you in those areas. A staff you can trust and depend on.
Of all the tools I had from my background, education and experience, the one that has helped me the most is communications. I can’t tell you how it has helped me in all aspects of being the CEO and general manager. I mean in every aspect. Look at all the different audiences a CEO deals with. The first and primary one is your employees.
I didn’t invent this; I’m sure other CEOs are doing this. Take for example, our monthly safety meetings. It’s a safety meeting, but the first half of the meeting is really an employee meeting. I go to all of the meetings. I go in and I tell my employees everything I can possibly tell them. Obviously, I can’t share stuff that may be legal or in executive session, but anything and everything I can share with them I do. I think that’s a good thing.
Then I open it up to questions. They can ask me anything. Sometimes I can answer the questions, sometimes I can’t. It may be a legal issue or something like that. Sometimes, I don’t know the answer. If I don’t know it, I will find it and get back with the employee who asked the question.
Those meetings have been so valuable. I believe when employees feel like they have knowledge, it empowers them and that should never intimidate or frighten a CEO. They feel like they are more a part of the co-op. I think that and other things as well have increased morale.
Then, of course you have the board of directors. I think my communications background has helped me with the board. I always tell the board, every good manager should do this anyway, ‘I will tell you everything.’ Everything I know about the running of this company, they know. I told them when they interviewed me and I repeatedly tell them in board meetings.
Then, I have to communicate with the members. We have our monthly publication. I’m very into communicating with the members if there’s an outage. When I became CEO, we got involved with social media. I just like doing that. It’s my background. I do all my own news releases we send out. I don’t have anyone else doing that. I have a background in that.
Then, there are other bodies a CEO has to communicate with. Your regulatory bodies and public service commission. You have to be able to communicate with these people. You have to break down complicated issues in terms easy for anyone to understand.
I really think the most important tool a new CEO can have—and this doesn’t mean you have to have education in it or even a lot of experience - is being a good communicator.
What have been some of your top communications challenges in a management role?
Communicating in a hurricane is always a challenge. Particularly, in the case of Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Our whole system was down and almost every single pole was down. That’s going to take you weeks or even months to get everything back up. Everything is down and the phones are ringing off the hook from members, and you’re having to communicate with the PSC, the media, the board and you’ve got 1,000 men in here who don’t typically work here.
The stress and the pressure of communicating effectively during a hurricane is one of the biggest challenges. Sometimes, you’re trying to communicate when every form of communication is down. You don’t have the internet up. You don’t have the fax machine. You’re dealing with cell phones if they’re working. You’re trying to get a message out and the modes of getting that message out, many of them are down.
Rate increases also have to be handled with care, honesty but care. I try to be as up front, honest and frank as possible. You don’t want to scare anybody. Our rate increases haven’t ever been large, but you want to be extremely careful in communicating.
The economy is very bad right now in south Louisiana because of the downturn in the oil and gas industry. Sixty percent of our load comes from the oil and gas and offshore-related industry. When the price of gas at the pump is real low, it’s a good thing for most people, but it’s bad for us because all the offshore drilling is down. We’ve taken a big hit. If I don’t have anyone to sell electricity to, our revenue stream isn’t going to be what it should be. Having to communicate that at an annual meeting – to say because of the economy and because we haven’t had a rate increase in many years, we’re going to have to have one – is always not pleasant to do.
What would you say to cooperative communicators who are on the fence about the CCC program?
You’re going to enhance your career. You’re going to learn much more about how to communicate. You’re going to learn much more about cooperatives if you go through the CCC program. Professional advancement and continuing education is always a good thing. Being credentialed in a certain field carries a lot of weight for career advancement. To have that CCC behind your name, you may not think you’re going to need it, but it can go a long way as far as career opportunities go.
There’s so much I learned going through that process. It just made me feel like more of a communicator. It made me feel like I knew more about my chosen profession. I would highly recommend it. I know it’s a strenuous program, but it’s the best career move I ever made.