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When Dave Luttrell decided in 2019 to retire as general manager of Lincoln County Power District No. 1 in Nevada, he knew he couldn’t just rush out the door.
Instead, Luttrell gave his board of directors more than three years’ notice, promising to stay on until October 2022. What’s more, he is acting as a coach and mentor in a new employee development program designed to ensure that one of his 20 staff members will be ready to succeed him when he leaves.
“In larger co-ops, you have many mid-level managers to choose from when selecting a new GM,” says Luttrell, who was hired 12 years ago to lead the Panaca-based co-op that serves about 5,200 meters. “That’s a luxury we don’t have. It’s a real problem that I think a lot of us face.”
Five employees—25% of the co-op’s staff—have signed up to take the training, which began in October and will last for eight months.
During that time, participants undergo an initial assessment of their leadership skills; develop basic knowledge such as business writing, business ethics, basic accounting and customer service; learn about power supply from their generation and transmission co-op; and complete assignments that include challenges such as load forecasting.
This summer, the employees will apply to the board to become assistant general manager—a temporary position that allows the selected candidate to continue working with Luttrell before he retires and to attend the NRECA management internship program next fall.
“It is a big commitment of time and money that our board was willing to take on,” Luttrell says. “Small utilities don’t tend to think strategically beyond the day-to-day. But when you think about it, we spend about $50,000 to take a person and make them a lineman. We ought to be spending money to develop leadership for the future as well.”
The five employees—one woman and four men—who enrolled in the program include an administrative manager, an engineering and operations manager, an operations technician, an IT specialist and a lineworker.
“We got a really diverse cross-section of people,” Luttrell says.
Leigh Taylor, NRECA’s director of executive search, has played a key role in helping guide Lincoln County Power in its succession planning.
“Leigh helped us develop a very sound general manager position description, and she’s given me great advice and been my sounding board,” Luttrell says.
Taylor credits Lincoln County Power for taking on the challenge.
“The succession planning work that the Lincoln County Power board and leadership is doing today is incredibly helpful in the transition to the next GM,” she says. “Their understanding of the qualifications needed for success and the focused development of possible internal candidates creates a strong environment for the utility to meet the needs of the future.”
The program has proven so popular that it will continue even after a new GM is chosen.
“The response from employees has been, ‘This looks neat. I want to do it, too,’” Luttrell says. “Watching their five colleagues go through the training has helped all our employees realize that whoever gets the job deserves it.”
At the end of the process, he says, the board should have “multiple good candidates to choose from” to replace him.
“My advice to other co-ops is, ‘Don’t underestimate the time commitment,’” Luttrell says. “Being a mentor to five people has taken a lot of my time. But at this stage, this is one of the most important things I could be doing.”