There is no other industry like it14 April 2015
For almost 24 years the same executive director has served at the National Hydropower Association (NHA) in the US. It is rare for one individual to be at the helm of any successful organisation for such a length of time, and it is indeed even rarer for that individual to be a woman. Suzanne Pritchard spoke with Linda Church Ciocci from the NHA about her vast experience of working in the hydropower industry.
What training did you take prior to working in the hydropower industry?
Linda Church Ciocci: I took perhaps a rather unconventional route but not an unusual one for women at that time. I graduated from college with a humanities degree (with a focus in Greek and Roman studies) and then needed to figure out how to translate that into a career. One may think a focus on dead languages and cultures a little too impractical but it was extremely helpful in understanding human nature, politics and language.
My first job exposed me to policy work, and after having been encouraged by the late and then-Senator Robert F. Kenney in a chance meeting, I felt compelled to make a career of policy development that focused on making the world a better place. I worked first in local government, and then public power which landed me at NHA.
What attracted you to the hydro industry?
I first started working on hydropower policy while a lobbyist at the American Public Power Association (APPA). It was by chance. I was a tax and economic development policy specialist and was hired to focus on tax issues for public power companies. I had never worked on energy issues prior to then, but during my tenure at APPA the hydropower staff member became terminally ill and I was asked to fill in. I fell in love with the issues and the industry members. That started a very long and unanticipated career in hydropower.
When did you start working for the NHA? How long did it take for you to progress to your current role?
I came to NHA in 1991 and was hired as the executive director - my current position. I had already been working on hydropower issues while a lobbyist at APPA and during that time had worked in coalition with NHA and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) for a year or more. I was brought in to transform a very young organisation into a strong and credible trade association as the "go to" organisation on hydropower issues. I had 18 years of association experience with a solid understanding of how trade associations work, and it was this association experience that the NHA board wanted to tap.
I have been at the helm now over 23 years. Established in 1983, NHA has had only two executive directors over its lifetime. That is pretty rare in Washington, DC today.
The hydro industry is quite male dominated. What has been your experience as a woman in such an influential role? Would you say that some things would have been easier had you been male?
The hydropower industry has been dominated by males, but I have seen some significant headway with more women joining at all levels of the workforce. When I first became involved with this industry I was often the only woman in the room. Our Board had four women out of the 20 members. That percentage has changed over the years, up and down a bit, but rarely surpassed that number in any significance. Certainly there is room for improvement in getting more women engaged in leadership.
With regards to things being easier if I had been male, that depends. On my advocacy work with Congress and government agencies, there has been no real disadvantage; many women are working in advocacy roles in Washington and have been for some time. Women have risen to important positions within and out of government. For the most part, women have made a strong place for themselves in the policy arena.
But I can't say that is true with women in the industry workforce - hydropower, or otherwise. Being at the helm of a largely male-dominated industry and reporting to a largely male dominated Board of Directors I do believe - as any female executives in industry would most likely say - that being a male would probably have made the job easier at times.
I think it takes longer for a woman to glean respect - longer to secure trust of her experience and knowledge. Men and women communicate differently and have different life experiences - we relate differently and that affects how we communicate. So there is a settling in period of getting to know one another that probably takes longer.
All in all, my influence in the hydro industry and the success I have had in building NHA into the organisation it is today, as well as our significant success in our policy work, has much more to do with other skill sets than gender. Building strong personal relationships across the industry and within government has been key, and that has nothing to do with gender. Interpersonal and communication skills, as well as commitment, have been far more important factors.
Why do you think there is such a small percentage of women working in the hydro industry internationally? Have numbers increased in recent years?
I don't know why over the years there has been such a small percentage of women engaged in the hydro industry - both globally and domestically. Perhaps taking a closer look at the academic field of science and engineering and seeing how many women have gone into it may offer a bit of insight. Our engineering schools may need to strengthen their outreach to attract more women to the field.
But I do believe that I see far more women today when I speak at hydropower events all around North America and that is a welcome change. I love seeing the number of young women entering hydro and working alongside many of us who have made careers in this wonderful industry. It gives me great hope that our industry is slowly but surely diversifying.
What can be done to encourage them? Does the NHA do anything in this regard?
NHA recognises the need to support young professionals entering the hydropower industry, particularly women. We are starting to add opportunities at our events for young professionals to get together and network. We support the Women in Hydro programme and host breakfast and other meeting opportunities for young women to network and find mentors to support their advancement within the industry. We hosted our first breakfast at our annual conference last year and are adding it as a regular feature. We have also discussed ways we can support women-focused programmes at our regional meetings. In addition, us baby boomers - men and women - are being encouraged to join Women in Hydro's mentoring programme to support young women entering the hydropower industry in a host of fields from consulting to engineering to management and even policy work.
