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"Focus on making sure that you're constantly thinking about what's good for people. The broader interests, the listening, taking it all in, looking for different ways to connect with people the way they want to be connected with. That's the essence of the people first philosophy.”


- Paula Gold-Williams, President and CEO of CPS Energy

On June 30, 2020 Zpryme sat down with Paula Gold-Williams, President and CEO of CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipal utility for a discussion that covered fist bumps, masks and how the trailblazing executive has led with compassion and a calm sense of urgency during COVID-19.

“Focus on making sure that you’re constantly thinking about what’s good for people. The broader interests, the listening, taking it all in, looking for different ways to connect with people the way they want to be connected with. That’s the essence of the people first philosophy,” shared Paula.

The conversation drills down on leadership, her cornerstone People First ethos, remote work, and how the company will continue to build a clean energy future via the Flexible Path strategy. Finally, the interview concludes with Paula sharing how she prefers to unwind over the weekend. 

Jump to Key Interview Sections 

Covid-19 Leadership Lessons and “Just Getting Things Done”

Powering Forward During the Pandemic with the People First Philosophy 

A Flexible Future for Remote Work 

What’s Next for CPS Energy’s Flexible Path? 

Leading by Example on Diversity and Inclusion 

How will 2021 Partnership Be Different?

How does Paula Gold-Willams clear her mind? 

Paula Gold-Williams June 30, 2020 Interview Transcript 

Jason Rodriguez

I know you lead by example and COVID-19 has brought out a lot of leadership qualities in different folks. What have you learned from some overlooked leadership qualities you’ve seen come to the forefront of your team, maybe yourself and just would love to hear some thoughts on some of the overlooked qualities that have come as a result of these changes.

Paula Gold-Williams

We were early into being concerned about actually this virus and being a pandemic and we were watching it when it was overseas and just realized how small the world was and how fast it really, really basically went every everywhere. We were first in, I’d say first in, and we’re going to be the last ones out. We’re going to practice physical distancing, but staying socially connected. We started out with the fist bumps and we started out with the elbow bumps and we had all types of hand cleaner all over the place, but now you even know that you can’t even do fist bumps, you can’t do elbow bumps. You really do need to stay distant. I constantly have mask. I wear one underneath. I have my Darth Vader, I call, this thing here. And ultimately though, this whole concept of things taking a long time and difficulties and how do you communicate, I remember when we had so much access to each other, but we would make a big deal about… We have multiple locations, a couple of dozen almost, of dislocations just in our service territory. And we would talk often about how you get around and how long it would take and how do you look someone in the eye and all of those things. And now, we’re using these technologies and digital applications and this flexibility and while people feel somewhat that that’s impersonal, I think what it has done is it has eliminated the barrier of time. You don’t have to schedule it. You can click on your device and talk to someone and just check on them and give them your thoughts and value system.

And so by looking at all of this pressure that has happened economically, and in terms of people’s concerns about health and everything else that’s happening, that said, I think what I’ve learned is that I talk about flexibility and resilience and all these things are important, but they are absolute enablers now because you got to pick that phone up, you’ve got to make it important. You got to put it in your schedule. You got to check with people and you need to cascade that, let’s stay connected to one another constantly.

And so from a leadership dynamic, I think we have to have less excuses about this. I’ve got to make an appointment that happens two weeks in the future. So many things can happen immediately. And why did we put off some of the connections that we have before? And I think it’s hard to figure out how to do some of the good things that we’ve done with Zpryme and you Jason and your team over time, but we are. We’re going to figure that out and we’re going to mix it all up and less excuses, more action. I guess I would say.

Jason Rodriguez

I like that. I like that. Speaking of more action, the people first ethos that you have put there that I’ve seen a few other companies piggyback off of on a national scale, I think that has definitely played a role into you guys’ response. Would you say that too as well?

Paula Gold-Williams

Absolutely. I guess I always felt it was easy and streamlined and special. You can get into a lot of discussions with people about what are the right next steps and the complication and what if someone doesn’t like it and how are you perfect and all of those kinds of things, but the people first mantra of making sure that as… We’re a service company, we’re an essential service, so we have to make sure that when we’re talking, we think about the broad spectrum of customers, not one customer, but all customers. And we have to do all we can to make those connections. So in our people first philosophy, there are a beacon. Our community, when you are municipal power, you think always about the service territory that you’re covering, we cover a metropolitan area with a lot of different parts of the community that we have to make sure that we are attuned to.

And again, trying to get our employees to constantly think about the transition that we are living. I often tell them you are living that evolution, you just don’t recognize it because the velocities which you see, but if you kept looking at it discretely, if you keeps saying five years ago, we were nowhere near this. If somebody would have said five years ago, there’s going to be a global pandemic that will move with that velocity, we wouldn’t have believed it. So, focus on making sure that you’re constantly thinking about what’s good for people. The broader interests, the listening, the taking it all in, and again, looking for different ways to connect with people the way they want to be connected with. That’s the essence of that people first philosophy. And so it anchored us before, but it anchors us even more today.

