An attorney-turned-energy executive has learned powering through challenges — even one as monumental as the pandemic — requires some 'unrealistic optimism.'
Catherine Stempien, president of Duke Energy’s Florida division, had barely settled into her new office when Hurricane Michael laid waste to the Panhandle. Elevated to the role in June 2018, about four months before the horrific Category 5 storm, she was faced with a crisis even the most experienced leaders would shudder to think about.
The devastation was total and widespread. According to the National Weather Service, nearly 100% of Duke Energy customers in the Panama City, Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach area, where the brunt of the storm made landfall, lost power. Even areas as far north as Lee County, Georgia, went without electricity for days.
“Hurricane response is where our customers, of course, count on us the most,” Stempien says. I am incredibly proud of our response to that hurricane. We rebuilt the electric distribution system in Mexico Beach in record time.”
But hurricanes, by their very nature, come and go. The wreckage they leave behind can be cleaned up. Homes and businesses can be rebuilt. Today, Stempien, like all business leaders, faces an entirely different type of storm: the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it birthed. Two years into her tenure, her core challenge is now to navigate a calamity with an endpoint not only uncertain but also unknowable.
Stempien's baseline leadership approach to the challenge involves one part mindset, one part being what she calls "unrealistically optimistic," to power through the dark days. It's one reason why Stempien, says Melissa Seixas, Duke Energy Florida’s vice president of government and community relations and a 35-year veteran of the utility, “is not intimidated by a crisis and hits it head on.”
Seixas describes Hurricane Michael as “the worst that I’ve seen.” Yet, under intense pressure to come through for suffering people and communities, Stempien “worked with operations leaders to lead one of the most successful responses to a storm of historic proportions. She traveled multiple times to some of the hardest-hit areas to see the damage and, more importantly, talk to community leaders face-to-face to hear what they needed.”
As a result, she adds, “Our linemen rebuilt our distribution system in a matter of two weeks.”
Stempien, 51, has the even-keeled temperament and attitude to lead in unpredictable times. An attorney, in 2003 she joined Cincinnati-based Cinergy Corp., which would become Duke Energy, as associate general counsel. Prior to that, from 1996 to 2002, she was a senior attorney for AT&T Corp. in Basking Ridge, N.J. and AT&T Broadband in Englewood, Colo.
‘People with great charisma can be mistaken for great leaders because people will follow them, but I don't necessarily think charisma and leadership is the same thing.’ Catherine Stempien, president of Duke Energy Florida
Although she was successful in private practice, where she specialized in litigation and environmental law, Stempien yearned to be more involved in the day-to-day operations of a business. She saw that opportunity in telecom, a highly regulated industry.
“In many types of corporations, lawyers are kind of a barrier that you have to get through in order to get something done,” she says. “If I was going to go from being in a law firm to being in-house, I wanted to be in an industry where lawyers were a key part of that business position. So that’s what first led me to AT&T.”
But after AT&T Broadband — Stempien’s division — was acquired, for $72 billion by Comcast Corp. in 2001, she began to ponder her future. Stempien had started out on the telephone side of AT&T’s vast operations, and she wanted to find a role with a company that provided an essential service.
“It might sound corny,” she says, “but at AT&T, in the cable side of the business, what I was missing was the real sense that I was doing something to contribute, every day, to the betterment of society and helping people.”
That's why an energy utility seemed like an ideal landing spot. “We all need energy,” she says, “we all need power.”
Electricity, she adds, “powers hospitals, airport, small businesses, big industrial businesses. … It’s a tremendous responsibility, and even though I’m really just a small part of it, it's important to me to have a career where I feel like, in some small way, I’m helping people's lives.”
After working in the legal department, where Stempien played a role in the Progress Energy/Duke Energy merger in 2012, she made the leap to the business side, becoming senior vice president of corporate development.
But Stempien, with her legal training and lawyerly demeanor, says she didn’t consider herself a natural business leader, so she enrolled in the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School.
“The company really supported me through that journey,” she says. “I picked up and left my family, moved to Boston and spent eight weeks doing a crash course in business school. We learned a lot of the core areas — finance, management, accounting, operations — but we also spent time talking about leadership and how to lead people and how it’s not just about being charismatic.”
That’s a key lesson Stempien has taken to heart in her approach to leading Duke Energy Florida. In her estimation, “People with great charisma can be mistaken for great leaders because people will follow them, but I don't necessarily think charisma and leadership is the same thing.” A true leader, she adds, “is someone who raises people up. You take individuals, you take a team of people, and you give them the belief that they can do more than they think they can do.”
After dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, Stempien wasted no time in asserting her leadership skills. She implemented a plan that will see Duke Energy add 700 megawatts of solar energy between now and 2022. The utility also has another 750-megawatt solar energy program in the works awaiting the approval of the Florida Public Service Commission.
Seixas says the ability to deliver such ambitious projects belie Stempien’s self-assessment of her capacity for leadership.
“My experience with her in both internal and external settings reinforces my perceptions of her skills as a leader, and she continuously seeks self-improvement,” Seixas says. “She asks for feedback to help her get better. In the energy business, it’s impossible to be an expert in everything. From poles and wires, to rates and regulations and even customer care, there are so many parts that go into running the business successfully.”
Seixas adds, “Catherine has built an incredible team around her. She has a trusted group of advisers whom she turns to. It takes the entire team for us to be successful and Catherine always listens, always takes our views and suggestions under advisement.”
But with COVID-19 bringing drastic changes to how people live and work, it now falls on Stempien to protect the team she’s built. As opposed to feeling overwhelmed by the array of challenges associated with the pandemic, she says she’s using lessons learned from her career path to keep things in perspective.
A key piece of wisdom, Stempien says, is to be “realistic about your failures or the reasons why you had challenges.”
Leaders need to be thoughtful about setbacks, but at the same time, she adds, “be unrealistically optimistic about your ability to overcome them or, in the case of the pandemic, about the team's ability to overcome challenges. I have an unrealistic optimism about not letting failures of the past bring me down. You learn from them, you plan, you adjust, you self-reflect, but sometimes you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Stempien has worked hard on her mindset during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s important, she says, to think of the pandemic not as a new normal, but in terms that are more relatable, comparing it to running a marathon in which there’s no way to tell what mile you’re on.
“You know it's going to last a long time, but you don't know how long it's gonna last,” she says. “And so you have to keep moving forward — you have to keep checking and adjusting. But you also have to believe that you've got the tools, the planning, the schooling, all that. … You have to believe that all of that preparation is going to help you get through and overcome the next obstacle.”