- Managing Me
- Big Ideas
- Managing People
The past 12 months have been different from other years, for the 200 staff of listed wind energy company, Infigen (ASX: IFN). That’s because a year ago they got the chance to have their say about the leadership of their company. That had never happened before – not by way of a formal, anonymous staff survey – and it changed the leadership in significant ways, says CEO Miles George.
Speaking to LeadingCompany after yesterday’s annual general meeting, George described how the response from staff – 65 in Australia and 130-odd in the United States, where Infigen also has a solar business – led him and his leadership team to re-think their approach. George discovered that his staff of passionate, motivated Gen Ys had a lot to say on how the company could be improved. “We’ve conducted staff surveys to provide feedback on things staff like and don’t like and tried to respond. We have just done our second one, and we try to act on that feedback to demonstrate we are listening, and to make improvements.”
A difficult time to listen
It’s not an easy time for the company to take on more change and criticism, even if George deemed it to be for the better.
For renewable energy companies, the past few years have been trying, with frequent changes to regulations, grant programs, business opportunities and levels of community support. George says: “This is probably true for other sectors as well as renewable energy, but I find I need to focus more and more on external issues and factors, stakeholders, because of uncertainty from the government and legislators.”
The wind sector has vocal critics in the community and in government: changes to Victorian government rules about the proximity of wind farms to communities has halted all new wind energy projects in the state. “We are talking, not only with government and opposition, about their policies,” says George. “There is a lot of advocacy in favour of renewables, but we have relatively tiny but noisy groups that oppose wind energy for various outlandish reasons that are very effective in getting press coverage. There are a lot of untruths that need to be dealt with.”
That kind of uncertainty scares off investors and bankers, and the high upfront cost of wind farms means Infigen is more highly geared than companies in other sectors, and George is under constant pressure to keep costs lean – particularly operating expenses.
However, George and his six direct executive reports know their workforce delivers them a competitive advantage. They are passionate advocates of the product Infigen sells: renewable wind energy. “Our team is incredibly passionate about renewable energy,” he says. “We benefit from having people in their 20s; they have really added a lot to the vigour of our business. We spend a lot of time trying to encourage innovation from that young and passionate team.”
The staff survey was an effort to harness that enthusiasm, and to give staff a greater sense of power over their careers.
Could do better
Among the responses that came back, one stood out: the need for personal development, both at the front line and at the management level. “We took that on board, and now we encourage people to individual look for technical of financial courses at uni or TAFE, to think about their self- development – and we obtained commitment from our board to fund things that are, at least vaguely, relevant to our business,” says George.
Prompted by the staff response, George also invited the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) to develop some company-specific management training. He says the AGSM devised a program to encourage development of leadership and effective team behaviour.
“The group executives have completed that and we are now into the middle-management program. Each program is run over a month or two because it is not just classroom learning, but also teamwork and applying it back in the office.”
There is a third group that will be trained after that, he says. “These are young high-performers who are looking for additional development. We expect a benefit for Infigen, but it is also for their personal development and for their future employers.”
George, who is an engineer by training, completed an MBA with distinction at Melbourne University (“a very long time ago”) and has completed the Australian Institute of Company Directors qualification.
George’s leadership style was already collegiate, but he and his leadership team have changed as a result of the additional training. George meets with his six reports fortnightly – the head of the Australian and US businesses, the general counsel, chief financial officer, the general managers of commercial operations and the chief operations officer – and listens to the input their bring to the decisions under way. “I am trying to achieve of the diverse input of that executive committee, and the decisions we make by taking that approach are stronger than if I make them on my own, of course.”
Since the course, however, George adds another step in the last five minutes of the meetings – a five-minute review of how effective the meeting was. “Did we waste time, were we frank and honest, did everyone get a say? We reflect on our approach to decision-making and our performance in meetings,” he says.
The training and staff consultation has had an operational impact as well. Infigen now runs a centre 24 hours a day from which staff monitor the spot price paid for energy. Although the average price per megawatt hour (MWh) is $60, it can vary from $12,000 to -$1000 – in other words, there are times when Infigen has to pay as much as $1000 per MWh to contribute to the grid. “Their key role is to make sure when the power price goes negative, someone turns off the machines. We think our competitors don’t turn off their machines.” Likewise, the control centre makes sure the machines are running when the price is highest and not, for example, turned off for a grease and oil change.
“We have found is a great advantage in having that capability, whereas previously we would have suffered those costs.”
Infigen has also introduced a project to capture clever ideas from its staff, introducing for the first time this year an “innovation challenge”. “The challenge is to come up with ideas to improve our business, and to compete with other groups within our business.” Six proposals have made it through to the final judgement.
“The best of the ideas we adopt and award a prize of some sort to the winning team. We are doing it for the first time this year and it will be judged this month. They are all great ideas, but we can’t afford to do all of them.”
For inspiration in leadership ideas, George turns to a book given to him during the AGSM program, Patrick Lencioni’s The five dysfunctions of a team. It’s a short book written in story style that illustrates potential dysfunctions of a team.
George says the executive realised communication was constrained to vertical silos, and has addressed that by instituting cross-functional teams. “We try to exchange info across functions,” says George. “We encourage our US business to communicate with their counterparts here in Australia and vice versa, and to visit within reason, to learn about how other people do things. Apart from geographic exchange, we encourage people to become familiar with other functional roles, for operations to understand financial. We build cross-functional teams, putting a finance and operations person and communications person in groups that encourages ideas between functions.”