Former CEO Jim Burpee Gives Leadership Advice You Don’t Want To Miss

Because who better to teach us about leadership than a top executive?

I met Jim at that Environment & Economy Conference I talked about a few weeks ago. For those of us who don’t know, Jim is the former CEO of the Canadian Electric Association. Prior to that, he held important leadership roles at Ontario Power Generation and its predecessor, Ontario Hydro. He is enormously nice, and gives especially sage advice (read here). Naturally, after the conference, I asked Blair for his contact info (Blair graciously helped bring speakers in through his own network).

I’ll admit, I was nervous reaching out to Jim. I thought every time I spoke to him, I would made a fool of myself a little bit. But then I realized I’m young, and anything I say will lag decades behind Jim’s wisdom anyway. So I went for it. And you know what? Jim said he’d be glad to meet with me. [At this point I was jumping for joy.]

TMI: After getting lost in my own subway system, I finally made it to the little Starbucks that Jim and I agreed to meet at. He arrived on his electric Chevy Volt, which is fitting for a man who spent a few decades in the electricity industry.

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A photo of us from the conference.


Let’s get to it, shall we?

Dana Iskoldski: You’re known for being a leader in your field, but I want to know how you started out.

Jim Burpee: I started out from the University of Toronto engineering program, in 1977, and I started at the Lakeview Generating Station at Ontario Hydro. In the first year you’re on as a graduate engineer on a general program, and of course after that there was an opportunity to go to the operations side, and eventually I became a shift operating supervisor. I ended up supervising a crew of 24-28 people fairly early on, which is pretty unusual for someone at that age. I mean I was there for three years, and they had been there for anywhere up to 35 years.

DI: What were the challenges with that?

JB: Well the first was to recognize from a practical aspect that they knew a lot more about the plant than I did. So it was a matter of getting that experience and knowledge out of them and applying it to the job. When you’re actually starting to manage people you should remember that you don’t need to be the technical expert.

DI: How do you earn the respect of such experienced professionals?

JB: You have to have some patience. A lot of it for them is are you listening to me and talking to me? It’s how you relate with them and how you treat them. Once they accept you then you’re good.

DI: Can you speak to the commitment it took for you to get to where you are today?

JB: You have to have a focus. Certainly once you’re managing, even at lower levels, work is going on around you whether you’re there or not, and you’re accountable. So you’re always thinking about it. That’s the downside, especially at the CEO level – you’re never on vacation. You might be anywhere in the world but it’s still there. It wasn’t bad through Ontario Hydro and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) though. We used to take 2 weeks off in the summer, and before we had cellphones like we do today, I would rent out a cottage North of Perry Sound where you had to get to the top of a hill to get reception. So my crew knew if they needed to call, they could, but that it had to be really important.

DI: When would you say you were most successful?

JB: For the most part you rarely think in those terms in the moment, but here is what I always point to. In ’93 when I was with Ontario Hydro and through to OPG, and I ran the fossil business, we had to do significant staff reductions. At that point we weren’t producing much electricity from the fleet, but we knew that we had to maintain capacity in case we needed to ramp up if something happened on the nuclear side. And it did. In 1995, we were told we wouldn’t produce more than 8 TWh (traditionally we were producing over 18TWh). And in 2000, with the NOx rules coming in and we were doing a lot on the greenhouse gas side, we produced 42 TWh. We produced that much while making significant reductions in acid gas emissions by using capital smartly and creating an organization that had the adaptability and flexibility we needed. That was probably the biggest success, and it’s the type of one that except for the people who worked on it, nobody understood what happened. Sometimes success is when everything works and no one knows there was a potential issue.

DI: What does it take to be a leader?

JB: Patience. It’s the ability to listen, emphasize, and bring people along as well. Whether you call it developing a shared vision or understanding what’s possible, a lot of that is leadership. And a lot of times it’s stepping up and doing the right thing, because there’s a large ethical component to it. That’s the hard part, because when leaders get challenged everyone is watching. And when you start being seen as someone who’s dodgy, then you’re not a leader anymore. You can’t ask more of people that what you’re willing to do yourself.

DI: Has being CEO changed the way you approach problems?

JB: What really changed was, as I got older, my thinking pattern changed. You actually approach problems differently because your capacity for parallel processing changes over time. You consider more factors than you would have, and you think about how your decisions relate to the world around you.

DI: Was there a time you were dissatisfied with your position? What did you do about it?

JB: There were days where I was sitting in the Lakeview plant thinking I’ll never get out of here. That was where patience came in. When jobs came open, I applied. And I talked to people and made it known that I wanted change, and that made a difference. Also, when opportunities came up that other people didn’t want to do, I thought it would be good exposure and experience and I went for those things.

DI: How do you handle criticism?

JB: You often get criticized by people who don’t like the decisions you make. To an extent you have to explain your rationale, but if they still don’t get it you just have to move on. That’s not to say it’s always easy or comfortable, and that’s a personal thing. You want people to like you, but you can’t always care about that. But you can’t be so callused to say you don’t care what anyone else thinks, either. You have to give everyone proper consideration. You know there are going to be different viewpoints, but at some point you just have to pick one and move on. The last thing you want to do is sit there and make no decision at all, because that’s a decision in itself.

DI: What motivates you?

JB: I would say in general, I always want to feel like I’m making a difference. I think, am I making something better? Both on an individual and societal level. But it’s always a learning process.

There you have it, folks. Six coffees down, ninety four more to go. I hope you learned something. And to Jim, thank you for teaching me how holistic leadership can be.

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