Jason Rodriguez

Fantastic. I heard Rudy Garza, chief and customer engagement officer, talk a lot about that recently, as well in these webinars.

So that was exciting to hear and relating that to how can we still have that same look and feel of just it’s a handshake, a smiling person, but how can you translate that in this disparate environment? Think you guys constantly live that every day, so that’s exciting to hear. Shifting aside to that is also on remote work. I’d love to hear what have you guys seen short-term with positive impacts and long-term, how do you see this playing out? You’ve touched on some of those already, but something more to add.

Paula Gold-Williams

Yeah, sure. Once again, I remember a couple of years ago, an employee said, “I’d like to work at home.” And I said, “I think we’re going to get there. I don’t know how fast it is, but right now our customers expect us to be in a particular location where you can have meetings and conferences and all those things.” But before we knew it, in less than a couple of weeks, we moved about a third of our team home, and they have continued to work at home. And we broke our whole company up into the blue team, which are our frontline people that have to talk to customers, it definitely is our skilled craft employees, it’s the employees who actually work in the payment centers and where they can give firsthand advice and help. They’re practicing social distancing. It’s getting harder with it getting hot outside, but we’re doing all we can to keep them cool, refreshed and make sure they have all the tools that they need, but they have to be out there. So I actually pattern myself and work with the concept of the blue team, because again, I have to really put myself in their shoes about keeping them safe and that’s why I’m in the office. I pretty much have been in the office and mirroring, coming to work every day, no matter what, but we also have the core of what we call the white team, the team that has to be here because of controls or being behind the firewall, those kinds of things. But a third of our team has been basically working from home, the orange team. They may come in periodically, but a lot of them have been able to work that whole time.

We just had a leadership session this morning, and the question keeps coming up, when do we have to come back to the office and have you set a date for that? I’d say I’m not Nostradamus, I can’t really figure out when the equilibrium will come back, but we are absolutely supportive. We want the economy to come back. We want jobs to come back to where they were. We want business to feel flexible, but feel like you can really interact with folks the way we used to. But at the same time, we are here to serve. So I told the group, “If it ain’t broke, we’re not going to force it. We’re going to stay flexible.”

I think for the foreseeable future in 2020, we’re going to work where we are able to create more social distance when you come into the office, when you go out into the field, when you’re working and serving customers, and if you can work from home safely, effectively, then we’re going to support you and then we’ll figure it out. We’ll figure out. This period, this era will pass and then we’ll figure that out. But I do think when we get back to where we want to be, and for us, I think it’s in 2021, it’s correlated around a vaccine and different ways that we can inoculate and make sure that we can have some type of way to be preventative in terms of this disease and the spread. Then when we come back in, we will still be very, very comfortable with flexibility and people will be able to move back and forth seamlessly. I think that level of staying flexible even in our workforce will actually help our broader strategies.

Jason Rodriguez:

Thank you. So you talked a little bit about flexibility in the Flex Path, I think over this pandemic, I’ve thought a lot about, here you talk about that strategy for awhile and and how there is this concept of the unknown. I don’t know if you had penciled in pandemic in the unknown when we were talking about this, but it does seem to be to the advantage of the strategy of how to move forward versus being locked in to a strategy prior to that. So how do you kind of keep those conversations moving forward around the Flex Path as well? Where does that go from here?

Paula Gold-Williams:

Hand in hand, I mean, in general what I would say is we are really happy that we have this strategy that continues to lead to this. So what and what if there’s something new and great and how do you look at new technologies versus looking at ideation, right? How do you encourage all of that? So this strategy that we have allows for all of that, and we have, even during this period of COVID-19, we have re-instituted a refresh. Like what do we really think this is evolving to? Interestingly, in this period of COVID where people are driving less, air is getting cleaner. I do think that people are thinking differently about whether or not they need to drive to places, or how do they use technology.

I do think that people are still thinking about new innovation and new opportunities to move the industry along, and we want to make sure that we are leaving ourselves open. So we had a really good leadership conversation. I asked Chris Eugster who’s our COO, who’s really looking at the existing assets that we have and he and his team were thinking about that integration piece that optimizes our tried and true technology and opens the door for new additions, and we are still on path to put out what we call the FlexPOWER Bundle. One of the challenges of the FlexPOWER Bundle, like you take COVID out, what we were really excited about was this ability to attract technology from around the globe.

Now, if you had asked me back in March, how was that going to happen and how do we make sure that we are able to do that attraction and communication and outreach? I might’ve struggled. But now I feel better about it and we’re going to start with an RFI to really build that connection. We’re going to launch that and we still believe very strongly that we can create something and that we will find a way, we will find a way to evolve, and we will get that input. So again, it’s live and well, the Flexible Path. We are finding those opportunities to make big steps forward. Is it perfect? Does it change who you are and what you do completely 100%? We don’t really believe in that, we believe in diversification and we believe in a very objective and methodical view, where again, you’re pulling out the best of new technologies and you’re mitigating any of the issues around what you had and what you’re taking on. So we still actually feel very encouraged by what we’ll be able to accomplish this year.

Jason Rodriguez

Fantastic. I do have two more questions, but I want to be respectful of your time. Do you want to get those last two in?