I believe we need to reach out to the academic community more routinely and provide more information on the opportunities that exist within the hydropower industry with explicit focus on securing more diversity. We have not really done much of that to date, but with a looming and significantly large workforce transition ahead as baby boomers retire, there is tremendous opportunity within the industry. Many young folks - male and female - don't know about that opportunity, or fully appreciate how unique and wonderful the hydropower industry is. It's a great place to work! The Hydro Research Foundation (HRF) is trying to bring more attention to these opportunities in its fellowship programme and NHA has been delighted to support that programme.
What advice would you give to any young girls or women who may be interested in a career in this industry?
Get out there. Build relationships. Start to network. If you don't already have a job in the hydro field of your choice, take stock of what we see in other industries and volunteer as an intern to get to know and understand the position, the opportunities and make connections.
Don't be afraid to approach an established industry member and ask them to mentor and help you. You would be surprised how many industry members want to be supportive and see you succeed. Get engaged in associations. Assume a leadership role. That's how you get noticed.
Continue to learn. Supplement your education and training if need be, and don't be afraid to ask your supervisor to support that training. Finally, shadow other women in the business. There is no better lesson than real life experience and learning from someone who already knows the ropes so to speak.
What qualities would you say are important for young people entering into the profession?
When my children were growing up I always told them if they could communicate well - both in written and verbal form - they would always be successful. I think this is still true. Communication is key. There is no way of getting around that.
The second important quality is people skills. Both are critically important to reaching out and building relationships, networking, selling one's ideas and building trust - all factors that are so critically important in successfully building a career in this industry, or any other.
Learn to present, to understand your audience and how they learn or respond to information, and have a little patience. Selling ideas does not happen overnight. Keep working at it and don't get discouraged.
Finally, be committed. You never get anywhere in life with half-hearted commitments. You need to be all in.
How has the NHA developed during your time here? Have things progressed as you would have hoped?
Absolutely! I could not be more pleased with where NHA is today. I was brought in to turn NHA into an effective trade association representing the hydroelectric industry. I think our track record will certainly support that we are exactly that today. NHA is miles from the small and loosely organised association it was when I arrived in 1991. We have gone from an association of just a few industry members to one with over 200. We have gone from just a few companies running the Association's agenda to a truly member driven organisation representing broad industry needs.
Our agenda has expanded from just focusing on regulatory reform to include issues affecting markets and tax and to programmes offering technical support. Financially, we have gone from deficits to an association with solid financial reserves and a budget of more than US$3M. Our staff has more than doubled, and is better supported by consultants.
We have gone from being "not even a bleep on the congressional radar screen" - as told by a member of Congress in an opening speech of the NHA conference in 1992 - to one of the more effective and respected energy trade associations lobbying Congress today. In fact, we were four for four in securing priority legislation in the last Congress. No other energy interest group has that record. NHA has become a strong and effective voice for the hydro industry, and the "go to" organisation on all things hydropower. This was exactly our vision 24 years ago.
What are your hopes for the future?
Our hopes for the future is to continue to build on that legacy: to further NHA's policy goals, particularly improving hydropower's regulatory scheme and market recognition, and levelling the playing field to build new hydropower competitively in the US today. I don't think hydropower - new and existing projects - is appreciated for all that it bring to the table. I want to see that value realised - across the board from Congress, to the federal agencies and all stakeholders.
In addition, we have just created a new Marine Energy Council and brought in members from the former Ocean Renewables Energy Coalition. Looking ahead, I would like to take the same skills and dreams that built NHA and apply them to this new Council - to see it flourish and to see the marine and hydrokinetic industries take off in the US. There is a great deal of work that needs to be done in this field, but tremendous opportunities exist for new clean energy projects that deserve our government's strong support.
And finally, my hopes include seeing more people - both women and men alike - embrace and run with careers within this industry. I think we need far more diversity and would hope that the future provides an avenue for that to happen.
What has been the key to your success?
I would say that the two most significant keys are 1) willingness to listen with a commitment to truly hearing and understanding what is said; and 2) surrounding oneself with good people.
One's success is rarely the result of their own efforts but rather success is more often than not the result of the collective efforts of a great team. I have been so very fortunate to have a wonderful staff both in the present and in the past. I have had great leaders on my Board and heading our committees. I have had wonderful mentors that supported me at the helms of other organisations and within the hydropower industry. They have all contributed to my success and for that I am forever grateful. I had the opportunity to learn from many over the years and one of the things that perhaps was hardest but most impactful was the recognition that during the toughest times and the greatest challenges - even failures - you almost always learn the most.
Do you have any special memories that sum up the hydro industry for you?
I have wonderful memories collected over a long career with the industry and throughout many travels, but perhaps the greatest memory is the people - the relationships - I have built over all these years. The hydropower industry is very much a family. And some of my closest and dearest friends are folks that I have met along the journey. That has been the best part of the job and probably is the strongest reason for staying at the Association for nearly a quarter century. It is the people that make this business and make the experience so worthwhile. There is no other industry like it!
I am grateful for all the experiences I have had in this wonderful industry and look forward to continuing to making a difference.