Editor’s note: Former NRECA interim CEO Jeffrey Connor delivered these remarks on June 13 at the summer NRECA Board meeting in Arlington, Va.
I want to take a moment of personal privilege, first to say thank you and then to talk about my friend and mentor, Jo Ann Emerson.
It has been a great honor for me to serve NRECA as interim CEO. Thank you for the trust you have placed in me. It has been a gratifying experience to represent our employees and a humbling experience to represent our members.
But most of all, thank you for asking me to continue to drive the agenda Jo Ann set for us. This has not been a caretaking experience—if it had been, it would have been miserable for everyone involved.
Instead, we have had clear focus, terrific enthusiasm, and a mandate to build on the important work we were engaged in when our lives and our organization took this turn.
We’ve had positive work to do during a time of personal loss, and no one has appreciated that opportunity more than I have.
Today marks the end of Jo Ann’s tenure as CEO of NRECA, and there is so much for which to thank her.
We Have Not Lacked for Her Leadership
Jo Ann has not walked through the doors of this building since July 29th of last year—46 weeks ago.
And I have said it many times since then: We miss our leader, but we have not lacked for her leadership. Jo Ann’s influence on NRECA, our staff members, the work we do, and the privilege of serving our membership—those things remained at the core of our mission—even in her physical absence.
Jo Ann and I would start each day with five minutes to reflect on the events of the day before and to contemplate the day ahead. And I still make time for that five minutes every day, for her counsel and guidance, to let her remind me what is truly important in our work.
NRECA has been through an incredible amount of change, with Jo Ann leading the charge, joyfully.
Jo Ann has made a remarkable difference in the partnership between NRECA and our members. She enhanced our reputation in Washington, D.C. And she brought with her openness to new ideas, an appetite for innovation, transparency, and a highly involved, very personal approach.
It’s remarkable to me that this organization is so different after just three years, and that Jo Ann accomplished that internal change even as she spent so much time out with our membership. She was everywhere at once.
And she worked constantly. She was available all the time, accessible for any reason, to any individual on our team or in our membership. She was “Always On.”
I’ve been fortunate to see that selfless work ethic in action from the time I joined Jo Ann’s congressional staff in 2003.
She made decisions with the Three C’s in mind and in order: Her Conscience, Her Constituents, and Her Caucus.
She fought for every job in the district. She fought for the cost of every prescription drug. She fought for every inch of four-lane highway. She fought for every veteran who needed to see a specialist, every expectant mother who needed a home nursing visit for prenatal care. She fought for every flood and tornado victim. She fought for every man and woman called to active duty in the armed services.
Politics Chose Jo Ann Emerson
Her conscience demanded that she represent the members of her community, regardless of how they voted or even if they voted. She represented her whole constituency. No matter how cantankerous. No matter how poor. No matter how rural.
It is safe to say, and I think you know this too, that Jo Ann Emerson did not choose politics. Politics chose Jo Ann Emerson.
Even her campaign slogan reflected her personal morality. Election after election, it was, “Putting People Before Politics.” And it made her a beloved leader as a member of Congress.
“Work Days with Jo Ann” in the district is one of the best examples of how she would stand shoulder to shoulder with her constituents. Of course, for Work Days, Jo Ann chose to call the cattle auction at the sale barn, deliver UPS packages, serve customers from the drive-through window at McDonald’s, and read the St. Louis Cardinals report on the local sports radio station.
Perhaps there were four C’s: Conscience, Constituents, Caucus, and Cardinals.
Any way you describe her, the key to Jo Ann is her perspective. When Jo Ann came to NRECA, she did so with a great perspective on our membership. It was almost as though she had gone from one congressional district in southern Missouri to a bigger one—with 42 million people in it. She knew exactly what to do, and she went right to work.
Within six months, she had been up in a bucket truck, shot an advocacy advertisement for a national audience, opened up Facebook and social media to the staff, started a strategic planning process, coined the term Co-op Nation, and laid down a challenge to submit 1 million comments to the Environmental Protection Agency on the Clean Power Plan.
I bet I’ve heard Jo Ann say this a million times: Perception is reality. It’s usually my “reality” being generally overruled by her perception of it.
Jo Ann uniquely understands the importance of NRECA to our members, the reason we exist. She appreciates the essential partnership between NRECA and the communities we serve.
Gave Our Members a Fresh Voice
If there is one way to summarize Jo Ann’s contribution here, it is to say that, at a critical moment in our history, she changed NRECA’s perception of the world and the world’s perception of NRECA. And therefore she changed our reality.
And so she lifted the NRECA International Program into a position of prominence with our members and in Washington. She began to build the reputation of NRECA around it.
Jo Ann re-energized our communications channels and gave our members a fresh voice in Washington. She tackled member engagement from the ground up. She re-organized our approach to the experience we offer to NRECA members.
She relished walking up to a member and asking—point blank— what do you think we can do better at NRECA?
She understood that doing right is always more important than being right. She challenged us to work collaboratively. She made it possible for us to fail, and then showed us what we could learn from failure. She opened the doors to the CEO office, and she would sit and listen for a minute with anyone who asked for her time. Anyone.
Even small changes in perception make a big difference, though, like the annual picnic we will enjoy this evening where the NRECA board members and the Arlington staff, interns, and contractors will have a chance to share a meal and fellowship.
Hers has been a short chapter in NRECA’s long history, but it is a most important one.
We can thank Jo Ann for helping us realize the exciting possibilities for a united, well informed, ambitious, and innovative membership. For peeling back the layers of NRECA in order to show our members that we are an organization full of leadership. For leading us to a heartfelt mission of service. And for showing us how to do our work energetically, humbly, and, as only she could, joyfully.
This is a different organization thanks to Jo Ann Emerson. It is stronger yet more flexible. It thinks and communicates differently. It possesses a greater degree of self-awareness. It remains a beacon to others.
That’s her legacy: Jo Ann prepared us to expand the relationship with our many partners—relationships in which we are the trusted resource, champion the cooperative cause, and inspire the future.
Today, her story joins those of the CEOs who made her leadership of this organization possible. Jo Ann would not have had this opportunity if not for the courage and vision of Clyde Ellis, Robert Partridge, Bob Bergland, and Glenn English. We all, Jo Ann included, look to a future full of promise at NRECA.
And it is our greatest hope that Jo Ann will continue to improve, and that she will have the opportunity to live a life filled with the blessings of family and the chance to reflect on her significant accomplishments and many wonderful friendships built over a career well-spent in service to others.
On her behalf, thank you for allowing Jo Ann the privilege of leading NRECA. I know—and she agrees—that this has been the highest honor of her distinguished career.