A champion in the midst of change, Shawn Schukar, Chairman and President of Ameren Transmission, has honed his change management communications strategies over more than 30 years in the energy industry.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Schukar over lunch recently to discuss culture and the importance of great communication through periods of change.
Although Schukar oversees all of Ameren Transmission’s business, he has also served in executive functions in utility operations, energy resources, and strategic initiatives. From managing change driven by deregulation to the impacts of the shifting energy generation landscape, Schukar’s career spans just about every complicated issue faced by the utility industry.
The utility industry is going through an incredible evolution, which initially started over a decade ago as many utilities started shifting from highly-regulated to deregulated business models. Adding to that change is the impact of technology on the grid and the workforce as a whole. Specifically, for Ameren, technology impacts their plans for the distribution and generation of energy, energy efficiency, storage and energy management, and even the shift to the electrification of transportation.
But for Schukar, change is nothing new. “As we moved from a regulated to a deregulated world, it required a very different culture and way of thinking,” Schukar said. He first encountered the challenges of change management early in his career while working at three separate energy center sites.
The energy centers initially had a culture very opposed to change–any change. At one point some of the personnel displayed their opposition to changes being driven by Schukar at the energy center with graffiti on an elevator that said ‘shoot the schuck.’
“I was not a very popular person,” Schukar said. “But a few years later, after I had moved onto another position, I returned to visit the energy center and ended up having a beer with some of the same guys who initially really hated the changes–and they told me as much as they hated everything I did, they now understood I was helping them.”
Schukar emphasized the importance of communication and specifically helping people understand why changes are being made. I would summarize the takeaways from Schukar in three key points.
1. Good communication means answering “why.”
Schukar repeatedly emphasized communication as change management’s most critical function, noting this is something he understood from his own experiences, as well as those of Warner Baxter, the CEO of Ameren. “Warner is exceptionally good at communication and helping people understand why we are making the changes we are going through,” Schukar said. “He is not only a great communicator but is also great at setting the vision for the future of our company and culture.”
Companies and executives understandably look at change from the perspective of the business. But changes have real impact on people’s lives and livelihood.
“Where I have seen change be successful is when you do a good job communicating and helping people understand the why, how it impacts them and what it means down the road. If you can’t do that, it is not going to be successful.”
2. Identify your influencers and champion good behaviors
Another key point Schukar made was to “find your champions,” the people genuinely passionate about the company and their work, and often the people other employees turn to for advice. He estimates that only about 30% of people are really ready for change so understanding who can help communicate and influence your organization is important.
But champions and good communication alone are not enough. Schukar explained you also have to champion the behaviors of the people who are changing.
“In the field, that is the more important part of the equation,” he said. “When people start seeing actions taken that have a positive outcome and it relates to ‘what’s in it for me’–that is when you start producing positive outcomes.”
3. Be proactive about change conversations
Schukar is actively engaged in conversations about change–even before all the change is fully understood. “Recently we had an all-hands meeting. Telling people we are being successful–performance, safety are all good,” said Schukar. “But we need to be prepared for change. We need to think about our world differently.”
“Getting people comfortable with uncertainty and getting people ready to exist in a competitive world. Asking them to think, ‘How are we adding value for our customers?’ Historically, we almost exclusively focused on cost and reliability–now we’re taking a more holistic approach to managing the business with a stronger focus on innovation, partnerships, and new products and services development.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, I had two parting questions for Schukar. If he could go back 20 years, what one piece of advice would he share with himself?
“The big thing is remembering that most people want to do what is right.”
He elaborated, “Helping them understand what is right and why it is good for them. Most people don’t want to change because they are not clear why it is good. We often minimize that aspect because we in leadership understand why it is important, and often we move forward. When I was younger I was much more likely to charge ahead without bringing everyone along.”
And closing things out, he shared what he was most proud of over his 30 year career in the energy industry.
“As I step back, it is really realizing the impact that you have on people both inside and outside of the company and how you’ve helped them be successful. Monetary rewards and perks really pale in comparison to hearing about how you have made a significant and positive impact in someone’s life.”
After talking with Schukar, it is easy to understand his success–he is a thoughtful, genuine person with a great understanding of leading change in his industry. And in a world where change is quickly becoming the only constant, we can all learn from the knowledge and experience he shares.