At Jackson Energy Cooperative, the search for leaders is never-ending—or at least it seems that way to Carol Wright.

The president and CEO of the McKee, Kentucky, co-op is bracing for another wave of retirements, the second since 2013, when she was promoted to the position. Shortly after that, her entire five-member senior executive team retired. Now, two of the new executives are expected to retire within a few years.

“I’ve had to recruit and hire all new vice presidents,” says Wright, an electrical engineer who began at Jackson Energy in 2000 as vice president of engineering. “Most of your senior managers are going to be more experienced or older, so I’m always looking to see who is a prospective leader and who could fill those shoes because it’s going to happen again in my tenure.”

With waves of baby boomers reaching the ends of their careers—at least 10,000 turn 65 each day, according to the Pew Research Center—the constant search for the next co-op CEO or senior leader is taking on increased urgency. Rather than wait until top positions become vacant, a growing number of co-ops, like Jackson Energy, are acting now to identify and foster leaders within their ranks.

“It’s not about finding a single heir,” says Jason Bowling, chief administrative officer of Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative in Sierra Vista, Arizona, which offers a three-part leadership development program to all employees. “It’s about putting the ladders out there for anyone who wants to climb them.”

Gary Pfann, NRECA’s director of executive and staff education, says he’s sees co-ops beginning to adopt similar broad leadership-development strategies.

“In our previous electric cooperative world, we viewed leaders by position and hierarchy,” he says. “I think more and more, we’re seeing folks demonstrate leadership competencies and capabilities regardless of their position.”

Looking deeper

Research from NRECA shows undeniable signs of an aging co-op workforce and the likelihood of significant near-term turnover, particularly among executives. Data released this year found that most senior staff at distribution co-ops are over the age of 62: 719 of 781 CEOs; 247 of 392 CFOs; and 82 of 112 COOs. And overall, 4 of 10 percent of distribution co-op employees are 51 and over.

Pfann says the fact that so many high-level employees are nearing retirement means co-ops will need to start looking deeper into their teams to find leadership candidates.

“If you’re thinking about promoting from within, well, that’s a challenge,” he says. “A lot of folks came into the industry in the early to mid-1980s time frame, and they’re looking towards their next chapter.”

Experts say broadening the potential talent pool means focusing on two key areas: your organization’s future needs and the unique competencies of individual employees.

“It’s really about paying attention to using someone’s strengths, because we can all stretch and grow,” says Leigh Taylor, NRECA’s director for executive search. “Understand the gaps in terms of what you and the board believe you need for success and what your internal or external candidate can provide.”

Building leaders

Jackson Energy Cooperative and Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, are developing in-house talent so they won’t have to look far when vacancies arise.

A few years after Wright became Jackson’s CEO, the co-op set up a professional development program to encourage employees to have frank discussions with management and human resources about future plans, requirements, and whether additional coaching or training is needed.

“I’m constantly looking at the future,” Wright says. “If they have aspirations, I need to know it, their supervisors need to know it, and management needs to know it. And if you have aspirations, what are you going to do about it? Are you attending some supervisory classes? Are you getting your bachelor’s or master’s degree? It shows initiative on the employee’s part: ‘Yes, I want to be promoted, and here’s what I’m going to do.’”

At Holy Cross Energy, the nine-member senior leadership team conducts regular “talent reviews” to mine its workforce for emerging leaders, says President and CEO Bryan Hannegan.

“We actually walk through every member of the organization and talk about their current performance, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their readiness for new challenges, whether through rotational assignments into another department or an expansion of duties,” he says.

Sulphur Springs Valley Electric builds in-house leadership capacity with a yearlong development program. Now in its third year, the initiative consists of three phases: a book group facilitated by a co-op manager or officer; courses at nearby Cochise College; and “action learning,” which requires students to lead a community-based project.

“We feel the best way to learn a skill is to actually practice it,” Bowling says. “Leadership is no different. Also, it serves the cooperative principle of ‘Concern for Community.’”

The action project was a highlight for Torey Bell, a relay and power quality engineer at Sulphur Springs. The 20-year employee wanted to rejoin management after taking a lengthy break to focus on technical skills. For a refresher, Bell applied for the program.

For his action learning project, Bell taught students how to refurbish co-op computers at a local school. But when he discovered that his original idea of a big computer lab was overkill for such a small campus, he worked with administrators to adjust his vision.

“I learned that if you come up with an idea, what you have in mind might not fit their needs,” says Bell, who ultimately taught students how to build or rebuild several desktop and laptop computers.

Bowling says the Sulphur Springs’ innovative leadership program is having a broad impact on the co-op.

“I believe it’s helping us elevate our collective leadership skills,” he says. “We’re optimistic about the next generation of leaders.”

‘Wisdom and self-discipline’

Richard Fagerlin, a leadership development consultant who works with distribution co-ops and G&Ts, says grooming tomorrow’s leaders means going far beyond the technical competencies that may have sufficed in earlier times.

Hard-to-measure qualities like flexibility, a tolerance for uncertainty, capacity for “systems thinking,” and the ability to bring out the strengths of others, he says, will be essential for future leaders.

“The management of tasks and the technical work that we do today is not enough to overcome the challenges in our industry,” he says. “People must be leaders who are exercising wisdom and self-discipline so that they can drive their organizations forward to the needs that consumers and the industry have.”

Fagerlin cautions co-ops not to confuse training opportunities with a true leadership development program that allows workers to grow skills and put them into practice.

“This is not an activity or an event,” he says. “Leadership development is a holistic approach that seeks to transform the individual and organization with real-time learning that challenges long-held beliefs and stretches people outside their comfort zone.”

Tracey Steiner, NRECA’s senior vice president for education and training, describes leadership development as an organizational commitment that requires time and sometimes patience.

“Not everyone wants to be a leader, a manager of other people. And that’s fine,” she says. “It’s about being able to identify those that have the capability and the desire to lead, and then providing them with opportunities to build their skills, get experience, and providing ongoing coaching and feedback.

Replacing so many key team members in the coming years is a daunting prospect, she says, but it’s also an opportunity—and one that could well determine how a co-op fares in this time of great industry change.

“You’re in the driver’s seat,” Steiner says. “The leadership development decisions you make right now will have a great impact on what your co-op will look like a generation from now and how successful it will be.

“Someone saw that leadership capability and desire in you. I would encourage today’s leaders to embrace their role in developing those qualities in others.”

Find resources and information about these programs on the Cooperative.com Education and Training section.

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