Programs designed to coach, train and develop individuals so they can succeed in higher positions have been shown to attract top talent, inspire employees and lower turnover. However, when it comes to training and molding employees to become the future leaders of an enduring company, it takes a great deal of effort and commitment.
While many companies provide training and development opportunities geared to productivity improvement, a unique NiSource initiative is enhancing the leadership pipeline by helping to attract, develop and retain talented, high-potential women.
What started as a parking lot conversation between two of NiSource’s senior female executives in Merrillville three years ago has quickly evolved into one of the country’s most prestigious programs for women to come together and share ideas, discuss challenges and opportunities, and build leadership skills.
With enthusiastic support from the top down, NiSource executive vice president and chief legal officer Carrie Hightman and senior vice president and chief information officer Violet Sistovaris introduced “Building the NextGen: Women in Leadership” to the top 150 company leaders during an inspirational summit in 2011.
“As a whole, the utility industry continues to make great progress in diversifying its workforce and increasing the number of women in leadership positions,” Hightman said. “We want to enable all of our women to succeed in any way they want to succeed. The idea was to provide participants with leadership development and networking opportunities uniquely designed for women leaders.”
“Having a program like this is not only the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do,” Sistovaris added. “Research shows that having a diverse workforce enhances a company’s ability to meet its business goals. We believe that we cannot achieve our goals without an engaged and supported group of diverse employees.”
In addition to the wisdom of invited prestigious speakers and workshop presenters, senior-level executives from NiSource and its board of directors share their insight with the group, at the summit’s program, which has grown to more than 170 in the last two years.
Since that first summit in 2011, the program has grown based on feedback from the attendees and now includes three major components.
Along with the company-wide summit, three annual regional meetings with similar content were added to reach deeper into NiSource’s organizational ranks. More than 500 women now attend the summit and/or a regional meeting where timely topics such as how to manage and motivate multiple generations and how to better understand gender-based communication differences are addressed in such a way that they directly impact the way business is conducted the very next day.
“I joined the company in January of 2012 and was invited to one of the regional meetings,” said Karan Fromm NiSource manager of organizational change management. “So I was very excited to attend the bigger two-day event in Chicago.
“I can honestly say that I was in awe of the investment and dedication of our leaders. From the presentation by Stedman Graham to the number of NiSource leaders and executives in attendance, this was no small task. Then, when you fast forward to this year’s summit, it was so amazing to walk into that room and know almost everyone. It makes the company feel like a family, and I feel so connected to NiSource. Now, I feel a part of things in addition to my job. For example, the United Way is something I have always had a passion for, and through NiSource, I have an even greater involvement with them. “
There’s also a developing mentoring component that matches women employees with male and female senior leaders from across the company. Led by Sistovaris, Froom joined the ranks as a mentor for the first class in 2012, which started out small by design with 16 mentees.
“In my job as director of gas operations for NIPSCO, I work primarily with men,” said Karima Hasan Bey, who has been with the company since 2006. “I am the first woman in my role so I wasn’t sure what to expect. When you look at a Carrie or a Violet, they are among the most respected women in our organization, and I wanted to be a part of that circle. Even though they are always so busy, with a huge amount of responsibility and accountability in their jobs, they find time for this program. I attended all three summits and learned so much. Then, with Violet as my mentor, I was able to grow our relationship as business partners and friends. She showed me how important it is to be myself, that it’s OK to care about my team and be protective but with a business practice focus. Now, I’m sharing what I’ve learned through DAWN.”
The third component of the NextGen program, Developing and Advancing Women at NiSource or DAWN, is an affinity or employee resource group (ERG) that embraces inclusion and diversity by communicating and exchanging information that helps women both professionally and personally. Launched in 2012, membership in DAWN is nearing 700 male and female employees at all levels across the company.
“We are a membership-driven group that focuses on three pillars: community, connections and professional development,” NIPSCO director of commercial programs and support Diane “Dee” Cota, who also serves as the president of DAWN, said. “Members are very involved in different efforts that directly impact NiSource’s customers and communities. From supporting community organizations like the Susan G. Komen breast cancer organization to Soles for Souls and Dress for Success, the pillars often overlap. ‘Introduce a Girl to Engineering’ with local girl scouts for example is an opportunity to give back where we can also promote the need for talented individuals and good employees.”
In addition to DAWN, other NiSource ERGs include GOLD or Generating Opportunities for Latinos and Diversity, as well as NiVETS or NiSource Veterans Employee Resource Group and LEAD or Leadership and Education for African American Development, which were launched this year.
As exemplified by NextGen, developing career coaching and mentoring relationships with a focus on one diverse group can be a truly a rewarding experience. It’s through these programs that the relationships between veteran and less-experienced employees become stronger, and, as NiSource is currently discovering, it’s those relationships that can drive the success of the company as a whole.
“Being vested in developing future leaders is definitely a priority in today’s competitive environment,” said Rob Campbell NiSource senior vice president of human resources. “It really hit home for me when my own daughter called to tell me that she was just referred to ‘this company called NiSource’ because of their Women in Leadership program. There’s no doubt that leadership development and experiential learning are both great recruiting tools as well.”