WUN is this month launching its new Role Call series where senior women in utilities share their views and advice exclusively with our readers. We’ll be hearing their messages to those entering the industry, their own stories and what drives them, how Covid-19 is impacting diversity, and some invaluable role model advice for other women developing careers in the sector. Each piece includes a short interview followed by a Q&A.
Thank you to Suzanne Heneghan is a freelance business journalist specialising in energy and water utilities policy, decarbonisation and sustainability, she is contributing her time writing this piece in support of WUN.
Contact her at [email protected].
Our first interview is with newly appointed regional Operations Director at Energy Assets Utilities (EAU), Karen Robinson, as Suzanne Heneghan reports.
Growing up in a small mining village in Yorkshire with a hard-working dad who encouraged her to be anything she wanted, was to create a lasting, guiding principle for new Regional Operations Director at Energy Assets Utilities, Karen Robinson.
For the lean process specialist, who joined the Leeds office of innovative utilities network construction business EAU in May – and at the peak of COVID-19 – there are absolutely no barriers to what women can achieve in their careers. And it’s a theme borne out by the single mum’s expansive CV, which features top posts at Westminster working for two Secretaries of State and later in the Prime Minister‘s office, before key process improvement, project management and customer service leadership roles in utilities, including Head of Developer Services at Yorkshire Water and Head of Connections at Northern Gas Networks.
Karen, who also helped found and develop a stand-alone facilities management business for a multi-utility design company, is refreshingly honest and wonderfully down-to earth. Keen to empower others, she offers a simple message to all women starting out in utilities: “Be you, be authentic and bring your diverse range of experiences to the table. Treat people how you want to be treated and don’t be scared to ask questions.”
Meanwhile, self-belief, she adds, is key: “Value yourself and your abilities, even when you experience some self-inflicted ‘imposter syndrome’, take comfort in the knowledge that many other women are feeling the same thing. We need to realise that we are valuable and valued in the workplace and to be a role model for other women around you; we need to support each other and help each other succeed. There’s space for all of us!”
Read our full Q&A with Karen, here.
➢ Your career has already spanned a range of roles and sectors, from politics to water and energy. How important has gaining that wider business perspective been for your ambitions and development?
I think it’s important for everyone to experience different things – including sectors -because you are continually learning and can take the best things from each job with you. It might seem an odd journey, but I think I’ve finally found where I’m meant to be. Working in utilities is meaningful, you’re improving infrastructure for future generations and that’s something to be proud of.
I was one of those teens that never knew what I wanted to be, but I think this is it – I’m proud to be a part of building something tangible and which will improve lives. It’s such an interesting place to be, there’s never a dull moment in the energy sector as it’s constantly evolving in line with government and environmental priorities. In addition to that, EAU is growing so fast that there will be so many opportunities for the younger generation here.
➢ What career achievement are you most proud of so far?
It’s more of a life achievement really; I’ve managed to maintain a successful career and raise two fabulous daughters on my own. I’m a massive advocate for working parents and have always maintained a ‘family first’ approach because I think that if we are supported in our lives outside work, we will go the extra mile for companies that value and support us as people, first and foremost. I’ve been proud of all the roles I’ve undertaken – I don’t think I’ve ever left a company thinking I’ve done a bad job or that I couldn’t do it, and I’ve always learned from every place I’ve worked. I don’t want to be defined by a career – I’d like to be admired for being a decent human being who supports people around her and tries to help them succeed.
➢ How did you approach being a newcomer in the utilities sector?
I guess I was eased into it in that my first role in utilities was more from a business process improvement area – I don’t need to know anything about utilities to improve a process. The longer I was there, the more I learned and the more I felt comfortable with the fast-paced nature of a utility contracting business. You get sucked into it! I’ve learned so much – from getting my qualification in how to run a haulage business to a site manager qualification – it’s so diverse.
The people who work in companies like this are a special breed and have to thrive in the face of adversity! I learned as much as I could before I joined, in terms of reading literature from the regulators and local water companies/GDNs, but there’s nothing like being in the thick of it – it’s where you learn the most.
If I could give myself some advice looking back, it’s never to feel silly asking a question; there were so many acronyms when I started in utilities – it was like people spoke a different language and it was intimidating. I’ve now learned that people are happy to explain things – especially in utilities where you find that many colleagues are very passionate about their subject. Their passion is infectious and I’m glad I stuck at it when I was nervous about whether this industry was for me or not.
➢ What made you choose to join EAU and what will success look like for you in 12 months’ time?