Paula Gold-Williams

Sure.

Jason Rodriguez:

Okay. So kind of turning to the national conversation about racial and social justice, want to get your thoughts on, as an example not just as African American leader, but also someone who has built a very diverse team, not just at the executive level, but all the way down, and diversity probably in its purest sense, gender, age, ethnicity, you kind of walk the walk. What have you seen as benefits of building that type of team?

Paula Gold-Williams

There’s a couple of things. In building the team that we have, we didn’t do it with quotas. We didn’t do it and say, “We’ve got to get to this number or that number.” But we did broaden what we thought, right? We said, “Pedigree is nice, where you went to school, what’s your history and all of those things are, pedigree is nice, but it’s not enough.” We asked a lot of questions about emotional intelligence, and over and over again, we tell people when we recruit who we are and what we believe and why the values matter, and that when you come in, one of the things that I look at is are you building talent behind you and do you take all of the outer information that you see and disregard that and get to the essence of the person and how are you going to help them and how are you going to use their talents?

So the more that we have been able to talk about the substance of people and talk about the value system and all of those things, I look up and I see a very diverse team. I say, “If you’re white and European descent, if you’re Hispanic, if you’re African American, if you’re Asian Pacific part of the world, Indian, whatever that is, what we still want is we want people who believe in people first.” We want people who want to do the right thing for a community that really thinks about or is more than just… It’s all of the parts, it’s not just a piece of it. So we’ve done it with principal, we continue to do it with principal. It ain’t easy here, though. It’s tough…

We continue to do a principle. It ain’t easy here though. It’s tough. You can talk to any of our people who come in, it’s a 24/7, 365 business, naturally, then you put on the rigors of “rebuilding the plane while you’re flying it” and then thinking about evolving the industry. If you don’t do it with values, you’re not going to focus on the right thing. So. In doing all the things that we’ve done, we’ve been able to build talent and when I look at our entire team from the frontline all the way to the executive levels, across the spectrum I’m really proud of the people and the diversity that we’ve been able to achieve through values.

Jason Rodriguez

Fantastic. So partnerships, obviously, have been a big, big building block also as well to your team and what you’ve been able to do in San Antonio that’s gotten the attention nationally. So, in this new world, what are some of those you’re looking forward to in 2021 or the end of 2020, and how may some of those be different?

Paula Gold-Williams

Well, I would go back again to the FlexPOWER Bundle. I think that ability to attract people who want, again, to make a change and make a change in San Antonio, these are new partnerships that we can bring in for the benefit of the entire community. CPS Energy has been around for 160 years and we have a wonderful network of people who are trying to do the right thing. Everything from education and looking at things for the digital divide, to just general help during this really difficult time and era, to those who just are in love with San Antonio and know how beautiful it is. Our language is beautiful here. We’re only two degrees of separation from that standpoint.

So what we want to do is broaden that network of partnership. We want to help retain businesses. We want to help businesses bring back jobs. We want to make sure that our customers have a pathway. We keep giving them more and more information about not just our programs, but programs from other entities, because we think that partnership, that network, that connection, that matrix, you told me not to talk about the matrix, but I got to anyway, Jason.

It’s really important from that standpoint so we will continue to believe that partnership is the best way. Some people say they’re tech companies. I still say we’re not. I still say we need tech companies to help this industry. And we are tech enabled, we’re technology savvy, we’re tech interested, all of those things, but a partner who does all of those things and comes to us, who really gets into the interpersonal piece, the understanding the community, the thinking about folks all the way through what’s good for them and the community that we love, that partnership, we think works out wonderfully.

Jason Rodriguez

Fantastic. It’s definitely a blue pill moment.

Paula Gold-Williams

Definitely, a blue pill moment.

Jason Rodriguez 

Yeah, yeah. So, with that, one last quick one, what do you do to unwind, clear your mind during all this? What does Paula Gold-Williams do?

Paula Gold-Williams

I would still say that my husband has always been such a great force in my life. We typically like to relax on the weekend. We are blessed. I believe that everything that we’re doing is hard but it’s a blessing. So just spending time with him and watching movies. We’re always looking for movies. There’s so much streaming content in general, so we’ve got Disney Plus and all of these applications. So I could sit and just watch a movie or read and relax, because the weeks are so tough.

I mean, we’re at it starting at 7:00 and last night we were at it until past 10:30. I mean, the weeks are tough. And if you have a storm, who knows what you’re going to be doing. So anytime I get a chance to just relax and veg out and call my daughters or call my father-in-law, and then just watch TV because nothing’s going on, that is the joy that I have right now.

Jason Rodriguez

That’s awesome. Well, Paula, it’s been a pleasure just talking with you and getting some inside information, kind of what’s going on there. Appreciate all the work that you’re doing and the team there in San Antonio to be a national leader. And just thank you again, always, for your partnership.

Paula Gold-Williams 

Well, thank you, Jason. Thank you to the Zpryme Team. I miss you all. Take care of that lovely family of yours and thank you for the opportunity to let CPS Energy tell our story and thank you for keeping the industry informed and connected.