Powering Team Success: Q&A with Energy Expert Chris Burke

In this series, I chat with various industry experts on the intricacies of business and discover what advice they can offer to both seasoned and emerging leaders. 

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Chris Burke, the Vice President of Transmission Operations at Entergy Corporation, a Fortune 500 energy company.

A dynamic leader with extensive experience in both the public and private sector, Chris brings together a unique mix of business acumen and technical knowledge. Today, he uses his expertise to guide Entergy’s transmission operations to help them deliver electricity to 3 million utility consumers across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. During our discussion, he shared how a people-centered leadership style has helped his team continue providing essential services to their customers, at a time when they’ve needed it most. 

Can you share a little bit about your background? Where were you born and raised? Where did you go to school? What did you study?

I was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. So I always tell everybody I’m kinda like a farm boy. Even though we lived in the city, you’re never really far from the country. After high school I went to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where I studied engineering. After graduating, I went to the Nuclear Power Program and was soon based in the San Francisco area where I served on nuclear powered cruises for about four years. From there, I headed to the Pentagon and served as a staff officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After active duty service, I decided to go to grad school for a joint degree where I got my law degree and MBA from the University of Virginia. 

How would you define leadership?

To me, leadership is the ability to effectively lever all the resources at one’s disposal towards the accomplishment of objectives. Those objectives could be business objectives, personal or professional objectives, charitable objectives, it doesn’t really matter because the concepts are still the same. 

What are the core principles that guide you as a leader right now?

  1. People – Everything that you do either needs people or has an impact on people or both, so that’s the number one aspect of leadership from my perspective. 
  2. Authority – The tools, the power, the resources that you have at your disposal to get things done. 
  3. Responsibility – That internal holding to account that you apply to yourself, it’s the voice that you hear at two o’clock in the morning reminding you to get something done that you may have forgotten. 
  4. Accountability – The external holding to account, someone outside you or some entity outside yourself setting the expectations for what you’re required to do. 

Where does inclusive leadership come into effect?

Inclusivity is about being able to optimize the impact of everyone on your team. When I look at inclusivity, I look at the ability of a team to be able to get everyone at their maximum contribution, so that the individuals optimize the whole. We talk about those people-resources, and the ability to leverage their contributions, and that doesn’t happen at an optimal level unless inclusivity is part of the mix. 

When it comes to leading from an inclusive lens, what has been the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge over the past year has been maintaining a degree of connectedness throughout this global pandemic. That connective tissue that binds employees and team members together in a way that optimizes the work product that we’re trying to achieve. 

We run a 24-7 operation. Folks need to be in the control center, they have to be there. So we had to go above and beyond to make sure that we were very cautious and mindful of COVID protocols. Now we did have some close calls, but fortunately we were able to manage things successfully, and it looks like we’re getting closer to things opening back up. I would say the most challenging aspect is how I could walk by the water cooler and run into somebody and say, “Hey, I was thinking about this and I know that you’ve done it before.” Now you have to set up a meeting, make a phone call, put an item on someone’s calendar. It’s a little bit more challenging, but the work still goes on. 

What do you see as some key opportunities that lie ahead for businesses like yours now that we’re approaching a post-pandemic world?

We’re in the business of providing an essential service to our customers. So our work has continued, and our responsibility is to ensure that people still get their power, irrespective of what else is going on. We didn’t just get a pass just because there’s a global pandemic. In fact, I think the expectations went even higher, because more people are working from home and relying on electronic means of communication, so the need and dependence on power has never been greater. 

From that standpoint, what’s going to happen as we come out of this pandemic? 

First of all, we’re looking forward to people being reconnected to the social events and the things that make life worth living. And by the way, all those activities and events are things that consume power, so our business is still going to go on. We’ll be able to reignite those relationships, not only within our own team, but across our customer base, across our region, and across our nation. So for us, it’s gonna be business as usual, plus some. 

What is the advice you would give to a younger Chris Burke?

I’ve learned over the years that the technical aspects are important tools, but the things that really make the difference in whether you’ll be successful as an individual, a team or a company depends on people. The ability to liaise and form relationships where there’s an honest and trusting level of communication where people feel included and comfortable giving their best with the understanding that it’s going to be visibly appreciated.

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