Mary Powell: A Portrait of Success in 3 Lessons

Mary Powell: A Portrait of Success in 3 Lessons

“I love people, I really do. I just love to love.” Mary Powell may just be the ultimate people person. 

She loves people more than money, more than business, more than winning. As a leader, her many accomplishments could fill a book. Here are a few : Fast Company named Mary Powell one of the 100 most creative people in business in 2016, and ranked Green Mountain Power (GMP)  as one of the top ten most innovative energy companies in the world for four straight years.  GMP is the first utility in the world to become a B Corp, and is committed to being 100% carbon free by 2025 and 100% renewable by 2030. And if all that wasn’t enough,  in 2019 she was voted the best utility executive in the United States.

Now that we have a good sense of what Mary Powell achieved, let’s delve into three key lessons on confidence.

1. If  your mentor believes in you more than you do, trust their belief.

Former GMP CEO Chris Dutton clearly saw Mary’s many qualities and asked her over and over to join his team. She declined, but he kept asking. 

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At The A Effect, we’ve repeatedly encountered this scenario in our Leaders’ journeys. Early in their career, a mentor or senior leader offered them a challenging project or a major promotion, and our leader-in-the-making hesitated, convinced that she wasn’t deserving or even capable.

But as Mary would advise, when an experienced leader seeks you out, it’s because they see something worthwhile in you, even if you don’t yet see it in yourself.

In fact, once  Mary became a leader herself, she was relentless about helping her team members excel, pushing them beyond  their comfort zone and encouraging them to accomplish things they’d never thought possible.

“One of the great gifts of being in this role was providing inspiration for other women, letting them know that they too can accomplish ambitious things.”

If Chris Dutton hadn’t persisted, and if Mary hadn’t finally acquiesced, she might have missed out on the journey that would come to define her career, transform Vermont’s environmental and energy footprint for decades to come, and win her nationwide acclaim across her industry.

2. The “Two Year” Rule: true breakthroughs take patience, humility, and a thousand conversations.

In 1998, within weeks of Mary starting in HR, GMP received a rate order that brought it close to bankruptcy. A true “people person”, Mary hates firing employees. She applied her outsider’s eye and proposed a raft of unconventional cost-cutting measures instead. They were rejected immediately as unfeasible, because they’d never been tried before in the energy sector. Undeterred, she started having the strategic conversations that ultimately created the rapport and collaboration she needed to push forward with her vision. Two years later, they’d achieved the savings they needed, without massive lay-offs.

In 2010, when she proposed a complicated, never-been-done “buy-out/merger” with competitor CVPS, Vermont’s largest energy utility, many people, including some of her own team, told her it was impossible. One gentleman even said that if she pulled it off, he’d buy her a BMW. In 2012, when the merger was finalized after two years of intense negotiation, he did in fact buy her a brand-new (toy) BMW.

And when she first became CEO in 2008 and proposed her bold plan to transform GMP into a model of locally produced green energy, the state regulator flatly rejected it, telling her to give up her “activism”. That stung, but Mary regrouped, and spent the better part of two years humbly seeking out every person she could find who was close to the regulator. She wasn’t trying to win him over, but to listen and learn, in order to better understand his perspective. They finally came to a meeting of the minds, and the way was cleared for GMP to become a beacon of sustainability as well as savings.

3. Vulnerability: A confident leader has the courage to go first. 

As GMP CEO, every Monday morning Mary would have a company-wide conference call with most of the power company’s 600 workers on a wide variety of topics, particularly safety. 

In early 2015, a different topic was on the agenda. 

Mary shared that she was about to undergo a double mastectomy, due to a recent genetic test result and her family history of cancer. Her mother, both of her mother’s sisters and two cousins had previously died from breast cancer or other related cancers. At the time, the reaction was silence, but in the days that followed, the floodgates opened.  “I got an outpouring of emails, people told me their stories, and shared their fears.”

Mary would also hold weekly in-person meetings with employees in smaller groups. After one such meeting, a line worker approached and confided in her about a difficult medical challenge his wife was facing. He told Mary that her story had given him the courage to tell his co-workers what he was going through. 

This story isn’t just about openness. In power-line work, everyone’s safety depends on everyone else, and if there’s any reason why you might be distracted, your colleagues need to know. In this case, having the confidence to openly share her struggle led to greater team cohesion and a safer, more effective work environment. Truly confident leadership pays unexpected dividends.

If you’re wondering about the surgery itself, it was a success, and in  classic Mary Powell fashion, one of the first things she did after she recovered was to sign up to drive in a demolition derby.

And that indomitable spirit is a key part of why we feel so privileged to have  Mary as a Leader here at The A Effect.

Mary’s path to confident leadership was filled with unexpected detours and unlikely insights: Trust the ones who believe in your best self, even or especially if you don’t. Accept that truly building a better future takes colossal amounts of persistence and patience. And above and beyond any other skill, a loving, open, vulnerable heart may in fact be a great leader’s ultimate super-power.

Paul de Tourreil

Paul de Tourreil

Author

Writer by trade, scientist by training, story fisherman at heart. Perennially curious.