When leaders are constantly looking at everything, and then even after they make changes, they go back and see how to change even more, there will be pushback.
“As a leader, whether you’re a CEO or a group leader, it starts with believing in it and embracing it. Then, having the courage and the stamina to know that it’s a journey,” O’Brien says. “In most organizations, it takes a lot of time and winning people over one by one.”
Back it up
Actions can make the difference. If you believe in what you’re doing, you show it by spending money, O’Brien says. Whether it’s a good year or bad year, whether it’s a good quarter or bad quarter, the core priorities remain the same.
Not only did Peoples engage with businesses to proactively try to help them grow, it also supports people who can’t afford the product.
“I tell our employees every day that a business is only as strong as its relationships with its customers, and that includes people who can’t afford to pay their bill,” he says.
There’s a business case for helping those people because they become paying customers later. It also creates a more loyal and stronger work ethnic in your newly engaged employees, which adds value for the owners of the business.
But it’s also personal for O’Brien.
“My thoughts were: I want to have a legacy that says not only did we help the region grow, but we did it the right way, in a way that we would be proud of for our kids and our grandkids,” he says.
For example, one challenge is infrastructure. About one-third of Peoples underground pipes were 60 to 100 years old with a high risk for failure. Plus, old pipes leak gas that can have a meaningful impact on air quality.
O’Brien says not only did Peoples start a pipe replacement program, it engaged with Carnegie Mellon University, which had begun a federal research program on methane emissions and air quality. Every month, CMU researchers meet with Peoples engineers to discuss how to prioritize the pipe replacement to improve air quality.
Peoples also reached out to the Environmental Defense Fund, which was mapping air quality in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and New York by piggybacking detectors on Google mapping cars.
“We called them and said, ‘Would you come to Pittsburgh and do that same map?’” O’Brien says. “They were, I think, surprised that a utility would ask them to help identify an issue not many people knew about.”
At the project’s press conference, O’Brien says Gov. Tom Wolf pulled him aside and asked why the company was opening itself up to such criticism.
“I said, ‘We’re taking ownership of an issue that’s important. We want our legacy to be that we fixed it — not that we ignored it or denied it or argued whether it really existed,’” he says.
These are the actions that have won people over, even though not every employee gets it and not every transaction is done as it should be, O’Brien says.
Always building on
Despite the progress, O’Brien and Peoples are not done. The world, technology and customer expectations keep changing.
“We’re not perfect. We don’t treat every customer the way we want. We don’t handle every issue the way we would like to, but we’ve made dramatic changes in how we’ve done things,” he says.
It’s hard to make big changes, but O’Brien says every day, there are opportunities to continue to incrementally improve, whether that’s using drones to inspect pipes under bridges, adding technology to make it easier to know which truck is closest to a problem, or tracking work orders similar to FedEx packages so customers have real-time information.
If people believe in a culture of improvement for customers and the community, they won’t be embarrassed or afraid to take a risk on new ideas.