Energy Assets Utilities came and found me! I was working at NGN at the time in a role and team I loved but EAU approached me and asked me to meet them for an initial chat. I went ahead and started talking to a few of the directors there. What came across was their passion for the company and the people in it; this was proven during COVID-19, they’ve really taken care of everyone in the organisation, and continue to do so. Even though I loved NGN, I could see that this was a company which was going to challenge me because they are growing so quickly and have acquired businesses which need to evolve into ‘The EA Way’ of life; I wanted to be a part of that change because it’s all people and customer focussed, which is what I love.
Success in 12 months will be a business with happy colleagues, happy customers and which runs like a machine in terms of process! When I was younger, I had a mantra that failure is not an option and it put so much pressure on me, especially when I did fail! I don’t believe that now – I just think we can learn from every hurdle and first failure and do better the next time – anything is achievable when you have a great team fighting for the same goal.
➢ How important do you think boardroom diversity is for the industry, and are you comfortable being viewed as a role model for women entering the sector?
It’s very important; new perspectives and opinions can change the way a company operates – why wouldn’t anyone want that? There is evidence that board diversity improves the financial performance of company and there’s certainly evidence that it can change the culture of a company, and that’s what we should focus on; every boardroom needs to evolve to ensure their companies are inclusive and representative of their customer base. A better culture will lead to improved performance.
Lots of countries are now mandating that women form part of the boardroom, I find it sad that law has to dictate it rather than being driven by companies themselves but if it has to be forced, so be it. Tokenism is prevalent in companies trying to increase diversity in general – we need to change that by boards looking outside of ‘people like them’ and employing people from a diverse range of backgrounds, whether that’s gender, ethnicity, age or experience.
As for feeling comfortable being a role model, I never considered that I was until the opportunity to interview for this article arose! It’s made me think about it and I’m just happy if I can inspire one woman to enter a sector which is so diverse, with so many opportunities for the future. As I said previously, I don’t want to be defined by my career – I just aim to be a nice person who helps people get to where they want to be by encouraging them and supporting them in their own lives. I would absolutely encourage women to enter the utility sector though – we have our own valuable experiences and skills to bring to the table and should never be passed over because of our gender.
➢ As COVID-19 redraws the working landscape and its boundaries, do you think it offers challenges and/or opportunities for women in utilities?
I believe that COVID-19 has definitely amplified the challenge for working in the workplace in general, not just utilities. Many job losses are in areas which employ a mostly women, for example retail and admin, so this has definitely had a negative impact on us. The ‘new normal’ of working from home for many women too has made things more difficult, as the traditional ‘women’s role’ of childcare means that they have to juggle working from home and taking care of their children’s needs – schoolwork/general day to day duties.
However, there are also opportunities. We have proven that in some sectors – including utilities – we can work from home and be productive. I actually started my new role at EAU from home and wondered how on earth I could make it work. I was used to being around my team, forming a family, getting to know the culture and seeing opportunities for improvement and change. I didn’t think it was possible over a laptop screen, but it is to some degree. Nothing beats face-to-face contact for building relationships, but we are doing a great job so far.
I think all companies should use the pandemic as an opportunity to build a strategy which looks at the new working world and creates ways of working to redefine what gender equality can look like in terms of roles and how we perform them. Can roles be done outside of the traditional 9-5 so that some families can split childcare? Can we look at single-parent families and think about how we can accommodate their childcare responsibilities? If we do this, we will have people who are happy to be at work and give their all because it shows we care about their wellbeing outside of work. It’s so important to work for a company who cares, and I’ve been lucky in the last seven years to have found great places to work who value their colleagues and how they feel.
➢ Who has been your career mentor?
I’ve always tried to find a mentor or someone I admired in every company I’ve worked in. I haven’t always found that but there are plenty of strong women out there that we can look up to. I worked in Westminster from a relatively young age and I was happy to see that there were women in senior positions, women MPs and they were definitely strong and focussed. I think it opened my eyes from coming from a small mining village with preconceived ideas of the sorts of roles women could do; I discovered we can do anything, include run the country! Working with women in politics gave me confidence, which has stood me in good stead for working in utilities, historically a ‘man’s world’, just like politics.
Also, my dad – he worked down the coal mines and had such a strong work ethic that he instilled it into my sister and myself from an early age. We’ve had paid employment since we were kids, working every school holiday when we were old enough and, in my case, before and after school on a paper round. He never told us that ‘women can’t do that’ and just loved us and supported us to be our true selves. He didn’t try and push us in any direction, he just was there for us whenever we needed him. I hope I can do the same for my daughters.
➢ Who would you view as your business hero?
Sheryl Sandberg, she does so much for women in business and used her platform to inspire and educate so many people. I definitely recommend her book ‘Lean In’ to everyone. It helps you understand so much about the way you feel as a woman in business.
➢ What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Be you, you’re better than you think you are. And if you don’t believe it, fake it ‘til you make it!